Our substitute life

The essence of the basic human problem is that we live a substitute life. From our basic human need for protection, security, and comfort, we’ve fabricated a whole maze of constructs and strategies to avoid being with our life as it is. And as a consequence of believing in this substitute life we are disconnected from awareness of our true nature, our naturally open heart.

Our substitute life is made of many different constructs: our identities, our self-images, our concepts of what life is, our opinions and judgments, our expectations, our requirements. All these we take as reality. As a consequence of these tightly held beliefs, we develop certain habitual behavioral strategies to deal with life as we interpret it.

All these strategies are based on core decisions that we made early on, about who we are and what our life is about. They are decisions we made to help us cope with the many inevitable pains of growing up.

Ezra Bayda

Mini-Movies and other strategies

We have a tendency to do anything to avoid our life as it actually is –  its unsatisfactory nature, its lack of clarity, the way it can give rise to anxiety. Our fear-driven instinct is to get away, to escape. One way we do this is by imagining a different future, a better place, a life with a better script. This is how Rich Hanson describes it , in his excellent book, Buddha’s Brain:

The brain produces simulations…even when they have nothing to do with staying alive. Watch yourself daydreaming  or go back over a relationship problem, and you’ll see the clips playing – little packets of simulated experiences, usually just seconds long. If you observe them closely, you’ll spot several troubling things:

  • By its very nature the simulation pulls you out of the present moment. There you are, following a presentation at work, running an errand or meditating, and suddenly your mind is a thousand miles away, caught up in a mini-movie. But its only in the present moment that we find real happiness, love or wisdom.
  • In the simulator,  pleasures seem pretty great, whether you are considering a second cupcake or imagining the response you will get to a report at work. But what do you actually feel when you enact the mini-movie in real life? Is it as pleasant as promised up there on screen? Usually not.
  • Clips in the simulator contain lots of beliefs…. In reality,  are the explicit and implicit beliefs in your simulations true? Sometimes yes, but often no. Mini-moives keep us stuck, by their simplistic view of the past and their defining out-of-existence possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams.

In sum, the simulator takes you out of the present moment and sets you chasing after carrots that aren’t really so great.

Rich Handon, Ph.D, Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom, p., 44.

How we look for certainty

One day Mara, the Buddhist god of ignorance and evil, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. He saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up in wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendants asked what that was and Mara replied, “A piece of truth.” “Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of the truth, O evil one?” his attendants asked. “No,” Mara replied. “Right after this they usually make a belief out of it.

Jack Kornfield, Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart

The Spiritual  journey is not about finally getting to a place that’s really swell. Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a cycle that goes round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly…. Instead,  this very moment is the perfect teacher, and lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are. However, most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape. There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to get us away from this moment, to soften its hard edge, deaden it so that we do not have to feel the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation to make us come out looking fine.

Pema Chodron, When Things fall apart.


Stories 2: How the past defines us

More on story and myth, this time from an excellent recently-published Buddhist perspective:

The Buddha taught that,  over time, the unobserved thought settles into character. Character is more than our temperament and personality; it is the fundamental way we see life, including our suppositions, ideas and views of who we are and what life is. When we look out of our eyes we see what we have been conditioned to see, and part of that conditioning is the assumed reality of the person who is having the experience.

Character is reinforced through our narrative, the ongoing story of “me”. We confirm our current reality through the recollection of how we have always been. For instance, if we have assumed a victim mentality from our past, we may have a predisposition to overcompensate and react strongly when we are imposed upon. Our personal narrative reveals our strengths and limitations, and engenders a self-attitude. As our story moves on, each chapter predisposes “me” to behave in a certain way, and though this proliferating tendency was never specified in our early history, the ongoing story gets captured within its momentum.

Rodney Smith, Stepping out of Self-Deception