Habits of Awakening | 2 . 4 . 2020

Moral Health

Is morality built into the fabric of the natural world?

-Andrew Olendzki

Research over the past decades has shown pretty convincingly that physical health is influenced by the quality of the nutrients we ingest, the activities we engage in, and the habits that guide our behaviors. Such quality is measured on a sliding scale between healthy and unhealthy. If we eat unhealthy foods, engage in unhealthy behaviors, and develop unhealthy habits, then the outcome will be unhealthiness. The reverse is equally true, when healthy modes of living replace unhealthy ones. This is a matter of understanding the biological laws of nature; it has nothing to do with moral judgment or religious decree.

More recent research is demonstrating the extent to which this principle extends into the realm of mental health. When we are motivated by healthy intentions, engage in healthy thinking, and develop healthy belief systems, we tend to be healthier and happier. Aversion, for example, is for the most part an unhealthy emotion. While it might be effective to bring about certain changes in the short term, it also has a tendency to cause damage to ourselves and to others over the long run. A person who is chronically annoyed, or who repeatedly ruminates on hateful thoughts, is not likely to experience much well-being. And if being displeased much of the time and regularly finding fault in any situation becomes a character trait, such a person is unlikely to maintain healthy relationships. The same might be said for fear, anxiety, self-pity, obsession, compulsion, addictive patterns of behavior, and a host of other emotional states associated with mental unhealthiness.

Here too I think we are facing a fundamental understanding of how the natural world operates, a psychological law of nature, if you will. It is not particularly helpful to try and assign blame for these emotional difficulties, or to couch the matter in the religious language of divine retribution. Just as realizing that “what goes up must come down” is simply a matter of understanding how the physical world works, so also there might be similar descriptive laws of psychological functioning. These might include such things as “when you are motivated by unhealthy desires, you will experience unhealthy outcomes,” or “when you regularly think in healthy ways, healthy habits of mind become reinforced,” or “when you activate unhealthy mental states, healthy states do not function, and vice versa.”

The Buddha said just such things about how the mind works, and seemed to speak of health and well-being as a natural process of growth in understanding. In the first two verses of the Dhammapada, for example, we find “If one speaks or acts with an afflicted mind, then suffering follows, like the cart follows the horse,” and “If one speaks or acts with a clear mind, then happiness follows, like a constant shadow.” In another discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 19) we hear this: “Whatever a person frequently thinks upon and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of their mind.” And, “If one thinks and ponders upon unhealthy thoughts, one has abandoned healthy thoughts and the mind inclines to unhealthy thoughts.” Mental health in early Buddhist teachings is simply a matter of becoming acquainted with the way the mind naturally works, and then using that knowledge to gradually guide the mind away from unhealthy intentions, thoughts, and habits toward more healthy ones. Well-being is a skill that can be acquired by anyone, because it has to do with aligning oneself with the way things naturally are.

Now here is an intriguing thought: Might it be the case that what is clearly evident about physical and mental health is also true for moral health? What if morality is something built into the fabric of the natural world, rather than something tacked on?

For the most part, Western philosophy and religion have characterized the material world as following impersonal laws of nature, while regarding morality and human behavior as something very different. Morality has to do with the free choosing by a personal agent, something that is not itself embedded in the same matrix of cause and effect as the rest of nature. The body is natural, but the soul is supernatural. Hence science is a matter of understanding how the world works, but ethics is a matter of individual religious sensitivity and commitment. Such a separation can result in powerful technologies being wielded by people of underdeveloped moral sensibility.

In Buddhist thought, however, human behavior is just as much a part of the natural world as the human body and mind. And just as the concept of health can be understood in physical and mental ways, so also it can be understood morally. Such a sense of moral health is fundamentally built into the Buddhist notion of well-being. The concepts of good and bad, loosely translating the words kusala and akusala, are not defined as ideals or absolutes but are understood in terms of their consequences for oneself and others. When you eat this, does your body become more or less healthy? When you think like that, is your mind thereby more or less healthy? And—when you act in such a way, are you contributing to greater or less well-being for yourself and others? All three are related by the same deeper understanding of health, which itself rests ultimately upon an understanding of the natural patterns of cause and effect.

That morality is a natural feature of the natural world is an insight we all have to learn if we hope to be deeply well. The more the sense of an autonomous self is injected into any situation, the more it acts as a lightning rod for greed, hatred, and delusion, which inevitably bring suffering. The more we can get the self out of the way, the more clearly we can see the effect of our thoughts, words, and action upon ourselves and others. When behavior is purified of these toxins and is guided by an understanding of just how deeply into nature the idea of health penetrates, it is natural that we will do what is right.

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Turning a Ship

Transforming our habits requires a moment of insight coupled with sustained effort.

– Oren Sofer

“Habit is the greatest tyrant,” an elder once told me. By the time we reach adulthood, we’re each carrying decades of habits. We’ve become accustomed to the routines and patterns that we’ve cobbled together to get by.

In spite of our best intentions, without an initial spark of change and a clear path to sustain it, we can remain paralyzed by fear or despair, locked in by numbness, or strung out by our addiction to comfort. Whether for individual or collective change, the vehicle to transformation remains stalled if we are unable to break the spell of unhealthy habits.

When seeking change it’s tempting to reach for the dramatic catharsis. We long to break the mold in a burst of sudden enlightenment. The reality is often far more humble and mundane. Things change slowly, over time, through incremental shifts. Human beings are complex, living systems where a small change can have far-reaching effects.

I liken the process of transforming habits to turning a cargo ship at sea. A large vessel with that much momentum can’t make sharp turns. However, a one- or two-degree course correction of the rudder, if held steady, will take that ship in a very different direction over time.

This process of change often occurs in two stages. First, we gain an insight or new understanding into some aspect of ourselves or our world. This is the initial spark that sets the cycle of transformation going. Insight turns the angle of the ship’s rudder.

Related: Dropping Distraction

Insight can feel great. Clarity dawns, and a weight has been lifted. Seeing things in a new light often comes with a rush of inspiration, a sense of freedom or spaciousness. (A lot of energy in both meditation and communication training is aimed at facilitating such shifts in awareness or understanding.)

Many practitioners make the mistake of stopping there. Insight is the beginning of transformation, not the end. It opens us to a new possibility, but as quickly as we change the angle of the rudder, the currents of our life come rushing in. The tyranny of habit exerts its force, pushing us back toward our old ways.

This is the second stage: holding the angle. It’s what turns a moment of insight into lasting change. We work in a patient and steady way, applying effort to integrate this insight. Each day, we recollect the new perspective and practice this new way of being. Inevitably, we lose our grip and the rudder slips back into its old position. We course correct, readjust, and work to hold the angle.

The second stage of change isn’t glamorous or exciting, yet it’s where real transformation takes place. It takes dedication, patience, and genuine interest to sustain. It’s the meditator showing up at their mat each morning, come what may; the artisan diligently throwing another pot on the wheel.

Over time, the steadiness of that effort takes root, and a new way is forged. The old habit is replaced with a healthy one that supports well-being. The transition often occurs so slowly that we only notice it in retrospect. One day we turn around and realize something is different. 

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