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Lions Roar : January 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 77 house, and a year from now, we will know it was clearly the best choice.” Lo and behold, we bought one of the houses and now we can’t understand why we even considered the other one. That gives you a certain kind of courage, to know that whichever house you choose, it’ll be the right one. Happiness research seems to indicate that people place more value on events in the future than those in the past. Why is that? We don’t know the answer to that yet. We have a lot of specu- lations, but the research you’re talking about is quite new. The reason for this may be pretty fundamental: we’re facing forward. We’re looking toward the future, and the past is in back of us. It makes sense that future events would arouse more emotion than past ones. When I tell you that two days ago four children were killed in Haifa or Beirut, it makes you feel bad. If I tell you that later this afternoon four children will be killed, you feel horrible. Why is it more terrible four hours from now than four hours ago? You also suggest that we can watch our experience and learn from it, and so, perhaps, not stumble quite so often. What stands in the way of our being self-aware? To really be self-aware, one would have to do a number of things. First, one would have to see one’s experience clearly at the time of the experience. Many of us have experiences, and then a moment later we can’t really recount what happened. Second, we would have to remember correctly. Even if we’re observing ourselves having an experience, it’s possible that a week from now we’ll misremember what actually happened. We also would have to remember what we projected would happen. If you know what you thought would hap- pen when you moved to Cleveland, and you know what did happen when you moved to Cleveland, you’re in a position to take note of whether you made a mistake and how you might revise your forecast in the future. Life conspires against our collecting data, in the way that a scientist would collect it, and it also conspires to have us make the same mistakes over and over again. Very few of us walk through life collecting data on ourselves objectively. Memory also plays lots of tricks on us, and we make the big- gest mistakes in remembering what we felt. Feelings aren’t as tangible as words and deeds. It’s very hard to remember exactly what you were feeling thirty minutes ago, much less thirty years ago. Most Buddhists think that twenty-five centuries ago, long before modern psychology, the Buddha identified the process that distorts cognition. He said that our view bends perception to agree with our view, then perceptions form the evidence for our thoughts, and the thoughts argue in support of our view, and that the whole thing is a self-justifying cycle of delusion. Does this agree with your view of things? That Buddha was one smart cookie! If you listen to Buddhists talk about Buddhist psychology, you learn that 2,500 years before there was psychology, there were smart people paying very careful attention to how the mind works and coming to some wonderful insights, which I think are the insights that science verifies today. That doesn’t mean that there is 100 percent agreement. I don’t know Buddhist psychology well enough to say what that percentage is. I’d be very surprised if everything the Buddha said is upheld by scientific psychol- ogy. I’d be very surprised if everything was disconfirmed. My guess is that a great deal of what Buddhists consider their core psychology would fit very nicely with modern psychology. I was at a conference with the Dalai Lama in which his main interest was precisely in finding the areas of disagreements between Buddhist and Western psychology. Because of his enormous respect for science, he was willing to consider areas where Buddhism might be wrong. You can’t help but admire that kind of spirit. A few hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon wrote quite ar- ticulately about how we find evidence to confirm our view. It’s a fundamental truth about the human mind. We have beliefs, ideas, and perceptions, and the brain gets to work very quickly trying to find evidence to substantiate them. What it counts as evidence differs between people and across centuries and across cultures, but indeed the entire process kind of justifies itself. You said that the most surprising finding in your work is that people are happier for a longer time if they don’t fully under- stand why the event that made them happy happened. Do we know why that is? I think we do. It’s not surprising that the mind tends to fo- cus on that which it doesn’t understand. Think of the human brain like Pac-Man: it’s looking for things that aren’t under- stood. It’s scanning its environment constantly for mysteries that it can solve. And once it solves them, it packs them away in its file drawer and looks for another. “I want to invite people to have a healthy skepticism about their own intuitions. Distrust your brain and trust your eyes a little bit more.”