Chapter 5 of Buddha’s Map:
Imagine a prehuman ancestor—a furry, lemur-like creature living furtively in the primeval forest. He sees something pleasant—food or a potential sexual partner. A wired-in instinct focuses all his attention on it and prepares his body to move toward it. Then he sees something unpleasant—a predator. The primal instinct focuses all his faculties on it and prepares his body to get out of there.
This instinct gives him an evolutionary advantage. To be effective, the instinct must be fast. To be fast, it must be simple. To be simple, it doesn’t figure out what to do about the food, mate, or predator. It merely says, “This is good, figure it out,” or “This is bad, figure it out.”
Notice that it directs attention outward onto the food, mate, or predator rather than inward onto how he feels about them. If he gets absorbed in how good it feels to see his potential mate, she may move on before his DNA gets a chance to reproduce. If he wastes time examining his fear of the predator, he and his DNA will get eaten. So this instinct is the opposite of introspection: it directs attention “out there” rather than “in here.”
We humans have such an instinct. I don’t have scientific evidence for its evolutionary origins, but it behaves as if these speculations are true. It is fast, simple, preverbal, and non-conceptual, it directs attention away from itself, and it narrows the scope of awareness to the object.
We have many names for it: “desire,” “attraction,” “attachment,” “fixation,” “craving,” “repulsion,” “fear,” “anger,” “disgust,” “uptightness.” It’s the feeling that generates the thought, “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” “I want more” or “get me outta here.” Yet the instinct itself is precognitive and arises so quickly that we can’t control it. It just happens. It arises uninvited out of our neural wiring. Better labels for it might be “getting triggered,” “having my buttons pushed, “getting hooked in,” or even “the devil made me do it.”
In the earliest Buddhist texts, it is called “tanha.” Tanha is the Second Noble Truth. The First Truth says that suffering, dissatisfaction, or discomfort (dukkha) is inherent to life. The Second Truth says that the root of our experience of difficulty is this reflexive tightening (tanha). The Third Truth says we can release it and know well-being regardless of our circumstances. The Fourth counsels how to do this.
As we saw in the last chapter, tanha is also the eighth movement in the downstream flow of Dependent Origination. And there is a little tanha throughout the entire river.
The Buddha said that tanha is the place where we have the best opportunity to step out of the river as it flows toward suffering.
In short, releasing tanha is central to the Buddha’s strategy for easing awake.
(In the “Path” section, we’ll look in detail at how to work with tanha in meditation. But given the importance of tanha to understanding the entire Path, it would be helpful to know how to recognize and work with it in everyday life.)
The question for everyday life is, “How do we thrive in difficult times?” The question isn’t, “How do we survive, get by, or manage difficulty?” It’s “How do we thrive amidst adversity—how do we navigate rough waters in ways that deepen our lives and open our hearts?” If we can thrive in difficult times, we can thrive in easy times as well.
Tanha—this reflexive tightening—is the key. It may be inherited, such as the startle reflex. Or it may be conditioned, such as learning to fear a particular situation. But whatever the case, it can be deceptively difficult to see since it directs our attention away from itself. So first we’ll look at recognizing the tightening itself. Then we’ll look briefly at dealing with what triggers it. And finally we’ll look at the most crucial aspect: releasing it and relaxing until our lives feel enriched even during hard times.
We’ll start with simply recognizing tanha.
Searching for this reflexive tightening is like my boys searching for Easter eggs when they were little. They’d run out into the yard and look under flowerpots, beneath rocks, and behind wooden boxes and find nothing. My wife and I had hidden the eggs in plain sight: a yellow egg in a bed of yellow flowers, a brown egg on the root of a tree, a blue egg on a blue toy truck in the sandbox, a green egg in a tuft of grass. They were all visible but placed where they’d blend in with the yard. In their excitement, my boys missed the obvious. But once they learned that the eggs were in plain sight, they stopped, looked more carefully, and began to see them everywhere.
The tightening is like that—it’s always in plain sight, but its nature diverts our attention away from it. However, when we stop and look carefully, we begin to see it everywhere:
This tightening feels like an urge, drive, or tug. It’s uncomfortable. It gets our attention by creating tension and pushing us to do something. If there’s nothing to do, we’re left with an edginess begging for resolution.
The instinct to tighten and focus our attention may help in situations that resolve quickly or that require fast action—like an oncoming car. It’s less help in complex, nuanced modern life. By narrowing our attention, we can get hooked on a detail rather than seeing the broader context.
To a greater or lesser degree, this instinct colors much of human experience.
Let’s turn from how the instinct feels to what triggers it. There are many triggers. Some are obvious: relationship breakdown, job insecurity, disease, death of a loved one, children’s difficulties, economic insecurity, political inanity, war. Some are less obvious: loneliness, annoyance, quiet worries, loss of meaning, purposelessness, yearning for something.
What do we do about these?
The instinct focuses our attention outward. Sometimes it’s wise to deal with the world rather than withdrawing from it, to embrace the interdependent web and deal with issues on their own terms.
If we’re sick or injured, rather than just hoping and praying, we go to a doctor or health-care worker or consider diet, rest, or exercise.
If our job is in trouble, we to talk to the boss, send out our resume, advance our education, or network.
If a relationship is on the skids, we talk to the person, consult with a wise friend, find a counselor, or seek a support group.
If we want something that is easy to obtain without harming anyone, we simply get it.
If this resolves the problem, great. We cure the disease, find a new job, resolve our kid’s obstreperousness, or buy the music we wanted.
However, there are times when there’s no solution. We do what we can, but the difficulty lingers.
When I first moved to Sacramento a dozen years ago, my youngest son, Damon, was about to start his senior year in the charter high school he’d helped found and had poured his heart into. He and my wife, Erika, stayed in Massachusetts that year. I came out alone.
Mostly it was OK. I missed them, but I was busy getting to know a new congregation and knew my family separation was temporary.
Still, Friday nights were hard. Fridays had been family time. We played board games, went to movies, or just hung out together. Now, as the twilight settled in on Fridays, my chest ached. I talked to them on the phone, but that wasn’t the same. Sometimes the pangs of loneliness seemed intolerable.
Some difficulties resist being fixed. The disease may not have a cure. There may be no jobs around. We may not have the power to solve the political scene. The loved one who died isn’t coming back. Our child’s problems have no easy resolution.
What do we do then?
When I was working as a psychotherapist, I appreciated that there are three popular strategies for dealing with unsolvable problems: grab something, push something away, or space out. Let’s look at each.
The first strategy is to grasp for things or become needy. Unresolved tightening can feel like hunger, thirst, or emptiness. We look for something to fill that void.
When I broke up with a girlfriend in college, I was upset and didn’t know what to do, so I bought a Simon and Garfunkel record album: Bridge over Troubled Waters. It was comforting. Many people get into a pattern of shopping to feel better. Or they look for other experiences to distract them.
When I was in Sacramento that first year, sometimes I’d go to a movie to get through an empty evening.
A variant of this strategy is to get other people to do things for us. We try to control others as a way to handle our inner discomfort.
Sometimes this strategy is soothing. We relax. But if it doesn’t address the true hunger, it has no lasting benefit.
The second strategy for coping with intractable problems is the opposite. Rather than grasp for things or experiences, we push them away. We become irritable or angry.
We’ve all seen this in others and felt it ourselves. We snap at people more easily, become less tolerant of foibles, lose our temper, criticize more readily. Things that used to roll off our backs get to us.
Expressing this irritability may bleed off some of the tension. But if it doesn’t solve the real problem, it doesn’t lead us to well-being.
The third strategy is to space out. “There is nothing I can do, so I just won’t think about it.” We stay busy or medicate ourselves with alcohol, drugs, or food or just don’t pay attention to how lousy we feel. We numb out.
This too can have short-term benefit and manage a short-term situation. But for long-term issues, it’s disastrous.
I was a psychotherapist for a dozen years. Most of my clients had been using these strategies until they stopped working. Listening to their stories, it didn’t surprise me that they felt messed up. What surprised me was that they weren’t locked up on the back ward of a psychiatric hospital. Given what most of us have lived through as children and adults, it’s amazing that we are as healthy as we are.
The human spirit is incredibly resilient. It’s amazing the depth of pain and suffering we can experience and come through with our hearts and minds open, supple, and alive.
But the thing that brings us down most quickly is isolation. When we aren’t alone, our natural wisdom, compassion, and kindness flow even in difficult times.
There is one person whose good attention we need more than anyone else’s. It’s the one we spend the most time with day and night: ourselves.
When we are busy grasping for things, being irritated with others, or spacing out, we’re not truly present with ourselves. We’ve abandoned our hurt, loneliness, fear, or grief. We’ve abandoned ourselves.
If we want to thrive in difficult times, it is critical to learn to be present with ourselves more and more.
I remember one Friday night in my apartment. I talked to Erika and Damon on the phone. Then I thought about going to a movie, but that felt empty. I could have called someone in Sacramento, but that would not have been the same as seeing family. I put on music that both soothed and stimulated my loneliness. I began to pace around the apartment feeling more and more frantic, knowing there was no way to assuage the aching I was feeling. There was nowhere to run.
I stopped in my living room and stood still. I realized that at that very moment there were millions of people around the planet feeling as lonely as I. There were hundreds of millions grieving the deaths of love ones. There were countless people worried about their children, concerned about how they were going to make ends meet, frightened by a disease, or cowering before the threat of violence.
Most of us weren’t doing anything wrong. Things don’t always work out in life. We all die eventually.
Our society does us a disservice in reassuring us that we are captain of our ship, director of our fate, controller of our future. That’s nuts. We have influence, but bad things happen to good people all the time.
Standing alone in my living room, I thought, “Oh yeah. Right. This is how life is sometimes. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not bad for feeling bad. Stuff happens.”
I stopped running from the loneliness. I sat down in a chair and just felt it. I didn’t try to talk myself into or out of anything. I was just present.
It didn’t feel good. But at least I had myself. At least I had one attentive friend in the room: me.
With this, the loneliness softened. It didn’t go away, to be sure. But the tightness spread out. The heaviness lightened. I didn’t have to fight it anymore. And I began to feel moist, poignant, and life-filled rather than dry and barren.
If we want to thrive in difficult times, it’s important to learn to recognize this instinctual response on its own terms. It’s not a thought. It’s not a concept. It’s a wired-in, preverbal, pre-conceptual biological reflex: a mental, emotional, or physical tightening. It focuses our mental faculties on finding a solution out there.
This instinct is simple and not very smart. If there’s no solution, it doesn’t let go. We lie awake at night worrying about our child, job, health, or relationship in an endless loop of repeating thoughts.
It’s important to learn to see the inner holding directly.
As we see it fully, it tends to relax. Or we can gently invite it to soften. It’s like being with a child waking out of a nightmare. We don’t try to talk the child out of the dream. We’re just present in a heartful way. Similarly, we don’t try to talk ourselves out of our own swirl of emotions or thoughts. We just stay present.
It’s very simple. It’s also very difficult because this runs counter to the instinct to focus out there. So it’s important to be kind, gentle, and patient with ourselves.
As we relax this inner tautness, we won’t start thriving overnight. But without that tension, the spinning emotions, thoughts, and feelings start to run out of gas. They begin to slow down a little.
With this, something deeply mysterious and deeply human begins to emerge. We notice a poignant well-being that’s not dependent on fixing anything. We touch a wholeness that isn’t based on things we try to control.
Many people call this well-being “God,” “the Divine,” or “Spirit.” Others call it “Human Essence” or “Buddha Nature.” It makes no difference what we call it, because it is preverbal and pre-conceptual. We just note the elusive holding, open to it in a friendly way, and relax into it.
This doesn’t make us transcend the world or space out into a different realm. But it does give us the courage, heart, patience, and intelligence to come back into this world and our lives more completely, doing what is reasonable for ourselves and our fellow creatures. This helps us to be with things as they are.
With this, we are truly on a path toward thriving even when the times are difficult. We find that we’re not the small self we thought we were. Without the instinctual tightening of tanha, our sense of self starts to dissolve.