The history of habit-clinging & the middle way
Mental suffering comes from unwholesome habits of thinking, not from some mysterious cause.
The gap between each beat in the rhythm of experience holds opportunity. We can see how the next beat will affect our habits, our ways of being in the world—or not.
We can choose to reinforce bad habits, or cultivate better ones. We can change the future likelihood of wholesome thoughts & feelings, or the opposite—which leads to more suffering, mental distress, in the future.
Our intentions in these moments are what make the difference. Gotama saw this as the answer to the human problem. Like the spiritual idea of grace, always available, he saw each moment’s turning as the beginning of the path to escape our fearful experience of the world. This is what’s meant by Gotama’s choice to redefine the Pāli word kamma (a.k.a. karma) as intention (cetana in Pāli)—as in, “my intention in this moment.” The culture of his day thought that we were fated by birth to play the role we were given in this life in hopes of a better rebirth. Gotama said we have a choice, that we could achieve freedom “in this very life.”
In each moment—whatever length a moment has—everything arises & everything passes away: imagine just that.
Existence & non-existence, “everything exists” & “nothing exists”, atthi and n’atthi, are merely the wave crests and troughs of delusional thought in our experience, as the tide passes us. Moments of awareness are blurry snapshots of this universal flux.
Gotama’s middle way of understanding (majjhimāpaṭipadā) the present-moment awareness of the flux, keeping unwholesome conditioning tranquilized, observes this movement of the mind, realizing that no part can be thought of as an essence. The signs (nimitta) of ordinary experience fade like shafts of sunlight cut off by clouds; the signless (animitta) appears. Detail in this landscape is useful for getting around, but only real in that pragmatic sense.
It is only knowing and seeing the process, not grasping some part of it, that is helpful. This knowing & seeing is a perspective, a trained way of experiencing. It observes precisely the process of which anicca, impermanence, and anattā, not-self, are the chief characteristics, and of which dukkha, for beings who are not free, is the result. Our stress & suffering begin with natural ignorance, inborn & ingrained as habit; that is part of the nature of this process. This ignorance of what is really going on, avijja, determines the very structure of our psycho-physical being, distorting our senses from simple sensations, to pleasant or unpleasant reactions to them, to perceptions of experience that we make into solid reference points, on to complex desires & aversions, delusions, & the seething oceans of thoughts and emotions above them. If the process of grasping these signs is left undisturbed, the cycle reinforces itself, each pulse strengthening the ignorance (not seeing how mental suffering is arising) that began the prior one. This is the monkey-trap of kamma, where our fist, grasping the fruit of experience, awaits the hunter, dukkha, who comes each moment to slay us. Letting go of the fruit, we could be free, but our untrained minds cannot see this, obscured by our desparate habits of clinging.
Craving, taṅhā, is the one phenomenon that Gotama specifically identifies as the mechanism that moves kamma through space & time, from the perspective of one experience of being to the next. The body does not survive death; neither does the personality, or the five aspects of our experience in form, pleasant/unpleasant/neutral feeling, perception, habitual inclinations, & various forms of consciousness. All those arise as a result of new cycles of ignorance, which were created by previous clinging. Craving, like a flame thrown through space and time1, ignites the process anew in the fuel of ignorance. New selves that suffer arise from the flames, phoenix-like, over and over, unless & until seeing things as they truly are, yathābhūtaṃ, snuffs out the cycle, quenches the flames. This is the true meaning of nibbāna, cooling. Note that no consciousness moves from life to life. Craving/clinging (upādāna), as expressed & held in all beings & other processes in the world, are sufficient to prolong greed, hatred & delusion through time. Basic human mechanisms, combined with this ongoing environment, suffice to create continuous dukkha for beings that are not free.
It is vitally important to us in our sci-tech-material culture, stripped of comforting mythologies and unseen dieties on which to transfer the imagined omnipotence of our parents, to understand and properly invest with power, the mechanism of clinging. Like the apparent strength & ultimate weakness of the nightmare demon, craving/clinging is the energy source that can be cut off, if only we see clearly & cultivate (bhavana) the strength to cut through it. The knowledge of the middle way, majjhimāpaṭpadā, can free our minds from all the false solutions to the problem of dukkha, suffering, that we try, the blind alleys we continually follow.
All our instincts, based in materiality, lead us to think the answer must be an object, whether it be a person, a drug, or an idea, that in itself will satisfy our needs. But our needs by their very nature are insatiable—that is the essence of craving/clinging, falling into the hedonic loop of insatiability.
The beauty of understanding the true energy mechanism of kamma, clinging, is that this understanding can exist comfortably in our sci-tech-material culture. Craving/clinging is like a contagious disease that we do not treat, & that we constantly pass along to everyone we encounter. In this way it spreads horizontally through the culture and vertically through time, as we sigh and give in to the hedonic cycle one more time, modeling this behaviour for our peers and all the world’s children. This inheritance from the mechanisms of evolutionary repetition spreads & succeeds down through time like a brilliantly successful fungus or bacteria, perfectly fitted to its ecological niche in the human psyche.
But evolution’s most subtle aspect also provides us with a solution. We think of the complexities that now exist as the result of evolution through passing time, increasing slowly through millennia. This is true, but the secret to understanding the evolutionary process is that each small mutation, if reproduced & successful, changes the game. Each layer of success for one phenomenon introduces a new aspect to the world, changing the environment for all subsequent events. Eons ago, the Earth’s atmosphere was poisonous to most life as we now know it. But some microorganisms’ mutation allowed it to thrive in a carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere was poisonous to others, by using solar energy to convert it to oxygen—photosynthesis. An entirely new environment arose (the carbon dioxide to oxygen shift).2
Our ability to cultivate concentration and calm, to slow & magnify our view of the nature of our experience (practice), & to understand our situation (study), are the results of evolutionary processes, blind & goalless beyond their success at replication. They created the trap of the hedonic cycle, but they also created the means to escape it. By developing concentration & insight, the ability to avoid the innate compulsion to see things as either existing or not existing, but as a flux, we can free our psycho-physical reactions to experience. We can learn not to take the bait. We can end the fire of clinging by letting go of the fuel of ignorance. The kamma that creates dukkha can be ended, saṃsāra transformed into nibbāna.
1 The Buddha: “Just as a fire burns with sustenance and not without sustenance, even so I designate the rebirth of one who has sustenance and not of one without sustenance.”
Vacchagotta: “But, Master Gotama, at the moment a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes a far distance, what do you designate as its sustenance then?”
“Vaccha, when a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes a far distance, I designate it as wind-sustained, for the wind is its sustenance at that time.”
“And at the moment when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, what do you designate as its sustenance then?”
“Vaccha, when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, I designate it as craving-sustained, for craving is its sustenance at that time.”
— SN 44.9 (Thanissaro)
2 “Great Oxygenation Event”, Back In Time app