Genetic mutation as a spiritual practice
clinicians have long known that there are plenty of people who experience anxiety in the absence of any danger or stress and haven’t a clue why they feel distressed. Despite years of psychotherapy, many experience little or no relief. It’s as if they suffer from a mental state that has no psychological origin or meaning, a notion that would seem heretical to many therapists, particularly psychoanalysts.
An article in the New York Times reports that neural scientists have discovered that a genetic mutation that occurs in approximately 20% of the population results in an abnormally high production of a molecule called anandamide in the brain. Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word ānanda, which means bliss, results in lower-than-normal levels of anxiety and higher-than-normal feelings of well-being. Anandamide also occurs naturally in cannabis, which could account for some of that plant’s popularity. Interestingly enough, people with the genetic mutation that produces abnormally high levels of anandamide typically have little interest in marijuana; they don’t feel a need for it, and many find that cannabis actually decreases their pleasure and feelings of happiness and well-being.
If the clinicians are correct that a naturally-occurring chemical is a significant condition in subjective feelings of well-being—and in a culture with very high levels of legal and illegal mood-altering drug consumption, who would doubt it?—then it is not only psychoanalysts who might be challenged by these findings. Also challenged should be some religious traditions, such as Buddhism, that claim that people can change the quality of their experiences of the world simply by learning new patterns of thinking and by taking up certain contemplative practices.
Buddhist teachings tend to place an emphasis on the importance of studying causal relationships, and especially learning what kinds of thinking result in unhappiness so that one can eliminate those kinds of thinking and replace them with patterns of thinking that result in more happiness. That sounds much more easy to achieve than it in fact is. First of all, given that (as Buddhists universally acknowledge) every event and state is the consequence of innumerable conditions, it is in practice at best very difficult and at worst impossible to isolate which internal and external conditions are producing the frame of mind that one is currently experiencing. Without being able to identify the most significant conditions, one has no ideas which conditions to eliminate and replace with others. And even if one could identify the offending conditions, replacing them may not be possible. (What if, for example, it should turn out that genetics plays a significant role in how happy one is capable of being? Does one then just replace one’s grandparents with better ones?)
I have written before about how difficult it is to know whether a contemplative practice is a factor in one’s overall psychological health. For my entire life I have wondered whether I have a sanguine temperament and have a tendency to be alarmingly cheerful because I meditate regularly and practice Buddhism. It has always seemed a real possibility that in fact I meditate and feel an affinity with Buddhism because I was born with a sanguine temperament.
When I look at my own temperament, I see a great deal of my father’s mentality. He was rarely discouraged, almost never depressed, remarkably resilient, hardly ever sad, almost never exhilirated, rarely excited and yet prone to moments of unpredictable angry impatience. That also describes me (as I see myself at least, but also how at least a few others have reported that they see me). In trying to account for the similarity in my temperament to my father’s (which, incidentally, I see in a good many of my blood relatives), one set of conditions that we do not have in common is our diet or our religious beliefs and practices. Put perhaps a little too simply, my father had very little interest in religion. He did not read religious texts, never (that I knew of) meditated or prayed, and he showed no inclination to study the biographies of saints in translation or in their original languages. In short, he never did, even in a casual way, the things I spent my entire adult life doing. Very few days went by in which he did not consume a moderate amount of alcohol, whereas I often go months at a time between one glass of wine or beer and the next. He had very little interest in paying attention to diet, whereas I have been almost obsessively interested in getting a balanced diet of organic foods sold by fair-trade merchants. He lived to the age of 89, as did most of his close relatives, who collectively held a remarkable variety of religious beliefs and followed very diverse lifestyles. All of this evidence predisposes me to think that I am as I am largely because of genetic factors that I could not change even if I wanted to. Fortunately, there are few genetic factors I would be even momentarily tempted to change, aside perhaps from wishing for better eyesight.
Talking about all this recently with other Buddhists, I was asked whether I think that my religious practice has been a waste of time. I gave the somewhat feeble answer that calling anything a waste of time presupposes that one can think of other ways that one wishes time had been used; I do not wish I had done something with my time rather than meditate, read Buddhist texts and think about them and study Sanskrit, and therefore I do not consider any of that a waste of time. But that dodges the real question that was being asked, which was probably this: Do I give meditation and Buddhist practice any credit for bringing about the fortunate mentality I enjoy today? I think my answer to that would have to be negative. I had pretty much the same mentality that I have now even when I was a child, long before it ever occurred to me to meditate or think about the Buddha and his teachings, let alone go to them for refuge. If I had the courage to speak frankly of my experience, I might even say that going for refuge to the Buddha and the dharma has hardly had any effect on all on me, other than perhaps to allow me to remain the rather sanguine, calm, even-keeled, uninspired and uninspiring, rather plodding and occasionally irritable person I have always been.
Having said all this, I am inclined to say that doing contemplative practice for the sake of bringing about positive changes in one’s mentality may be the wrong way to go about it, if only because one is bound to be disappointed. Rather, I am inclined to see my own contemplative practice as an expression of gratitude for the fact that there is not much about my mentality that I feel inclined to change. (I am minfdul that this may sound smug, but like it or not, it happens to be true.)
In Buddhist technical terms, I suppose this places me rather squarely in the camp of those who believe in what the Japanese Buddhists called tariki (他力), that is, the conviction that whatever blessings one has have all been caused not by one’s own efforts but rather have been brought as gifts from others over whom and over which one has no control or influence. One could also call it blind luck. Or one could call it by the Sanskrit term śūnyatā, usually translated as emptiness, a term that succinctly expresses the conviction that if one were to subtract from one’s “self”—that is, from one’s body and mind—every single element that was produced by something outside oneself, there would be absolutely nothing left that one could rightly claim to be one’s own.
I have that conviction of the correctness of the doctrine of “emptiness” myself, but I have no idea whether I came to it through careful thinking (yoniśo manaskāra) and study or through the accidental mutation of a gene that has resulted in a generous helping of the insentient molecule anandamide.