Let’s start with the last question. When evolutionary biologists study emotion, they usually ask about its survival value. What is it that makes feelings useful to a creature’s reproductive success?
This approach troubles me, because it suggests (implicitly) that animals might just as well have evolved as heartless robots, devoid of any true investment in life. The only reason for feelings in this style of evolutionary logic is that they increased mammalian ability to foster viable offspring. And note that the word mammalian is not arbitrary. Such hypotheses generally go on to assert that reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are devoid of meaningful emotion. Which, if you think about it, is another way of saying they don’t care about their lives.
There is such a thing as bliss.
One can feel it when life goes well. A new love, a new baby, the delicate colors of dawn, and quiet contemplation can all activate it. We know it well; we seek it. It feels warm, full, and embracing. When we are fortunate enough to be wrapped in bliss, we feel safe and stable. The feeling may last a moment or a month, but it is welcome the entire time. We miss it when it leaves us, as it inevitably must.
There is such a thing as depression.
We feel it when life fails us too many times. Too much hardship, too much death, too much negativity can all summon it to our door. Many of us know it too well. It ruins our enjoyment of life and makes us question our worth. When entangled in depression, we feel beleaguered and pessimistic. Nothing lifts our spirits, not even our loves, our offspring, or the loveliness all around. The world appears lifeless and gray. The feeling may last a day or a year, and we resist it the entire time. We feel relief when it leaves us, as it inevitably must.
At present insomnia dominates my experience. I get so little sleep, and feel so tired as a result, that depression hovers near from morning to dusk. I exercise vigilance to avoid the bleak thoughts that seem so appropriate when my mood dips. To keep from trashing my life with my thinking, it is sometimes safest to simply silence my inner voice. As I once said in a Tweet, “if you can’t think anything nice, don’t think anything at all.”
Not long ago I wrote a post proposing that Mental Health Day be renamed Spiritual Health Day. In that essay I explained how it seems to me that spiritual malady would be a more accurate and less damaging label than mental illness. With that in mind, I submit we should work to create crisis centers that nurture the soul.
Whenever people felt crushed by unrelenting sorrow, or burned with too much energy for normal life, or heard persecuting voices, or felt like God’s chosen child, they would be offered escape to a pleasant retreat in the countryside. Once onsite, they could work in an organic garden, or staff the stables, or help build a new lodge. They could ride horses, paddle in canoes, and play frisbee on the lawn.
They could come and go when they pleased. They would learn about the brain, and about psychiatric problems, but they would also hear how mental conditions have been positively viewed by other cultures. They could attend meditation sessions, practice a spiritual tradition if they chose, and they could make art of all kinds. Groups would play music and sing in the evenings. There would be no television, and no computers, but lots of books and endless craft supplies.
From my earliest years I had been highly emotional, easily wounded and often upset. My temper would flare without warning, but I could also settle quickly into good cheer. My instability worsened under the stress of child abuse, and I suspect my stepmother enjoyed pushing me into emotional collapse–a sensitive child must be the perfect victim for a sadist.
By reasons of genetics and trauma, I entered adulthood accustomed to rapid and dramatic shifts in feeling. But in 2000 my moodiness rose to new heights. My lows became lower and my highs higher.
I presented twice for hospitalization. The first time I sought confinement as I became frightened by my growing determination to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, frightened isn’t the right word, because I knew very little fear. The cold and collected way in which I was arranging my end dismayed me and led me to seek help. After two weeks the doctors discharged me from the first hospital, and I left feeling much happier. A bit too happy, in fact. The powerful new antidepressant worked quickly to elevate my mood, first into mild giddiness and then, five days after discharge, into full blown manic psychosis.
Deep inside our cells, there is a great deal of hollowness. This isn’t the emptiness that Buddhist meditators seek to apprehend directly, but simply a surprising lack of substance. For instance, if we enlarged the nucleus of a carbon atom up to the size of a basket ball, the nearest electron would orbit several miles away. So an accurate model of a DNA molecule, with its carbon, nitrogen, and other atoms spiraling in a helix, would look like myriad tiny dots very widely separated. The same with every other biomolecule that comprises our bodies.
Yet these specks are arranged with stunning precision in complex molecular machines that perform all the functions a lifeform requires. Proteins slide along DNA strands and copy them so our cells can regenerate, or so we can mate with the opposite gender and generate a new being. Proteins form enzymes that convert the sugars we eat into energy that allows us to perceive, move, and live. Proteins form receptors that detect hormones and neurotransmitters to sculpt the way we feel.
My last post pointed out how the less we chase desire, the more peaceful we feel. This is fairly standard teaching within both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. However, one commentator suggests that the piece could only have been written by someone who enjoys health and financial security.
Although my wellbeing is better than it used to be, when I started working to escape desire my life was complicated by severe mental and physical problems. Even now, after much meditative and contemplative practice, I struggle with serious chronic pain. My finances are satisfactory at present, but look uncertain over the longterm. After all, my career as a surgeon ended twelve years ago.
But the details are beside the point. Desire is an equal affliction for rich and poor, healthy and ill. The rich obsess about their possessions and investments. The poor hunger for the basics. The healthy hope they don’t get sick. The ill want to get better. It doesn’t matter your status, desire will find its way into your heart unless you work to keep it out.
Now imagine that you were granted these things you crave. How good would you feel? How long would that satisfaction last? If you’re like most people, in short order you’d start wanting something new.
We live in a culture that encourages desire. The entire advertising industry aims to make us want. These efforts to persuade us to purchase contribute to the ills in our society. We have become a culture that uses and discards things at an alarming rate. Such base hunger for goods is clearly pathological, even if it is legitimized on every front. (After 9/11, then President Bush actually encouraged people to get back to the business of spending, as if we could buy our way out of tragedy.)
The Buddha spoke of desire as the primary cause of suffering. He also listed anger and ignorance among the major afflictions of humanity. These three conditions are closely related, but note how desire heads the list. Imagine what the Buddha would say today, seeing how we have built an entire economy on the endless pursuit of material hungers.