The Root of Dukkha – Part 4 – Wrath and Sloth

Praying mantis who died on 11/18/2015.
The most formidable warrior I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. She is a perfect praying mantis, a blip in my life, and in turn I’m even more of a blip in the Life of Earth.

Analogous to how Lust, Greed, and Gluttony arise from Envy, the last two of the Seven Deadly Sins, Wrath and Sloth arises from Pride. From the perspective of the quasi evolutionary psychology point of view of this blog series, Wrath and Sloth emerges in our Earthly lives from our fight or flight mechanism, respectively. That is, the simple rule we employ to decide to stand our ground or run away to live another day.

Recall from Part 2 that Pride only masks our fear, similar to how deodorant only masks body odor. Pridefulness is not genuine fearlessness. Pride is the reason we become wrathful, vengeful. We’re defending our self-worth, that thing which exists only in our mind and nowhere else.

Wrath is our conviction that the wrathful actions we are executing – or wish to act on – are indeed justified. It’s crucial for our minds to have that conviction as we’re battling our enemies because doubt will undermine our efforts. Whether we’re right or wrong, over or under-reacting, Wrath doesn’t let doubt trip us up, dissipating our focus.

Sloth also masks our fear so we can protect our pride. However, Sloth masks our fear in the opposite way of Pride by making excuses for not dealing with a problem for which success is far away. Sloth is procrastination – doing something you made yourself think is more important, or dulling the nagging of your mind with drugs and other vices.

Instead of masking our fear with wrath or sloth, why don’t we cut off the source of our fear? That is, the fear of losing what it is we’re clinging to. So cling to nothing. Stop clinging to your self-importance, even your hopes and dreams, and the most difficult of all – all the stuff you’ve always believed.

Well that’s easy to say. It’s even surprisingly easy to do once Life pushes you far enough. Hopefully, we can figure this out before we’re pushed that far.

But if we stopped caring about anything, wouldn’t we eventually get fired from our jobs, lose all of our things, dreams, and families? What happens if we stop working 70 hours per week? Maybe we’ll be replaced by someone who will.

What if we didn’t stop? Would be burn out and lose everything anyway? Would we be rewarded accordingly? In any case, it’s time that we’ll never get back, and that’s how we chose to use that time.

The Middle Way?

Surely, perpetually wrathful, vengeful, hateful, people can and often do end up being the ones driving the BMWs, living on Melody Lane, and wielding the power at work. These “successful” folks are the ones we notice and envy while ignoring those wrathful, vengeful people in jail or homeless or isolated, who just simply fizzled out.

Did those failed people simply not try hard enough, not understand the concept of “go big or go home”? Perhaps in some cases, one could have won if they were more committed, all-in to their fearsomeness. But like any other game, and the quest for material success is just a game, there can be only one winner. And there’s a whole lot of luck involved.

Contrary to the “wisdom” of “Go Big or Go Home”, in Buddhist literature it’s often said that Buddhism teaches a “middle way”. You know, Goldilocks chose Mama bear’s porridge because it was not too hot and not too cold. It was just right.

Siddhartha Gautama was an indulged, coddled Prince, not even knowing there was anything to fear. He eventually learned that this wasn’t the way for most of the world. He lived in a fantasy world. He wouldn’t survive if that fantasy world suddenly disappeared. And it very well could have, as it has for many other such coddled prince and princesses throughout history.

He then ran away, did a complete one-eighty living the life of an emaciated ascetic, near death, not much wiser. The many great self-inflicted pains did connect him to much of the “real” world, but he was still just as troubled. Then one day, after a nice meal brought to him by a nice village girl and a nice long sleep, he awoke on Bodhi Day to the wisdom of the middle way.

The “Middle Way” thought of in the Goldilocks context is easy to understand and it is usually a wise thing to follow. The Middle Way is indeed a very good simple rule of thumb, a heuristic, which is right more often than wrong. Unfortunately, Life is so complex that there is a mindbogglingly large number of things to which we need to be in the middle at any given time. We can barely manage staying is our lane, eating a hamburger, and carrying on a conversation while driving in rush-hour traffic. There’s only so much multi-tasking we can do.

The Middle Way is attractive, not only because it’s easy to understand, but because it doesn’t force us to give up anything completely. It keeps us from crashing on the side of the road, but it doesn’t vanquish those Seven Deadly Sins, tamed, but still lurking in our animal brains. They await you losing balance and starting a slippery slope.

Alcoholics Anonymous understands that. An alcoholic avoids trouble by never touching alcohol again, but you’re still always an alcoholic. There is no middle way in that case. The advice as you leave the rehab center isn’t “drink in moderation”.

That Middle Way is useful, but not nearly good enough. However, there is a different way, the Way that the Buddha intended. It’s a way that is in some sense not as simple as the middle way, but like many paradoxes in Buddhism, in some ways even simpler.

Go With the Flow vs Being One with the Universe

It’s easy to see how the Goldilocks context of the “middle way” can be mistaken for the different way. They both mean the right amount at the right place at the right time. But sometimes the middle way is a euphemism for half-assed and sometimes the different way requires going all-in.

For example, in the case of Wrath, it’s not a simple a matter of being neither too wrathful nor too unwrathful. Any level of Wrath in your heart pollutes your Enlightenment. But yet, we must go all-in with full wrath while pinned down by a bear. The different way, the Buddha’s way, is to not cling to anything – to be fully accepting of what Is. That’s certainly different as we’re all indoctrinated from birth with attachments to what we should want and the way things are.

When we hear the phrase, “Go with the Flow”, we imagine complete passivity such as a leaf flowing down a river as if it was just part of the water. But the intent of non-clinging, that is non-resistance, is subtly different. The leaf flowing down the river leaves (no pun intended) no sign of ever being there. It may as well not have been there. Without resistance, nothing in our Universe would exist. All the phenomena we experience, including our own selves, is the result of Yin and Yang friction where things meet.

Non-Resistance means no resistance to what Is. It means to be sensitive to what is and fully do your part with a light heart.

All things put up this resistance to things, but they don’t suffer as we do. Unlike we sentient humans, other things have no will of their own, just their mass and energy. Anthropomorphically speaking, things just 100% yield to the will of Everything else.

Remember, though, we do still compete with other creatures. Our primal brain does come in handy. Our sentience emerged out of a mechanism, our limbic brain. It evolved simply for creatures to compete with other creatures for survival. At a relatively mundane level, Wrath does at least get our head out of our ass. Ringo says, “Bettah mahd than sahd … but bettah yet, glahd … Lahds.”

A tricky thing about the virtues countering each of the Seven Deadly sins is that taken to extremes, it circles back to another sin. In this case, too much patience, the antidote to Wrath, can merge into Sloth. Too much diligence, the antidote to Sloth, creates a lot of unnecessary drama in the form of Greed, Envy, Lust, and Gluttony.

Wrath at the extreme is horrible when it leads to killing or ruining the lives of people with whom you have conflicts. The key word is conflict. If we have no conflicts, we have nothing to defend.

As just mentioned, the virtue typically considered the antidote to Wrath is Patience. “Patience” says to await the right moment, not necessarily never to react to something. This suggests that it’s not so much the acts of wrath itself – fighting, revenge, preemptive strikes – that is the sin. It’s impetuousness – taking actions without a complete awareness of the present. We jump to conclusions with outdated assumptions from the past, incomplete information from the present, and flawed predictions about the future.

People do get mugged. Sometimes bad things are done to us. But genuine patience means we should logically carry no burden of Wrath in our heart. Wrath really does weigh you down like carrying around a 200 pound cross everywhere you go. As I say, I don’t like to write about dependence on anything “supernatural”, but I nonetheless know that the Universe is surprisingly just.

Let things go. Remember The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet’s mantra: Faith and Patience keeps me calm so I can focus on the present.

Running Away

It’s difficult to convey how can I suggest the logical train of thought that if we have no wrath, we have nothing to fear, which means we should cling to nothing, without concluding you may as well just walk away from your job, your friends and family? Mostly, it’s because simply walking away from what is in front of you is clinging to the Dream of Sloth. Sloth will get your brain to demonize everything around you so you feel justified in walking away.

Remember too that not everything is bad. Running away means you run away not just from what you think is bad, but all the good things that take a back seat in your mind, while you deal with those bad things. Your life is interconnected with all that is around you. Go back and read the beginning of this series, Envy.

Ringo says, “Even if ya have nuthin tah cling tah, ev’rythin’s still clingin tah you.” What this means is your suffering is your insistence on molding the world to your image. That “image” based on that pitifully inadequate model of the Universe we refer to as our brains.

At best, running away will hit the restart button for you to start again, but you’ll be no wiser. You’ll run the same patterns and soon enough end up in the same place, just another decade or two older. Whatever seems annoying in your life is just your rough edges being polished away. Lean into that seeming discomfort like you would with a good massage.

Cliches

Another difficulty with writing about Buddhism is avoiding the invocation of very tired cliches, such as:

  • You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
  • Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

We’ve all heard them. Chicago and Kelly Clarkson have sung these gems of wisdom to us. Yet there are still so many unhappy people in the world. After thousands of years of human sentience and a great many geniuses having said their part, humanity’s knowledgebase is an incredible treasure trove of wisdom that’s already here. Those cliches make sense, are difficult to intelligently argue against, and we can even offer logic holding up the wisdom. So why can’t we just fully digest these cliches and be happy?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be born with that wisdom already wired into our heads? After all, we’re not born completely blank canvases. Of course, there are our instincts with are hard-wired or at least there is a foundation laid that makes it easy to learn certain things and build certain tastes. But for the most part, our immensely complex web of neurons and synapses is well beyond hard-wiring such wisdom encoded in our genes.

We’ll each need to learn those things unprogrammable in genes. The great thing is, unlike most creatures, we humans have that choice! Most brains aren’t capable of learning things like “you’re stronger than you think you are”. The problem is these cliches don’t mean much until you have context under which you can appreciate it. Without experiencing any pain, what good is it to know you’re stronger than you think you are? When you hear it, it has nothing in your brain to link itself to.

The answer lies in the complexity of our brains. We mostly learn the same lessons, but the wiring is different. Wisdom isn’t not like the bits on a DVD for installing software. Each character is carefully crafted by very highly skilled people, every copy is exactly the same. It’s Windows or Office or SQL Server.

This isn’t an inadequacy in humans. This learning that each of us has to do also means we’re capable of being wired to be whatever we need to be at the place and time of our life. Creatures not as loosely wired as we are have no choice but to be whatever they were born to be. In the whole scheme of things, it’s a small price to pay for sentience.

What Buddha promises with the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path (the recommendations enumerated as the 4th of the Four Noble Truths) is to eliminate suffering. He doesn’t promise to to solve the World’s problems with these teachings. Easing our pain is like restoring oxygen if we’re trapped in a cave. There’s nothing we can do to get ourselves out without it. But once we have oxygen, we can devise a way to get out of the cave using what is right there for us to use.

Rubber Ducky and Fishnu with their malas.
The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet and the Eternal Fishnu wish you Peace.

Why?

We sentient humans always need to know why we’re doing something. Our brains are constantly analyzing, constantly predicting what will happen. Knowing why an opponent does something is the secret to figuring out how to outsmart it. There are many paths to the same place, but fewer destinations. For example, there are tons of ways to satisfy hunger and many ways to get to our work place.

In my field of Business Intelligence, there is something called the last non-empty value, in English, the last known value. For example, a patient’s body weight. If we’re doing analysis, say predicting who may contract diabetes with the next three years, we probably haven’t seen many of those patients recently and will use that last weight, with the bad assumption that it’s better than no weight at all.

It’s good to ask questions about what’s happening now. Where asking questions becomes a pain in the ass is when we spend a great deal of time planning around a truckload of assumptions we’ve gathered over the years that may no longer be true. We’re afraid to ask questions because the answers have probably changed and that means our plan probably won’t work. By not asking questions, we can continue to work in our delusion.

There’s a Zen joke that goes: A candidate arrives at the site of her job interview for a Senior C# programming position. She is stopped by a burly security guard. He spurts out “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you here?” She say to him, “Wow! I really want this job now because hopefully you’ll ask me that every day!”

Sometimes we completely forget why we’re angry, and since we always need to know why, we settle on something plausible if we can’t remember the original reason. It’s true – read Oliver Sachs’ great book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sometimes our reasons aren’t really even our reasons, but a bill of goods we were sold.

Do lions hate gazelles? Is the praying mantis at the top of this post vengeful towards crickets? In the big picture, they are a Yin and Yang system within recursive levels of a much larger Yin and Yang system of dynamics. That dynamics is the mechanism of the evolution of Life on Earth, which at three-plus billion years old, is the secret of Her eternal youth. She is forever young because whatever Life on Earth looks like, it’s fit for now, was fit for all times past, and will be fit for whatever future there may be.

The Four-Part Series on the Root of Dukkha

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