Our brains work in funny (but brilliant) ways.
In order for us to learn, our brain has to make connections. These cognitive processes help us make connections based on experiences. For example, we see a blue block. First of all, we call it a “blue block” because we have seen something colored like it and that color is called “blue,” and we also call it a block because we have seen something like it before and it is called a “block.” The cognitive aspect of our brain helps us learn. We learn through experience and by making connections with the world.
However, there is also a conative aspect of our brain. Associated with certain objects are feelings, emotions, etc. Perhaps in the past we have grown to like blue-colored objects and we like neat, orderly things, so therefore we like blue blocks since they’re colored blue and they are easily stack-able. But, this conative aspect of our brain causes us to start sorting experiences into categories.
For a classic example, as a kid I saw a hot stove. I went and touched the hot stove and burnt my hand and experienced pain. I know I don’t want to experience this unpleasantness, so I now know not to touch the hot stove. I sort that experience (naturally, not consciously) into “experiences I don’t want to have.”
Our natural tendency is to start sorting everything into experiences I want to have and not want to have. This isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing – it’s completely natural. It’s how we learn! However, the effects of such sorting are harmful to ourselves and others.
Out of categorizing our experiences, we start to experience craving. We crave for those emotions and feelings we enjoy or cause us temporary happiness; we crave not to talk to people who we don’t like or who aggravate us. When we don’t get our way (which is most always), we experience dukkha – unpleasantness, discomfort, or suffering.
A product of dukkha is ill-will or even hatred. We simply “can’t believe that person is acting that way” or “the universe hates me” or “my life is so uncontrollable.” This happens to all of us very often.
The question becomes: How do I stop separating experiences?
It is the ultimate question, because when we stop separating experiences, we stop experiencing dukkha. The ultimate cessation of dukkha is reliant on the cessation of craving, or tanha. The Buddha laid out a Noble Eightfold Path for us to follow. However, as important as the Eightfold Path is to the complete cessation of dukkha, I feel it is important to realize that most of us don’t have the capacity to practice all eight “folds” simultaneously as the Buddha prescribed.
We lead busy lives and we can always work on cultivating a better practice. That being said, we have to be realistic, and I feel the following are 5 basic practices of what you can do.
- Recognize everyone has their bad days. We all have those days that just go wrong. Who’s to say the person that just cut you off on the highway isn’t having one of those days? Experiences we don’t want to have aren’t just emotions or feelings – they include actual actions.
- Wish them to be happy and free from suffering. When you get out of that awful business meeting or off a phone call with a client you can’t stand, imagine that person standing or sitting in front of you. Say to them “May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” This helps cultivate metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion) toward those who you have the most difficulty with.
- Flip the situation around. Have you ever cut someone off on the highway? Have you ever been snippy with a client? Have you ever said the wrong thing and then regret it? Realizing that most people act the same way and usually regret things they do or hope no one “hates” them for it helps us see, in the moment, that we don’t have to be angry at them.
- Make sure your brain is engaged before your mouth is in gear. In a world where social media and e-mail have assimilated into everyday life, we have to be very careful what we say, whether it’s spoken or written. Our actions do “speak louder than words,” but our words are just as powerful to hurt or help someone. Thinking about what you are writing to the other person and seeing that ranting at someone isn’t beneficial to them or you (despite your temporary relief) helps stop dukkha. Also, postpone the angry e-mail to your employer for a day and see if you still want to send it.
- Be generous. While this may seem like a disconnected practice from the above four, being generous in your time, money, love, or anything else helps you feel a little better and less worrisome. Be generous to yourself and schedule time simply for you.
The final question is how do the above practices stop the separation of experience?
It’s an excellent question. When we are generous, we realize others are in poor situations as well. We stop worrying about experiences we want to have and start helping others achieve their own goals. Having appropriate speech (samma vaca) toward others helps us stop the cyclical categorizing of experiences. Instead of wanting your friend to say the “right thing,” you can say the right thing to them and know the outcome will be a-okay. Flipping the situation around helps you realize that the experience you are not wanting to have has happened to you before, and that craving isn’t helping you be happy. Generating metta and karuna toward the rest of humankind helps break the barrier of experiences you don’t want to have – now it’s okay to experience them because you are wishing them to be happy and free from suffering anyways. Recognizing everyone has their bad days assists you in seeing they have the very same craving of experiences as you do.
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain nirvana – the end of suffering and escape from rebirth.
I like to think of nirvana as the ultimate state of happiness.
We all can be happy.