November 25, 2009

Life Ain't Crappy Enough

There was a blog post the other day over on GOOD about how bad moods make us better writers. Even as a teenager I noticed how I write best when I’m feeling down, not clinical depression mind you, just rather cynical and pessimistic about the entire proposition. Well, Professor Joe Forgas as the University of New South Wales Psychology Department, actually has the empirical studies to back it up. “In all cases, the sad folks produced arguments that were more concrete and therefore more persuasive than the happy campers.”

Apparently these moods help us pay attention and think critically. “The most likely explanation is based on evolutionary theorising—affective states serve an adaptive purpose, subconsciously alerting us to apply the most useful information processing strategy to the task at hand. A negative mood is like an alarm signal, indicating that the situation is problematic, and requires more attentive, careful and vigilant processing—hence the greater attention to concrete information.”

Within the Buddhist cosmologies (this relates, I promise) many realms are depicted – hell realms, hungry ghost realms, animal realms, the human realms, and various heaven realms and god realms. It is said that enlightenment can only be obtained in the human realm because in the realm below were are too caught up in suffering and survival to be able to perform any higher reasoning and in the higher realms we are too happy to care. Although the happiness in the higher realms in transitory, fleeting, and still lined with suffering, those dwelling there just can’t dredge up motivation to seek true freedom from suffering.

It’s no secret that many people come to Buddhism from suffering – a messy divorce, a crisis of conscious, traumatic illness or injury. This suffering prompts them to seek relief and in so doing, they find the Dharma.

I’ve often wondered if this is what prevents me from deepening my practice. I don’t sit because life just ain’t crappy enough. Well, I could try to add some angst to my otherwise fairly peachy life, but Forgas warns “Direct conscious attempts to change/control moods usually do not work well—otherwise we would presumably be happy all the time, which is clearly not the case… The effects we found occur without people being aware of them, and as you note, instructions to control these effects are not very effective.”

Luckily, I don’t tend to agree. I find that conscious attempts to control strong emotions do work, but only with repeated practice, which is what sitting is all about after all, getting to know your mind and its emotional states. Of course, I probably haven’t done enough sitting to consciously make myself miserable, and unless things change (which they inevitably will), I probably won’t be motivated into regular sitting anytime soon.

Ah, how ironic that people can be too happy to be happy.


Uglicoyote said...

Former Nebraska boy here. Grew up in the panhandle but now in Idaho. I too grew up in a good Republican family, strong Lutheran background. I'm a progressive Buddhist-Humanist, tree hugging, biker poet. I'm also a union leader and an English teacher. Love your blog.

Monica said...

Thanks, Coyote.