Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Garden Of The Good Life Part 1.

A (tentative) users guide to well being.

Happiness or well being is something that I have been considering at length recently. one of my previous posts (Experiments in consciousness) lead me to construct a little parable. What follows is some consideration of what a good life might entail and how to best cultivate such states of well being.

Perceptive readers may well pick up on the term well being as a phrase containing something of Eastern flavour. This is no accident, in my previous post I alluded to my interest in eastern philosophy in particular Zen Buddhism. Though I have no formal affiliation with any group, or believe anything metaphysical. Neither am I an adept-- I would describe myself as a dilettante. There is it seems to me a vast repository of spiritual and contemplative wisdom that has been largely untapped by the West. Indeed on numerous points it seems our spiritual and philosophical concepts compared with the East is the like the gulf between 20th century physicists with their 14th century counterparts. As such much of what follows is indebted to the Eastern traditions however I do have much admiration for the Stoics of Greece.

I think I should talk a little more about what I feel to be the difference between happiness and well being. The core distinction I would make is that I perceive happiness to be transitory. That it is a temporary state in the mind such as the eating of ice cream or enjoying a fine piece of music. It could of course be something more singular such as passing your exams or getting married. Despite the heightened sense of happiness you may well feel it is only temporary and as such echoes out along the corridor of time.

Well being though is something that is not temporary but continues through the various trials and tribulations of life. I quoted Marcus Aurelius in one of my previous posts that a good life can be likened to a wrestler who grounds himself and is not thrown by the difficulties, passions, troubles and desires of life. In other words an equilibrium of mind, a mind that does not suffer the torments of anxiety and the cravings of desire but one that is light and free and open. The mind acts with stoic and calm grace in most or all situations. The Stoics would point to Socrates as being a sage or a master for achieving such a state. Naturally for the Buddhists they would point to the Buddha as an example of an enlightened one.

Upon my first reading and considering these teachings of well being my criticism was that--what is the difference between this say and simply taking anti-depressant drugs or tranquilisers to numb the mind? This is mistaken. I’ll offer a brief counter to this. Zen and to a much lesser extent Stoicism does not deny or discourage joy or rapture, quite the opposite (less so with Stoicism). What it speaks of though is that we don’t become attached or overly affected by emotion. It asks us to simply experience emotion without judging or thinking unnecessarily about it. I may be eating a fantastic dinner but that’s it though. Just that- nothing special. The problem comes when I think during it that when I finish there will be a feeling of dissatisfaction that its over. Or that I need to keep eating, or that my worries will return as soon as I set my fork down, or I feel guilty for eating too much.

One of the most profound and simplest lessons of Buddhism is that thoughts are simply thoughts. That it is our thinking that frequently gets us into trouble. It asks us to simply experience moment to moment our lives without judging or attaching. This is what is meant by openness and equilibrium of mind.

The Soil of life.

What is the first thing we need for the garden? The foundation of any garden is of course soil. Soil contains the nutrients and ingredients for the plants and flowers and vegetables of which we want to grow. Our neurology and genes can be thought of as the soil, the foundation for our well being. Previously I used a metaphor that such things like genes and the various qualities of brain chemistry to something akin to hardware on a computer. Good hardware allows us to download and run good software (ethics and philosophy).

Most likely we inherit the soil that was originally present in the ground that we come to just like with our genes and propensities to things like anxiety and sociability. Of course we can buy soil from a good landscaper if we choose. Buying brains and genes are admittedly a little harder. I’m sure your saying to yourself right now - well what if I don’t have the so called good gene for happiness-- so that’s me snookered then.

Not exactly. Firstly though consider that there is probably not some single gene for happiness or the good life but sets of genes that can get turned on (become more active or less) according to environment factors. Consider this point, though it may sound cold comfort to people who have such conditions. Things like the variability of height, good looks, obesity, alcoholism are largely dependent on genes. Not everyone is blessed the same and in the final analysis whatever your shortcomings you get on with your lot as best you can. That’s of course not to say that we can redress or enhance our features. The same goes with ideas such as how to life a good life.

There is nothing we can do about our genes but there is of course things we can do to our Neurology. Bluntly speaking there are anti-depressant pills we can take such as SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake inhibitor) which can give a sufferer of depression a better mental standard of living. On another continuum there are illicit drugs such as Cannabis, LSD or MDMA that people regularly consume. MDMA is a case in point, at the level of the brain it operates much like a SSRI only it floods the brain with Serotonin rather than the SSRI which retains it (hence the term reuptake inhibitor). MDMA before it became illegal was used in therapy, marriage counselling and treating sufferers of PTSD and sex abuse with some promising success. There is a growing body of personal testimony that the drug can induce vast differences in a persons well being in only a single or few doses. MDMA is of course Schedule I in America and its equivalent rating of Class A in the UK. You have as much chance of dying of this drug as you would if you take a paracetamol tablet. MDMA is of course better known as its street name Ecstasy.

For people who wish to alter their states of being without resorting to chemicals though there is something that we can do. Insight meditation or Vipassana meditation. The simple counting of ones breath going in and out past the nose. You keep you mind focused on the breath, don’t allow your mind to wander in thought. This is harder than it sounds if you don’t believe me give it a try. I’d wager that most people could not even reach ten seconds without an errant thought invading their concentration even if their life depended on it. This is an acquired skill that can take even years to fully master. However even a small amount of practice can see noticeable effects such as a more quieted mind. It sounds ridiculous but there is plenty of self report from people over millennia’s testifying to its efficacy. There are some therapists who openly use it in their practice and can find great results. Nothing of course need be believed without good reason and as we speak there is a team of neuroscientists working with Zen practitioners to flesh out a contemplative science of the mind.

Best and Be well.

Michael Faulkner

Part Two will follow shortly.

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