This week, some additional thoughts in this series of posts on an experimental, non-theistic conception of grace. In particular, I'd like to expand on last week's post dealing with Spinoza's take on the relation between grace (or blessedness) and affect - this time via a reflection on some aspects of Buddhism.
Excuse the schematic approach. Hopefully, the additional concretion and practicality will be worth the tradeoff.
Akrasia & Sankhara
1. What is the nature of sin? It's essence is slavery. That which we would not do, we do. That which we would do, we do not. (Cf. Romans 7).
2. What is the nature of slavery? We find ourselves passive, affected, available (without our control) for suffering, for impingement by whatever happens our way.
3. As argued in the previous post, this slavery/passivity applies as equally to what is pleasant/desirable as it does to what is unpleasant/undesirable. The misery of sin/slavery, then, is orthogonal to what is pleasant/painful.
4. We might say, then, that the essence of sin is akrasia: wanting to do one thing, but doing another.
5. How is this possible? How does it happen? The (short, simplified version) of the Buddha's account looks like this: in order to understand the nature of this slavery, we must understand the nature of our availability for affection (affection = "being affected").
6. Crudely put, the nature of affection is the following: there is a given capacity for sensation (e.g., a body's ability to see or hear or feel) and it comes into contact with the correlative sense object (e.g., a sight, a sound, a tactile object). At this point of contact, a sensation arises. This "raw" sensation (I know, I know: I used quotation marks) is the root of affection and the site of our availability.
7. This sensation gives rise without conscious awareness to a initial judgment about that sensation: it is pleasing, or it is unpleasant, or it is indifferent.
8. This initial judgment of pleasing/unpleasant/
indifferent gives rise to a systemic orientation of the body and we find ourselves filling up with craving, aversion, or boredom.
To the extent that this systemic orientation of craving/aversion/boredom is repeated, it becomes embedded as a durable "reaction-formation" or "pre-formatted pattern of response" (in psychonalytic terms: a "symptom").
The Buddha refers to these formations with the technical term: sankharas.
The specific shape of these sankharas depends on individual body chemistries, the contingencies of personal history, what you overheard your father say when you were six, etc.
Further, these sankharas, once up and running, are self-reinforcing by means of a vicious feedback loop. The sankharas do themselves amplify and perpetuate the original sensations and, thus, themselves.
9. In general, we are not consciously aware of sensation at the initial point of contact. It gets screened out. However, even if we were aware of them, it would remain true that we cannot control these affections. They just are whatever they are.
10. In general, we are also not consciously aware of the initial judgment of pleasant/unpleasant/
indifferent. And, similarly, even if we were, we could not consciously control these initial judgments.
11. Further, we are generally not consciously aware of the way that these initial judgments give rise to a systemic orientation of our bodies in terms of craving and aversion.
12. What are we aware of? Generally, we're only aware of the intentional dimension of the experience. That is, we're only aware of the object that provoked the sensation (and its attendant chain of judgments and sankharas). As a result, we project onto the intentional object itself whatever qualities it has provoked in us.
For example, someone says something. I hear it. I judge it as unpleasant news. This kick starts a sankhara of aversion in the form of anger. This anger percolates via a feedback loop that amplifies and perpetuates the initial sensation. I keep thinking about it, the steam builds and builds . . . But I'm unaware of all this and, instead, think that clearly this other person (this stimulus) has made me angry. The stronger the sankhara, the less I'm conscious of myself and the more I'm fixated on the other person. I can't stop thinking about them and I get more and more angry.
We could easily give a precisely parallel account of something like lust. I see a beautiful person. I judge it as pleasant. A sankhara of craving kicks in. This amplifies itself. I become obsessed with the object that initiated the chain of events. I become more and more lustful, etc. And I think that clearly this other person has made me lustful. My awareness centers entirely on the (externally oriented) intentional dimension of the experience.
13. We find ourselves powerless (i.e., slaves) in such situations because we think that the external object is responsible for the misery of our craving or aversion. Fixated by our sankharas on the external object, we're powerless to address the heart of the problem, the sankharas themselves.
14. Then we have a moment of enlightenment: "The problem is not with the world, the problem is with me! I must have a mighty change of heart! These deeply embedded, pre-programmed patterns of action are destroying my life and the people I care about!"
15. So the next time I begin to feel angry or lustful I think: "No, no! I don't want to feel angry or lustful!" But the pull of the "object" is very strong. It is all I can see. And by the time the pattern of craving or aversion has gotten up and running with its self-amplifying feedback loop intact, it's too late. I do that which I would not. And that which I would, I do not.
16. This brings us to the Buddha's core insight (which is closely related to Spinoza's core insight in Part V of the Ethics): once the pattern of action is up and running, once it's pattern of self-amplification is set in motion, it is too late. All that is left for us is damage control and repentance. The process must be short-circuited at a deeper level than the sankhara itself. The process must be short-circuited at the original level of initial sensation.
17. A minor problem with this tactic of short-circuiting the craving/aversion feedback loop: we are generally not consciously aware of the initial sensations or our initial judgments. All of our attention is oriented toward the external objects.
18. Additional problem: these sensations and these initial judgments are not in our control and cannot come under our control.
19. The Buddha's cure for our misery is threefold: (1) cultivate a capacity for keen and sustained concentration, (2) systematically and increasingly apply this awareness to the whole field of sensation for as long a sustainable period of time as is possible, and (3) practice equanimity (or non-reaction) at the level of the "raw" sensations themselves. By developing an awareness of sensation itself, the process that sets the self-amplifying sankhara in motion can be short-circuited.
For example, a beautiful person passes by. I see them. I judge this sensation to be pleasant. But, rather than turning my head and following the object itself, I turn my attention to the affect itself. I don't try to stop the affect. I don't try to judge the affect. I don't try to accept or reject the affect. I just try to see it. Of what does it actually consist? My heart rate is up, my breathing slightly irregular, by palms slightly sweaty, my face slightly flushed, my muscles slightly tense, butterflies in my stomach, etc. This is the actual content of the affect. If the affect itself (rather than the external object) becomes the center of attention then the whole process of craving and aversion is short-circuited - not because I repressed it or rejected it, not because I struggled with mighty will power against it, but because I simply saw both the sensation (and, thus, the other person) for what they actually are.
Equanimity in the face of the initial sensation dissolves sin at its root. Here, I've received the immanent grace of whatever is given for the grace that it is.
The next time you feel anger, lust, fear, etc., examine what the experience actually consists of. What do you actually feel? What are the details of it? And then see: are you still angry? Are you still lustful? Did you "defeat" these cravings/aversions? Or did they go (as if by grace) away on their own?
This attunement to the field of affect is where the Spirit of God is manifest. The Spirit of God is felt. This attunement to what is actually manifest in our feelings (all day long, every day) is what brings about that mighty change of heart that (miraculously!) frees us from the slavery of sin as if without effort, as if by grace. This strong attunement to the whole of the field of affect fills our flesh with the light and life that Jesus promises.
We don't need to struggle against craving or aversion and conquer it. We need to persistently examine what gives rise to craving and, so, effortlessly dissolve that craving before it arises.
The former war-like approach is a "works" based approach and it does not work. The latter approach dissolves the bondage of sin as a "grace" without our having directly attempted to do so.
20. Notice, finally, what this cure does not do. It does not blame the external stimulus. It does not control or constrict or police the kinds of sensations that it is aware of. It does not control or constrict or police the initial judgments that we automatically make about the sensations.
It just practices: (1) awareness of sensation, and (2) non-reaction to the sensations.
Ironically, only non-reaction to a sensation allows the sensation itself to be felt as what it is. But without non-reaction, without practiced equanimity, the sankhara is set in motion and we lose both the sensation and its stimulus (i.e., the object or the other person) in a general, hazy confusion of the one with the other.
21. As with Spinoza, the key is shifting our experience of the sensation from the passive to the active register without disturbing the fact that sensation is an affect that I cannot actively control.
This shift is the key to receiving the grace of whatever is given as the grace that it is.
This shift frees us from the slavery that is sin.