In our modern world YouTube has become wormhole upon our attention. Last year there was a collection of videos on YouTube doing the rounds. Cat videos. These particular cat videos involved the relationship between cucumbers and cats. If you’ve not seen them, I’ll explain what happens. The videos involved secretly putting cucumbers behind cats, and then filming their response as they notice the cucumbers. The reason these videos are funny is because cucumbers trigger cats’ fight or flight response. As of course cats have not evolved in environments where they would normally encounter rouge cucumbers, they perceive them as a threat, perhaps a snake or some other predator like that. In evolutionary terms, the cat’s response to the harmless cucumber is entirely understandable. It makes sense that animals – cats and humans alike – would have inbuilt responses like this. Our bodies need to be able to have immediate responses to positive and negative stimuli. Our ancestors walk through the primordial fauna. Locking eyes with a beast, the world narrows, and they run, darting through the vegetation fast. If our response was slower, more considered, it would be no use to us. For threats of this magnitude it has to be fast, and so it has to be simple. The cat is not processing masses of information. Small, round, and green equals very bad in the reactive cat’s mind. There’s no more to it. All the cat’s attention is locked on that cucumber. There is no self-reflection taking place, no musing on the significance of the cucumber after the fact. The cat lacks the mental capacity to reassess a cucumber’s threat after the fact, and learn its fight or flight response is unnecessary. The cat doesn’t learn. It cannot override its instinctual response. It cannot turn its attention inwards.
Similarly, with our ancestor in the fauna, he or she is capable of considering the wider implications of the beast, how it makes them feel, but it’s probably not very wise. Spend too long considering the knots in our stomach, the adrenalin running in our blood, or the sweat on our palms, and we’ll probably end up being dinner. These instincts then are the opposite of introspection. Our attention becomes focused on what’s out there, instead of in here. ‘I want more’, or, ‘get me out of here’. Like the cat, these responses come right out of our gut, they’re pre-verbal and automatic. The experience of this stimuli, this instinctual tightening, is actually the second of the Buddha’s ‘Four Noble Truths.’ And the third Noble Truth is that we can release that tension and relax, regardless of our circumstances. Navigating the choppy waters, but more than navigate it, thrive, even when times are tough. My reading of the Buddhist tradition puts these two things right at the centre: recognising our instinctual response to the world, and learning to release that instinctual response, and thrive even in adverse circumstances. This instinctual tension and apprehension is carried by most of us, most of the time. Our anxious bodily knee-jerk responses to a world we feel constant at war with.
There’s a slight pause in the conversion. She looks away. ‘Sorry did I say something wrong?’ ‘No, no everything’s fine’, and she walks away. I wonder what I said. Teeth gritted. Just dipping slightly into some of that negativity – that negativity which is rarely even voiced. You feel slightly misunderstood. Slightly rushed. Slightly in conflict. Slightly miffed, as you once again do that thing, as others now seem to expect of you. And the tension within you rises, but you’re nice and polite and you don’t say anything, and the moment passes. And everything works out fine. Little interior discomforts begging a response, but no response is given so we’re left slightly on edge, slightly irked, focusing in on some detail of negativity.
We see the other in some ways more clearly than we see ourselves. And often we see this response play out in others more clearly. We observe, as they hone in on some isolated aspect of negativity, losing all perspective. They only see what’s irking them, and the rest is absorbed into the background. This kind of tension colours a great deal of reality, this tension which focuses our awareness on that negative stimuli out there. The cucumbers in our lives, which unlike the cat is not causing us to jump out of our skin, but just tightening us slightly, locking us up slightly. All this stuff is stuff on the surface of life. It’s at the superficial level, at the level of the stone skimming across the lake. Stuff that there is no obvious fix for. A lot of these little problems, little frustrations, are not problems with straightforward solutions. It’s down to circumstances. It’s down to relational dynamics. It’s down to the dysfunctionality present in other people. Not easily solved. Not easily avoided.
In the face of unsolvable problems we often respond by grabbing control in some way. Become needy. Something to fill the void. Maybe control others as a way to handle our own discomfort. Or we push away, separate ourselves from the problem. Snap at people. Criticise. Or in some way ignore the problem – we space out. ‘I can’t think what to do, so I’m just not going to think about it.’ Or we busy ourselves, distract ourselves, drink to forget maybe. And then you listen, and you actually hear the trouble some people are in, and you are not surprised that they’re grabbing, or pushing, or spacing themselves out to deal with their unsolvable problem. Their unsolvable problems are huge, and frankly, the fact that they’re finding the strength at all to show up, to be present, be active, to engage, is remarkable. All this negativity is unselective in who it hits of course. We can influence aspects of our life in places, but most of the time we’re subject to the way the winds blow. Despite this, we seem amazingly capable of carrying more negativity than we might imagine. We are capable as human beings of being subjected to great horrors, and yet after all that, still operating as loving rational people. These reactive responses to the world rear up particularly when we are not present to ourselves. To thrive in difficult circumstances, to navigate the choppy waters, to not respond reactively to these unsolvable problems, we must practice, more and more, being present to ourselves. That is what the Buddha’s teaching comes down to. What does it mean to be present to ourselves? It’s not about avoiding the pain and frustration, but acknowledging it, sitting with it. Being a friend to ourselves. Not locked in an internal battle, but accepting the hurt, and being with it.
You might be surprised, but this is actually a question I seem to get asked more than most, definitely more than theological or philosophical questions. ‘I know someone who is hurting – what do you think I should say?’ Or, ‘I’m with someone who is hurting – what do you think I should do?’ I know there are no words. Words can help make us feel less isolated sometimes, but there are no words, and we all know that. And so all there is is being present, being present to ourselves, being present to the other. We lie awake at night and we can’t let go, and it goes round and round in our heads. But to be present not to these thoughts, these unsolvable problems, but to ourselves, to accept all that choppiness but be attentive to our self in a heartful way, when we do this the edges of all this jaggedness in our head seems to soften. Not disappear, but soften. And all this falls into the category ‘easier said than done’. Easily said, but when it comes down to it, we’re attempting to override our instinctual response to negative stimuli. And in that depth we uncover a sense of wholeness, of well-bring as the Buddha experienced it, enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. And within the Christian tradition this sense resonates strongly with the manifesting of the Kingdom of God. A present, manifested reality. The unsolvable problems are still unsolved, but they’re softened. And we’re whole. And we’re present. And we breath. And so, we spread out, we open up, we draw from deep within us something brighter and warmer. As the reading said: happiness and ease flow from the bottom of the lake. From this place of peace we manifest the fruits of the spirit, kindness, love, and joy. And once we have been present to ourselves, and slowed down enough to settle into ourselves, we find what? A manifestation of love, of the Kingdom of God. Buddha’s sayings are recorded a good century before Jesus, and yet I hear so much of Jesus in there. Don’t hate. Love. Love those who hate you. Live free, free of idols, of greed, free from craving, and disharmony. Free yourself from fear, from sin, and live in truth, in love, in joy. Be present. Be present to yourself.