January 20, 2018

How Buddhism can Curb our Animal Instincts.

For a little less than a year, I’ve been picking up and dropping off my two little girls at their mom’s house every weekend.

The one thing I’ve noticed is, although I’ve dated on and off, I’ve never stopped thinking about how deep my feelings are for my ex. As a matter of fact, I’ve been a little suspicious about what those feelings actually mean.

It’s not as if I was living in a state of clueless bliss and she woke up one morning and asked me to find someplace else to live. We were just not really great at being romantic partners, and it seemed for years we’d be better suited as co-parents and friends.

So I called a good friend of mine with a thriving psychology practice for some free advice. What I find so good about her ability as a psychological doctor is, much of the time, she won’t say a word. The other day, she allowed me to keep talking and talking until I began to diagnose myself.

“I think I have always been the most attracted to whatever is completely outside my reach,” I explained. “When I was in my 20s, I was so in love with a lesbian that I wrote more than a dozen songs for her.”

She laughed. “That’s just Darwinism,” she said. “It’s specific to the theory of natural selection. Look it up.”

Since that conversation, I have spent a little time researching the incredibly interesting field of evolutionary psychology. Simply stated, the need to conquer what is the most impossible can be closely linked with the instinctual need to pass our DNA on to future generations. Or so it is postulated.

It is, at least, more compelling than just feeling like our brains are trying to torture us. And, even if you have a difficult time finding it compelling, you can at least find it consolatory.

Buddhists generally don’t spent too much time philosophizing about Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection, but they have always been concerned with the outcome of this vexing conundrum.

The Sanskrit word dukkha, which loosely translated means “unsatisfactoriness” or “suffering,” is generally addressed in many teachings.

Take, for instance, the commonly accepted translation of the four noble truths:

I) All existence is dukkha
II) The cause of dukkha is craving
III) The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving
IV) There is a path that leads from dukkha

So it turns out that the “path” that leads us away from the disaster that is known as dukkha is none other than mindfulness meditation.

To put it another way, natural selection’s only object for most men is to warp our perceptions in whatever way it can to propel us toward getting our genes into the next generation. Buddhist teachings and practices, particularly that of meditation, will help right those perceptions. The only unfortunate thing is that mindfulness meditation sounds a lot easier than it actually is.

Sitting quietly and focusing only on my breathing is not something I am “successful” at every day. Some days my mind seems to want to travel from one anxiety-ridden spot to another without giving me a moment’s rest.

I have found that the only way for me to address this is to never stop trying. The days where I get into that zone where I can focus on my inhalations and exhalations are truly wonderful and worth all the effort—especially when I am finally able to get far enough outside of my own emotions to truly see them for the traps they are most of the time.

Robert Wright, a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote a book discussing this premise called Why Buddhism Is True and summed it up better than anyone else I’ve ever read:

“Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda. And Buddhism says we don’t have to play this game…”


Author: Billy Manas
Image: Paul Keller/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy/Social Editor:  Khara-Jade Warren

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