Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron tells the story of something that happened to her as a young woman. One day, she saw her boyfriend passionately embracing another woman. This stirred her up so much that she had the urge to throw something at him. The problem is, they were visiting the home of a wealthy collector. And the only throwable items in the room were very expensive antiques. As strong as her urge was, she was also acutely aware that she simply could not afford to pay for the pottery she would destroy.
This scene feels very vivid to me because the forces in presence feel almost palpable.
Imagine an arrow representing the irresistible urge to strike, the force of the hand already in movement or just about to move. Opposite this force, counterbalancing it, another arrow representing the “voice of reason”.
And the person? Squeezed in the middle, under intense pressure from both sides.
As I simplify it to these elements, what I see in this scene is not just an anecdote, a very specific moment in the life of a very specific person, but an archetypal scene. One of the forces is the impulse to strike back when we feel threatened, an impulse wired in our deepest biological structures through millions of years of evolution. And the other force is the internalized voice of society: “Don’t even think about it!”
So this not just about the psychological dynamics of a given person. The specifics are only the way in which the archetype of the human condition manifests in a given situation. This archetype is the balancing act between the biology of survival that we inherited from evolution and what it takes to live in the human societies that developed after we had evolved into our current biology.
In this context, “civilization and its discontents” represents the ongoing conflict between these two poles. As is the case in any polarized situation, it feels like there is no way to win. If we yield to the impulse, we pay a terrible price, and we feel defeated. If we back off because of the fear of punishment, we feel defeated, with a sense of living in captivity and oppression.
Of course, our response need not be one pole or the other.
There is a lot of space between the two poles.
That space is the space of mindfulness, i.e. space where we face the human condition, moment by moment.
It is the threat, the fear of consequences, that leads us to pause before acting out on the impulse. But admitting that is not the same as saying that our response is defined by the threat. In fact, the pause is what allows us to consider a response that might be different from simply reacting to this threat by either defying it or caving in. We are taking a moment to mindfully confront the conflict. This moment is a defining moment. What comes out of it is a sense of self, a sense of having made a decision: I choose therefore I am.
I wrote above: “We are taking a moment to mindfully confront the conflict.” The word “mindfully” may be misleading to some people, as it might seem to imply favoring “mind” over “body”. As I see it, mindfulness is a whole-organism experience. At this moment, we stay with the archetypal conflict in an experiential way.
We allow ourselves to bodily feel the urge to strike back. We feel how deeply satisfying it would feel to yield to the impulse. “Satisfying” means that it’s in harmony with the way we were built by evolution. From this perspective, we can embrace this impulse as opposed to judging it as “bad”, the way that the repressive force of civilization sees it. We can even feel gratitude for how this impulse is what allowed our species, and its many predecessors, to survive and thrive. There is wisdom in this impulse, not to be summarily dismissed as “inappropriate.”
Honoring the impulse does not mean finding an excuse to act out on it. The appropriate response to a polarized situation is not to find a justification to choose one pole over the other. It is to understand what the poles mean, and to find our own appropriate response somewhere in-between.
As we allow ourselves to experience and honor the impulse, we do not summarily dismiss the “voice of reason,” but we start to see it as something different from an objective truth. We now experience it as another point of view. We might even come to have a different experience of that voice, to hear it less as a threat than as a warning – – akin to the sharp “No!” of an anguished parent whose child is about to do something dangerous or harmful. The parent’s intention is not to scold, but to stop the harm that is about to happen.
In the specifics of our situation, we are feeling experientially the polarity of impulse vs reason, or nature vs culture. We are experiencing how choosing just one pole and negating the other would be a betrayal of who we are. We are defining who we are, moment by moment, by choosing the place between the poles that feels right at that moment. In so doing, we are freshly re-enacting, and re-experiencing, the archetype of how our species has been defining itself.
I find that being aware of this archetype relieves some of the pressure that I experience in these situations. I don’t feel as alone: This is something that every human being has been confronting on a constant basis, ever since there have been human beings in organized societies.
We humans don’t necessarily respond well to this kind of challenge, and sometimes we respond in abysmally bad ways. But, all in all, the net result of all our responses has been good enough to allow for the furtherance of human societies throughout the millennia. And, for millennia, there have been people willing to share their experiences of what happens when we try to do a little bit better than simply good enough. Collectively, we have been helping each other learn from experience.
So, these difficult moments, like the one that Pema Chodron talks about, are not just difficult moments that we have to overcome. They are an inevitable consequence of living with the tensions of the human condition. This might be a way to think of “dukkha”, the suffering that Buddha talked about: When we don’t pause, we inevitably default to reactivity, and the consequence of that is the creation of more suffering, for ourselves and others. When we pause, we break the cycle of reactivity and help ourselves and others escape the vicious cycle of “samsara”.
Taking an experiential approach to these difficult moments, leaving space for the tensions to play out, is not just a technique to “solve” them. The paradigm shift consists in seeing these problematic situations as a gateway into a personal experience of the drama of the human condition.
This could be called a spiritual perspective, because it provides a context in which we see how we fit within the universe, not just as individuals, but also as members of a species: Instead of just seeing things as my trying very hard to solve “my” problem, I am at least dimly aware that I am participating in a shared process, which has been going on for thousands of years, and which is still going on today among billions of people.
This does not eliminate my anxieties and intense emotions, far from that. But I am at least dimly aware that there is something more than that going on.
So what about mindfulness practice in this context? I am not just talking about meditation, but of all mindful pursuits, such as exploring how to reduce our reactivity in therapy, or interacting more mindfully in a “Focusing” way…
In this context, moments of practice are not just means to the end of acquiring a valuable skill. They are situations that we create with the intent of mindfully confronting the drama of the human condition. Such situations (e.g. meditating) are contrived to avoid all the ordinary excuses we have to avoid confronting this drama. In this sense, they function very much in the same as a religious ritual that is deeply felt, as opposed to one that is only a rote repetition of empty words and gestures. The moments of practice remind us of the eternal presence of the sacred within the profane: The defining moments of our species continue to unfold moment by moment in the present.
I think of each of these moments of struggle as a little cell, a very alive cell, in the vast organism that is the unfolding of the human condition.
Or, to put it another way: I am not an isolated person facing a struggle that feels overwhelming. I am participating in the collective struggle that has been defining humanity, and continues to define humanity, moment by moment.