Surviving the Typhoon Inside Our Mind
Typhoon Mangkhut slammed into Hong Kong this month, bringing a level of damage and destruction unprecedented in the territory’s history: trees were torn down, windows smashed, buildings and homes damaged, trash was washed ashore, and reclaimed coastlines were flooded. While super typhoons of this scale are extraordinary, there is no doubt that unusual weather conditions are becoming increasingly common, raising serious concerns over the negative impact human actions are having on the climate and our natural environment. Alarming natural disasters like this should prompt humans to rethink our relationship with the environment and demand a much overdue focus on protecting our shared habitats.
While freak weather should remind us of the need for environmental protection on this planet, we should also take it as a reminder of the need for long-overdue protection of the environment inside our minds. From day to day and week to week, we pollute our mental environments and accumulate negative emotions, which gradually converge into a mental cyclone. And like a super cyclone, its formation requires energy along the way to form an even stronger and more destructive spiral leading to great disasters.
In fact, despite all of our technological advances, we still have a very limited understanding of human psychology. Arguably, the science of human mental activity—medicine, psychology, behavioral science—has advanced considerably, but it also seems to move us further away from deeper inner reflection. Spiritual and reflective power on the other hand seem to be declining from the pinnacle reached by the pioneers of human philosophy and religion more than 2,000 years ago. While institutions and companies are developing strategies and policies to effect better change management, little in the way of advances has been made in understanding how to change mindsets and feelings (Schwartz 2018). If anything, technology has been more frequently developed and applied to manipulate and stimulate our greed, excitement, and delusions, instead of relieving stress, alleviating mental distress and disorders, or contributing to inner peace and tranquility.
In the Buddhist teachings, the “mechanism” of human psychology and, more fundamentally, the origination of human suffering—and hence the mechanism of human mental as well as life evolution—is expounded in the 12-factored formulation of dependent arising:
With ignorance (avijja) as condition, kamma formations (sankhara); with kamma formations as condition, consciousness (viññana); with consciousness as condition, mentality-materiality (namarupa); with mentality-materiality as condition, sixfold sense base (salayatana); with sixfold sense base as condition, contact (phassa); with contact as condition, feeling (vedana); with feeling as condition, craving (tanha), with craving as condition, clinging (upadana); with clinging as condition, existence (bhava); with existence as condition, birth (jati); with birth as condition, suffering (dukkha) . . . (Bodhi 2013)
Although the 12-factored formulation is presented sequentially, it is important to appreciate that these factors arise together. As important as ignorance is as a root cause, it is not the first cause. All 12 factors co-arise dependently and lead us into this mundane order of endless suffering. In order to break this mundane spiral and deliver real change away from the inertia of our thought processes, we must be capable of transcending this mundane order with the transcendental order of dependent arising, which is also explicated in the Upanisa Sutta:
With faith (saddha) as condition, joy (pamojja); with joy as condition, rapture (piti); with rapture as condition, tranquility (passaddhi); with tranquility as condition, happiness (sukha); with happiness as condition, concentration (samadhi); with concentration as condition, knowledge and vision of things as they are (yathabhutañanadassana); with knowledge and vision of things as they are as condition, disenchantment (nibbida); with disenchantment as condition, dispassion (viraga); with dispassion as condition, emancipation (vimutti); with emancipation as condition, knowledge of destruction of the cankers (asavakkhaye ñana). (Bodhi 2013)
For those who enjoy riding roller coasters or surfing the waves, riding the ups and downs can be exciting indeed. Manageable experiential and emotional ups and downs can be invigorating because they may help us feel more “alive.” We experience more when we can cherish good times and overcome bad times. Yet unmanageable storms—internal or external—can be damaging. If we do not have the knowledge and perception of things as they really are, which is basically the essence of dependent-arising and selflessness, our mental activities will propel the whole cycle of mental-materiality formation, creating a real storm inside our heads. When our minds exert thoughts on the circumstances we experience, stresses are so pressing, threats are so imminent, confrontations are so real, love is so deep. Building upon perceptions and conceptions, our observed phenomenal world is as real as it could be. We are to some extent as delusional as we are “normal” because we observe and make decisions through our deluded minds. As depicted in the first verse of the Yamaka Vagga in the Dhammapada:
Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you—as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.
Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves. (Thanissaro 2013)
Therefore an important way to switch from the mundane order to the transcendental order is to rewire our perception and conceptual framework. Instead of feeding energy into the mundane order of differentiations, judgments, and biases, we need to stop and change direction to the transcendental. Instead of fueling our greed, hatred, and delusion, we should put effort into the threefold training of moral discipline, mental concentration, and wisdom that alleviate us from the stress caused by our attachments and ignorance. Instead of demanding endless consumption, excitement, and stimulation to feel happier and more alive, we should attempt to take delight in the tiniest blessings in life. As the minimalist movement would suggest, we only need minimal consumption and possessions to spark joy. Instead of feeling annoyed and wreaking havoc over minor issues, being calm, tranquil, and stable could allow us to feel blissful peace, and let real insight and creativity surface. The beautiful Chan/Zen poem “Gatha by the Boatman Monk” vividly depicts the scene of mental stability:
For a thousand feet my [fishing] line hangs straight down,
A slightest wave is followed by ten thousand ripples.
The night is quiet, the water is cold, the fish not biting,
My boat filled with a vacant cargo of moonlight I return. (Kwong 2018)
A key message from this poem is that the power of mental stability is not only fascinating but also insightful. Often we take the “bait” of our perception and experience and let our mind react in an involuntary, auto-reply mode, from one stimulation to a reaction and then another—10,000 ripples or even giant waves. We may also actively seek stimulation to fill the void of boredom instead of taking a break or a pause. We fail to realize that a tranquil mind is like a smooth water surface, as flat and luminous as a mirror to allow for deep relaxation and reflection.
Another interesting reminder from Typhoon Mangkhut is that no matter how hard we try to dump some non-biodegradable garbage into a landfill, the problems remain and one day a storm will bring them back to the surface. Similarly, we might have piled up so much mental baggage over time in our mental environment that when there is an emotional perfect storm, all of these hidden piles of mental garbage resurface and cause much more damage. A common example is when a petty dispute leads to a serious confrontation about some more deep-rooted issues: how we squeeze the toothpaste, whether we remember to celebrate an anniversary, where we go for vacation, and so forth, could be the trigger for an eventual breakup. These disputes should be quite distinct incidents but could easily be escalated from trivial events to emotional attacks—feeling of disrespect, uncaring, and contempt. Ultimately these emotions can further evolve into an identity or existential crisis—such as when we do not feel respected, cared for, or listened to, we feel that our identity as a parent, a partner, a leader, or team member is threatened.
A threat to the identity, “I”, “me”, “myself,” is the most pivotal in any human relationship, and can explain why a small quarrel about toothpaste can become an emotional cyclone of “feeling ignored,” “disparaged,” “disrespected”, and finally climax in an emotional and personal super typhoon of “you” don’t care/respect/love “me.” This threat to identity has been the fundamental source of many human conflicts. It also explains why we tend to recall all the most undesirable memories no matter how hard we try to avoid them. All the bad feelings that have hurt us in the past have not been completely resolved and have continued to haunt us—just like that non-bio-degradable packaging we disposed of 20 years ago could still be swept ashore after a typhoon!
While it is impossible to prevent a typhoon, it is completely possible to stop a super typhoon from taking over our minds!
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2013. “Transcendental Dependent Arising: A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta.” In Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 1 December 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel277.html, accessed on 1 September 2018.
Kwong, Jakusho Roshi (trans.). 2018. “Gatha Boatman Monk”. Dharma Drum Magazine, 2018 (345). https://www.ddm.org.tw/maze/345/page6.html, accessed on 20 September 2018.
Schwartz, Tony. 2018. “Leaders Focus Too Much on Changing Policies and Not Enough on Changing Minds.” Harvard Business Review 2018 (June). https://hbr.org/2018/06/leaders-focus-too-much-on-changing-policies-and-not-enough-on-changing-minds, accessed on 1 September 2018.
Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2013. "Yamakavagga: Pairs" (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.than.html, accessed on 1 September 2018.
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