By Dana Gornall
All the suffering, stress, and addiction comes from not realizing you already are what you are looking for. -Jon Kabat-Zinn
Lately I’ve been listening to audiobooks.
Someone clued me in to an app called the Libby app which is an online database of library books. Anyone can sign up for a local library card (or even some larger public libraries across the US) and borrow books—both audio and digital. I love books and prefer the regular, physical kind that I can hold in my hand. But lately for many reasons I have been finding it difficult to sit down and read.
With an audiobook I can listen while I am cooking, on the treadmill and in the car.
The book I am listening to now is called Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness by Steve Magness. In it he refers to a phenomenon termed, learned helplessness. He goes on to describe a study done in 1967 in which they were testing out the behavioral conditioning studies. They took a group of dogs and rang a bell and then would administer a shock.
I’m sure anyone can predict the result.
The dogs reacted to the sounds of the bell very quickly before the shock was given, and reacted as though it had been shocked. But then the experiment became even more sadistic and cruel. The researchers put some of the dogs in a crate in which they could not escape the shock and others in crates where they could jump to another side to avoid the shock. After a period of time, they took the dogs out of that environment and gave them all crates where they could jump to the other sides to avoid the pain.
The dogs that had gotten used to having no control over their environments did not jump to the other side. They had learned to accept their fates—their suffering—and did not even attempt to change the outcome.
The experiments were indeed cruel. I struggled even listening to this part of the book.
But it does give us some insight into how our brains work in times of pain and suffering. The researchers went on to discuss the effects of the brain after stressful situations, how it changes physically, how we learn to become passive. In Do Hard Things, Magness even parallels this experiment to learned helplessness in the corporate or workforce environment.
Many of us may hate our jobs but we go in again and again simply because we need that paycheck to survive and feel we don’t have another choice. And truly, a lot of us really don’t have the privilege of another choice, but that is for another topic, another day.
So, how can we use this information to improve our lives?
The Buddha has said—as we all see and read over and over again—life is suffering. There is a way out of suffering. Follow these eight things. Obviously Buddhism is much more than that, but that is the meat of it all. We don’t want to suffer, we will, how can we mentally accept, deal with, avoid, absorb, work through all of it?
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl details his life during the Holocaust. Another difficult book to read for its graphic descriptions of pain and suffering during this time, but also a must for the wisdom it imparts. Frankl explains what happens when humans are put through some of the cruelest forms of torture. He relates the mental exhaustion and pain, the physical pain a body endures, the long lasting heartbreak and definitely the helplessness of everything being taken, including any autonomy.
Frankl highlights that the only thing he had control over was his own mind—his perspective, attitude and mental fortitude. This is what kept him alive when his life could end at any minute.
He and his companions worked to find meaning in the small things, and to find meaning in their suffering. But how does one even begin to do that?
Returning back to the dog experiment, years after it was conducted one of the researchers, Steven F. Maier, PhD decided to revisit the work to determine which neural circuit in the brain was responsible for learned helplessness. He repeated the experiment with rats and checked their brains through testing to analyze how their brains physically reacted.
What he found was that when the rats had control over the situation by pressing a lever, the prefrontal cortex lit up. When there was no ability to control the environment, it didn’t. When the part of the brain that activated the prefrontal cortex was used, the rats responded to other stressors and situations much better than not.
This response only seems to happen when the being that is being put through stress and pain is given the ability to learn choice. To choose.
What does this mean for us and for applying Buddha’s wisdom that all life is suffering?
By taking steps everyday and making choices, no matter how small, we train our minds for autonomy. In that, we also activate the parts of our brains that accept stressful situations with equanimity. This is why meditation practice works. This is why taking deep breaths and pausing before reacting works. This is why following daily rituals such as putting your shoes in the same spot, washing your dish or making your bed everyday—by choice—works. This is why we all have the ability to make our lives—and the lives of other—better, even in the darkest times.
It just takes some preparation for those dark times.
So get on your mat. Choose to take the steps today instead of the elevator. Wash your dish before you leave it in the sink. Meditate for just five minutes, or 10, or even 20. Whatever baby step you need right now, take that step. Each time we make a choice and enact our autonomy, we take one more step toward enlightenment or even just—happiness.
“The old model of toughness, in essence, throws people into the deep end of the pool but forgets that we need to first teach people how to swim.” – Steve Magness
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