Mother Nature doesn’t care about suffering. Buddha does.

Mindsprings blog post Mother Nature, Buddha and Suffering

I have been really deeply inspired by the experience of leading the Dharma Days for Mindsprings

After my initial introduction to the bells and whistles of Tibetan Buddhism up at Samye Ling and on Holy Island twenty years ago, I found myself hankering after something simpler and more austere. And so I really immersed myself in the teachings of the Theravadan monks and nuns around the Chithurst/Amaravati monasteries in Sussex and Hemel Hempstead. I spend several years attending teachings and going on retreats in that Thai Forest Sangha community and got a good grounding in the basic ideas of Buddhism. 

In the subsequent years, especially post-Ayahuasca, I have gravitated back towards the shamanic and wide-open teachings of the Vajrayana. I learned a great deal from Reggie Ray who was a student of the great maverick Tibetan teacher of the 20th Century, Chögyam Trungpa. In his community, I had experiences of the Natural State that made a lot of the previous teachings suddenly come alive. And so when I sat down to do my ‘homework’ for this first Dharma Day  it felt like a homecoming. 

You can listen to the teaching on the Four Noble Truths for free on the Mindsprings School site. But I wanted to explore an idea here in this blog that I didn’t get to explore last Saturday. 

Do you think there might be biological or evolutionary causes to dukkha?

In the breakout group discussing the 2nd Noble Truth, the truth of the roots of dukkha (the almost untranslatable word for suffering/anxiety/stress), I asked “Do you think there might be biological or evolutionary causes to dukkha?”

Because of time constraints and the size of the community, I wasn’t able to hear whether people picked up on this. But the question was sparked in my mind as I read Rick Hanson’s stimulating book Buddha’s Brain. 

Biology points out that organisms like us want to survive

In the book he points to something that I hadn’t really considered before – or perhaps only briefly in my work with anxiety. What if Mother Nature didn’t care about our subjective feelings? And what we call dukkha – the emotional experience of not getting what we want, encountering the unwanted or losing something we love – is just the deal of surviving. 

Biology points out that organisms like us want to survive. The most pressing issue for billions of years was survival. Simple organisms orientate themselves by evaluating the surrounding environment as good, bad or indifferent and they adapt their inner biology accordingly. Moving away from toxins, moving towards food, staying still in neutral spots. 

In very complex organisms like humans, this inner-outer dance depends on what is known as homeostasis and allostasis .  Homeostasis is the optimum balance of temperature, fuel, inner-chemistry and outer stimulation. Allostasis is the sometimes painful contortions the body-mind performs to negotiate change and bring things back towards homeostasis. 

Basically, homeostasis feels good. Allostasis is more energised and when over used, stressful. Allostatic load refers to the continual impact of juggling and shifting to adapt to changes in the environment. 

Mother Nature doesn’t care if you don’t like the feeling of discomfort

When we are too hot in a stuffy office, there is an allostatic load which translates as the feeling “I am uncomfortably hot”. And we stand up and open the window, thus restoring homeostasis. 

But this extra layer – “I am uncomfortable” – is a very late add-on and from Mother Nature’s point of view largely irrelevant. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you don’t like the feeling of discomfort. All she cares about is you surviving and not boiling alive in a closed room. 

You can imagine that for hundreds of thousands of years homo sapiens,  like all animals, didn’t ‘think’ about the rightness or wrongness of their feelings but simple obeyed them. And survived. 

So what changed? Well, the answer that popped in my head was linked to another insight from the course – one about the Axial Age. 

People started to question what Mother Nature had programmed

At the beginning of the teaching on the Four Noble Truths I mention that it was not coincidental that Buddha’s teaching arose at the same time as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were having their sophisticated thoughts about the human condition in Athens. Karen Armstrong explores this extraordinary flourishing of human awareness in her great book on the subject. But this moment in history saw people starting to question what Mother Nature had programmed. 

In and around 500BC life in the foothills of the Himalayas was relatively peaceful and flourishing. The  many riverine civilisations that rose up along the Nile, the Yangste, the Euphrates and Tigris and the Saraswati (or Indus) and the Ganges were flourishing, transforming or decaying. This was a moment in history preceded by thousands of years of civilisation, stabilisation, agricultural and population growth. 

For the first time, perhaps, in human history, people were settled in vast and networked communities. Earlier phases (and indeed later phases) were marked by cruel and oppressive empires and brutal violence. But by the time the Buddha’s little Shakya kingdom was flourishing, there was regional stability and accumulation of wealth that allowed people to ponder things other than brute survival. 

These pensive humans start to explore the question of why life hurts and what can we do to stop it from hurting  

In this relatively sheltered moment in time, the question of why do we suffer becomes a strikingly original one.  Up until then, we can imagine, that humans had little sense that allostatic load was a problem. It just was. But with a life of leisure and time to contemplate without fear of annihilation, these pensive humans in Greece, in China and in Nepal start to explore the question of why life hurts and what can we do to stop it from hurting. 

In some senses, this is the great moment when subjective feeling (I feel uncomfortable) upstages objective biological survival and Mother Nature. Ironically, in a tradition which goes on to deconstruct the subjective self,  the Buddhist project begins in the 5th Century individual’s growing emphasis on feeling happy. 

It is the Buddha’s profound genius that not only flags this problem up but gives a very specific solution to it

Mother Nature doesn’t care if we’re happy or not. In fact the feeling-tone of unhappiness is what moves us to safety. Feeling unhappy is the price we pay to survive. But at a certain moment in history, we stopped accepting that price and started to feel hard-done-by. We started to feel that it wasn’t fair that our biology would make us feel this way and then the whole endless helter-skelter of samsaric avoidance gets underway. 

In a way, it’s that whole tension between “what we want” and “what we’ve got” that creates dukkha. I want a cool room and this one’s hot. Ergo: suffering. And it is the Buddha’s profound genius that not only flags this problem up but gives a very specific solution to it. 

First of all, however, it’s worth considering what he doesn’t propose. 

1. DON’T REGRESS

He doesn’t go back to blind obedience to primative allostasis/homeostasis.  This is the answer that facile Nietzschean or cod-Darwinian thinkers favour. That is to say:  discount our finer human feelings and try and return to a previous animal state, that simply follows the dictates of allostatic load like a genetic robot. The Buddha sees that this way lies barbarism. And besides, we’re too far down the human line to do that. If everyone in the office followed their individual body’s allostatic imperative we would have chaos and office warfare. 

2. DON’T REPRESS

Nor does he advise ignoring the bad feelings that allostasis naturally brings. That doesn’t acknowledge the reality of subjective human experience. We do feel unhappy and pretending we don’t will not solve things. In fact, it is precisely that ignoring of unhappiness that explodes into the supernova of multiplying suffering that he calls samsara. We can’t uncreate our feeling-tone. Denying our feelings is retrogressive and leads to sprawling masses of secondary damage. Acting out, projecting, hurting others, pushing away our misery into the environment. 

3. DON’T PRETEND

Furthermore, he’s not saying, change your expectations and reprogram yourself. He is not saying:  If “what you’ve got” doesn’t match up with “what you want” then change what you want. This seems like a spiritual path and it’s one we often get sold by bumper-sticker spirituality. Have no expectations and accept everything, then you’ll be happy. But: that is a) infuriatingly difficult b) problematically passive and c) life-denying. That’s not how organisms function. We are deeply and profoundly programmed to have preferences. To create allostatic stress if things are wrong in the environment or there isn’t a good match between inner and outer. Trying to ignore that is like trying to ignore breathing. And that does not tend to end well. 

4. DON’T TRANSCEND

This is another “spiritual” path that the Buddha carefully avoids. Many of the previous spiritual traditions (including the ascetic path he followed for 6 years in the forest) see the truth of dukkha. But assume that the allostatic fate of human organisms means that there is no hope in this incarnate world. Rather than go deeper into the problem, the Vedic and yogic traditions do what Christians would later do: boot it into a post-human future. That is: the pain of allostasis is so baked-in to the human experience that the only thing to do is  to escape. It proposes transcending humanity by exiting the conditioned world. Either by extreme renunciation or by pinning our hopes on a life-after-human-life. 

Where problems start is with the fixation of “I”

Carefully avoiding these four traps,  the Buddha does something astonishing.  He looks even more deeply and spots the real culprit, the proto-seed of dukkha. It’s not the reality of allostatic load (“It’s really hot today and the windows in this office are all shut”). Nor is it the icky subjective feeling (“I’m really sweaty and uncomfortable”) that arise naturally in evolved homo sapiens. 

It’s the little word “I’m”. The heat is not a problem. The uncomfortable feeling is not a problem. Where problems start is with the fixation of “I”. 

The subtle, often imperceptible lacquer of “I” that we encase experience in is the culprit. This is not just generic heat that effects all the other human organisms in the office. It is not just an office full of discomfort.  This is “MY” discomfort. I am hot. I am uncomfortable and that is NOT FAIR. 

This is what the Buddha spots as the cause of dukkha

And from this little seed of ‘my-ness’ arises all the other proliferating branches of suffering. All the other stories and justificatory arguments eat away at our happiness. And this is what the Buddha spots as the cause of dukkha. It’s not the fact that we’re human organisms or the stresses or strains of allostasis. Not the inner conditions of our body or the outer conditions of the environment. It’s not even the human habit of foregrounding feeling-tone over the survival strategy it disguises.  It’s the identification with the feeling and spinning a story (grasping / fixating) that causes all the other sufferings to pile up, like a horrible high-speed motorway crash. 

I’d love to know your thoughts about Mother Nature, Buddha and suffering. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Mindsprings Practice Space is a lively and friendly online practice community. We meet three times a week with Alistair to explore meditation, discuss problems arising and investigate some of the big issues of life. Everyone is very welcome and you can try it out for two weeks for no cost. Just register here for a 2-week trial.

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