Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Genetic mutation as a spiritual practice

with 3 comments


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.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at 17:21

Posted in Buddhism

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3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this article. I have found myself thinking about similar things recently (the last year or so). Is it because I am a doddering old fool that I am reviewing my performance up to now, or should I just go sit someplace ’till I get over it? I believe that I have found it easier to smooth out grief, fear, occasional anger and other anxiety by deep breathing — immediate gratification in acute moments of high intensity. I think there is a direct relationship to my practice of (30?yikes!) years practicing meditation to establish a calm environment to allow long-term (strategic) work on my internal climate. Deep breathing has kept me out of jail, but meditation has kept me out of the psychiatric hospital. That may be an exaggeration, but not too much of one.

    When I was working in a high-stress, highly technical managing job I found that sitting 1 hour 6 mornings/week really helped me manage my waking activities better. Beverly noticed that I was easier to get along with, and I was more productive at work if I sat regularly. But I have not slept well since I was about 16 or so, and then only when the physical work of the day had left me exhausted.

    But alas, I think we may both be hedging a bit (twenty years ago we called it “begging the question”, but that useful term has been rendered useless by modern journalism). Most of my life was spent reading — not sitting. I was trained to study and could study for hour upon hour under the right circumstances. I could focus nearly completely on Old English, or Hume, or PL1, awakening from my trance after several uncounted hours. Is sit fair to count study hours as meditation hours? If so, I owe my studies more credit for maintaining a minimal level of sanity that I thought at first.

    Some years ago, when I was working at becoming what would have probably been a terrible monk, Joshu Sasaki excused me from a session saying “Peavler, you think too much!!” I responded with something like “Yes, but I have spend all of my money and most of my time trying to learn to think. It is very difficult for me to clear all of that lumber out of my skull all at once. As you know I never made the cut.

    Now, like everybody else, I do most of my meditating on Facebook. Is it true that Facebook is the Pure Land?

    jamesmpeavler

    Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 09:26

  2. How, Richard, do you know you are happy? Do you equate happiness with a sanguine temperament that occasionally goes off the beam? I seem to have read a lot of articles on happiness lately. The Danes claim they are particularly happy, yet their alcoholism rate is high, and they have one of the highest per capita rates of cancer in the world. I find myself arguing with such findings, not claiming to be happy myself. In fact, I have had to take serotonin uptake inhibitors, usually known as anti-depressants, for years. I question this so-called relief as I know it is supposed to “work” to some degree, yet I also know that children in violent environments like my own do not produce enough serotonin to make them happy.
    However, unlike you, I try not to identify with my parents. And this is because the Buddha said we are not related to our parents. That I take as a signal that we can change what we learned in the past, yet who wants to actually change. Krishnamurti asked often, “Why don’t people change?” From my own observations, the answer is that they are too in love with themselves, with their family traditions, even with their ethnic backgrounds which often give them a direction–such as myself being from German forebears and all the depression that comes along with it. In my own case I have undertaken separation and distance from my father, who I am convinced was a productive psychopathic type, and a mother who was both a doormat and avid materialist and social climber.
    For a long time, this background has caused me to believe that happiness is out of reach. Lately, though, I have come to think it might be within reach, after my parents died and I have learned to ignore the bad tempers of my siblings. They blame me for “getting out” but they have the same freedom to get out as I have had. Still, they cling to their background as if it will define them, and they would rather have their background define them than be no one, with the so-called anonymity of their sister.

    I am glad for your writings and will check more often to see what you’ve said.
    Nancy Snyder

    Nancy Snyder

    Saturday, June 13, 2015 at 23:23

  3. You are *inspiring* because of your humanity, breadth of Buddhist knowledge, honesty and lack of hubris.
    Your personal Buddhist ‘journey’ may have been untypical (mostly “sanguine” god dammit! ;-), but it does not make it any less valid. Keep on trucking baby… 🙂

    Caring Capitalist (@caringcapitalis)

    Wednesday, June 24, 2015 at 10:47


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