The Buddha’s Greatest Discovery Will Transform How You Make Decisions and Navigate Life
There’s a process that runs behind the scenes that brings us pain, destroys our relationships and impairs our decision making. It arises from the deep recesses of our minds and sits at the center of human conflict and mental suffering. Let’s use an example to understand this phenomenon –
You’re the CEO of a business confronting major headwinds. There’s a new competitor in your market. They have deep pockets and ready to spend whatever it takes to win over your customers. This company has been your life’s work for years. You dedicated everything you knew to make it work. The successes you have seen growing the company offset all the failures of your past and gave you a sense of wellbeing and achievement. Suddenly all this is at stake. Your board and investors call an emergency meeting and you’re obviously the center of attention. It doesn’t help that your staff is already on edge and the sales team is reporting lower numbers. The pressure is at peak level and the board meeting commences. They want clarity on your plans to navigate the newly emerged challenge. Their questions are pointed and come in thick and fast, and suddenly the state of your mind begins to shift. You feel a new emotion arise. Perhaps the questions make you feel belittled — it reminds you of the time when you were a child being scolded in front of everyone in class. Another possibility is that you’re feeling rejected. Early humans needed to belong to a troupe for survival and your primal instincts have arisen, you begin to feel desperate for acceptance. Fear and frustration sets in and you start acting defensive. Every comment and question that comes up is personal and you respond with aggression. Your judgment is clouded by your emotions and the people you’re speaking with become your adversaries. The meeting dissolves with no clear direction, just further distrust and injured relationships.
This is a scenario that plays out all the time. We let emotions dictate our perspective and therefore our reactions. At a micro level, it happens in our day-to-day experience to you, your neighbors, family, friends. At a macro scale, it leads to national polarization, wars, political crises, hate crimes — you name it.
The problem lies in the fact that we are unaware of our enslavement to a reactionary loop. It causes conflicts when things are viewed unfavorably, and addictions when we become attached to an outcome. It’s the same process that makes you want to grab a croissant every time you smell the bakery down the road.
If we can solve the problem of emotional reactivity to our environment we could put an end to so much suffering, both within ourselves and globally. It could clear up our mind to make optimal decisions and see things as they truly are.
What if there was a simple exercise that freed you from this loop of emotional ups and downs. What if you had a tool that would give you control over how you feel rather than being at the mercy of whatever comes at you? Every decision you make would be beyond emotions and from a place of clarity and non-reactiveness. Wouldn’t that open a whole new world of tranquility, calm, and poise?
500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha revealed what in my opinion is the most profound discovery of mankind. This solution has also been addressed by Jiddu Krishnamurti, a man whose books have profoundly impacted my life. According to Krishnamurti, it is important to understand our “pleasures”. Beyond the obvious sensory pleasures, they also arise in other more subtle ways, such as the pleasure of being right, telling others what to do, having a greater understanding of life or even the pleasure from the security and validation of a faithful partner. According to him we seek and nourish pleasure and that is the driving force of life. Now imagine one of these pleasures is taken away from you. Say your partner chooses another, or you meet someone with an opposing view of truth — the pleasure you have is at risk of being lost and you then react. Krishnamurti says that the opposite force of pleasure is pain, frustration, sorrow — all of which lead to fear — and out of fear comes violence. Turn on the news and notice how so much of the world’s issues are driven by people protecting or fighting for their pleasures and securities.
The Buddha took this concept further and described the feedback loop as follows:
Inputs from our environment > subconscious processing > release of sensations > binary reaction of either craving or aversion
We experience the world and receive stimuli from all around us. These inputs are then processed by our subconscious — a complex set of logic that is determined by our past experiences, societal conditioning and even our DNA, all of which are out of our control. Finally, this generates a sensation on our body to which we react.
So if someone says something to me (input) that my subconscious relates with a part of my past that I’m embarrassed by (processing), it will release sensations reminding me of the negative emotion (shame and embarrassment). I would therefore react with aversion towards the sensations. If the input triggers a pleasurable sensation (stemming from favorable experiences in the past), then the reaction would be either attachment or craving towards the input.
The only area we have control over in this entire process is the reactivity to our sensations. We can’t do anything about the inputs we receive (what people say or our life circumstances), nor can we reverse the coding of our minds and how we process these. What we can do is be aware of this loop and be in touch with our sensations.
Feel the sensations that arise and pass on your body constantly. Notice that some situations trigger sensations that are pleasurable, and make you crave it more. It could be flattery from a person you admire, or the croissant from your favorite bakery. Also be aware of the sensations that you’re not favorable towards and that you react with aversion. These could trigger emotions like embarrassment, rage, and other negative feelings.
This moment you take to feel the sensations that arise on your body opens a space that allows you to choose your reaction. It unlocks the ability to determine your experience and how you respond to everything that comes at you. It’s a portal that everyone can access and is the secret to tranquility and inner clarity.
So next time someone says something to you that would usually trigger anger or embarrassment, let the input or the words come at you. Take a moment to process it and feel the sensations that arise in your body. Accept that you have these sensations — you’re not fighting them off but you’re being with them in a state of acceptance (this is key). Study how the sensations arise and pass before deciding on your reaction to the words.
Turning this into a regular practice will transform your experience of the world and your relationships. This simple formula was at the core of the Buddha’s teaching. He resolved to free humans from their suffering by revealing a technique which allowed them to circumvent this reactionary cycle.
A meditation practice that makes this process second nature to you is taught in the hundreds of 10-day Vipassana retreats hosted in centers across the world. My explanation scratches the surface of this wisdom but is sufficient for everyone to apply in their daily lives.
Society and human circumstance is shaped by a reactionary loop lurking in the deep recesses of our subconscious. It fuels the negative emotions or addictions that cause so much pain within and leads to global violence. This process clouds our judgment and confuses our decision making. The solution to this is recognizing that we are stuck in this feedback loop: our environment feeds us inputs that our subconscious processes and generates sensations which we respond to with either craving or aversion.
The Buddha teaches that hacking this loop requires us to be aware of the sensations that arise and pass on our bodies. Observing these with complete acceptance and without reacting to them creates a portal of peace and clarity from which we can positively experience the world and transform our relationships.