Buddhism in a Time of Anxiety and Uncertainty

During a time of division and fear, the Buddhist path offers insights into surviving and uniting.

Regardless of your feelings on the 2016 election results, nothing in this century has provoked so many conflicted responses. After the most polarizing campaign season in my forty-one years, the tremors have been as divisive as the quake.

Humans are emotional animals. We respond first with our feelings and rationalize later. Neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean’s triune brain theory summarizes this nicely: the survival response from the reptilian brain is translated by our neomammalian complex, which includes our prefrontal cortex, the site of reasoning. We’ve had innumerable feelings over the last week; how we’ve shared them is as varied as possible.

Which made me reflect on my own practice. Buddhism has long been a pillar in my understanding of the world. Gautama, the historical Buddha, generally eschewed metaphysics. He knew such concepts divided more than united. If alive today he’d most likely have been a neuroscientist, given the simple elegance of his Fourfold Noble Path.

It’s easy to have faith when things are going well—many athletes throw a peace sign to a god after they’ve won. Losers take longer to reply; their worldview has been shaken. Buddhism, however, is not about faith. It is a discipline practiced at all times, regardless of outcome. Thus I reminded myself of the basic premise.

After decades of studying yoga, practicing asceticism, meditating, and searching for answers, Gautama arrived at his prescription, which was in direct contradiction to many devotional practices in India at the time. Look not outward, he said, for the entirety of your confusion is to be found in your perception. His path, using a translation by Heinrich Zimmer:

  • All life is sorrowful. (Another translation is unsatisfactory.)
  • The cause of suffering is ignorant craving.
  • The suppression of suffering can be achieved.
  • The way is the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • To sum up, we perceive the world to be a certain way. When we find out it is not we suffer. Here’s the challenging part: we think we’re right. We hold our views as sacred and those contradicting us as wrong. When we discover that might not be the case, we have a decision: keep fighting against the tide (and suffer further) or accept our ignorance and learn.

    It’s important to note that the ignorance is not necessarily in the initial philosophy; it can just as easily be in the response. For example, this recent movement of “not my president” is, in a democracy, as undemocratic as imaginable. This is not to endorse the winner; it is to recognize the rules we’re playing by. To return to sports, don’t be a sore loser (or a narcissistic winner).

    Once you’ve recognized your ignorant craving, move forward with Gautama’s prescription. Unlike other religious or spiritual philosophies, it has little to do with belief and everything with practice. In fact, beliefs are part of the problem. The solution is his eightfold path:

  • Right View
  • Right Aspiration
  • Right Speech
  • Right Conduct
  • Right Means of Livelihood
  • Right Endeavor
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Contemplation
  • These are independent categories that work in conjunction, like chapters of a novel.  Each supports and informs the others. They are practiced together, though depending on individual temperament one might take precedence. Failure to implement one might very well cause the entire structure to crumble.

    What each of these “rights” means is open to interpretation, which in some ways brings us back to square one of all religious philosophies: we’re making this up as we go along.

    That’s not only a passing sentiment—it’s how evolution works. Evolution has no master plan, much to the chagrin of humans that believe in destiny. It adapts to the circumstances, many of which are not necessarily favorable to the long-term health of our species. For example, denying climate change while easing restrictions on corporations causing the problem (or threatening to abandon the Paris agreement) are not examples of Right View or Conduct. This is measurable; humans might lie but data do not.

    The same holds true for social relations. Nothing otherworldly demands people of various races, religions, and gender to assume we’re on equal ground. Rather, it is basic common sense that we’ve arrived at after a long history of conflict. We work better together than divided. Ideologies designed to tear us apart should not be supported. Again, this is measurable.

    Perhaps most importantly, when you recognize your own suffering you develop empathy toward others. We all suffer. This is easy to forget in a world connected by clicks, trolls, and anonymous posts. By cultivating an honest relationship with personal suffering, you naturally desire to alleviate the pain of others. In our times no other lesson from Buddhism is more necessary to practice.

    As Karen Armstrong wrote in her biography of Buddha,

    Even if the familiar is unsatisfactory, we tend to cling to it because we afraid of the unknown.

    Gautama, she writes, spent years destroying the clinging that brought so much pain and misery, going so far as to say ‘it suffers’ rather than ‘I suffer’ in order to create distance between the reptilian impulse and neocortex response—meditation too is measurable

    What Buddha discovered was peace of mind in the midst of chaos. Not an escape, mind you: his ideas greatly influenced the once-vengeful king, Ashoka. In times of uncertainty and vitriol, this path remains applicable, as a call to action in fighting for progress and an inner sanctuary to turn to when the reptilian brain rumbles. Soon, you don’t have to question the obvious. You already know what’s right.


    Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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