Carrots, Sticks, Paddles, and Autopilot

Buddhist wisdom says there are three ways we naturally approach anything—desire, aversion, or indifference. For the sake of convenience, I call them, “yum!” “eeeeewwww” and “zzzzzz.”

I see a slice of cheese cake. “Yum!” I love cheese cake. So, I desire the slice of cheese cake. I grab it. Five hundred calories down my gullet. I see a squirrel that’s been hit by a car. Eeeeeewwww! Aversion. I look away. Then there’s indifference: trees along the route to work, for example. Those tchotchkes around the house that you haven’t dusted in months. Indifference. You just don’t see them. “Zzzzzz.”

I swallow the cheese cake before I even have time to enjoy it. I’m too caught up in my aversion at the sight of the wounded squirrel to help. I don’t bother looking up to see the gift that simple things like sycamore trees or a souvenir from long ago can bring.

Desire. Aversion. Indifference. These are the reactions we naturally have when our brains are on autopilot. And Buddhists say these lead to our suffering. We go through our thoughtless lives wanting, rejecting, and ignoring. And it’s always about me, me, and me.

How can we get out of that cycle?

Buddhism teaches that we have to find a place of equanimity—calmness; composure; evenness of temper.

But how can I keep evenness of temper when there’s cheese cake around? How can I stay composed when I experience disgusting or frightening things? How can I be composed when I’m staring absently out the window and don’t even see what’s in front of my nose?

Equanimity is about being mindful—aware—no matter how tempting, disgusting, or boring something is. Equanimity is about living in the here and now fully. Fully in touch with what surrounds us, without saying “yum!” “eeeeewwww” or “zzzzzz.”

Equanimity is clearly a way of bringing our aspirations into our actions, of bringing what we wish we did and what we do into closer relationship.

Easier said than done! But that’s how it is with religious thinking: it is always about either paddling upstream—against the currents of human nature—or it’s about how human nature is OK after all, at least in certain circumstances.Things like war, murder, torture, xenophobia, oppression. That sort of thing.

Sigmund Freud, no fan of religion, argued that culture does much the same thing as religion. It functions to mitigate the fearsomeness of nature; to reconcile us to the randomness and cruelty of fate; and to explain why culture itself makes so many problems for us.

It seems to me that both culture and religion (perhaps because the separation of church and state is a modern invention) are pretty good at creating duty, because both contain carrots and sticks. They create duty but not necessarily (or commonly) responsibility, which is a personal choice unaffected by carrots or sticks. Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it this way: “civilization rests upon what it exacts from its people, not from what it furnishes them.” The same can be said of most of religion.

Responsibility is a personal choice. A choice arrived at (or not) by each of us. How we get there depends upon the lives and circumstances we experience. Responsibility is a personal ideal. We live up to it.

Which brings me back to equanimity. It, too, is an ideal—we’re always going to default to “yum!” or “eeeeewwww” or “zzzzzz.”

Equanimity. The Buddhists think it’s a good way to act. It’s what made the Stoics stoic.

Equanimity. It’s a choice.





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