Episode 11: Mental Cause and Effect

young woman looking off into the stars with cosmic illustration of a question mark made up of galaxies and star clusters

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SUMMARY

Science has greater and greater mastery in understanding and controlling physical cause and effect, from planets to particles, but we are only starting to understand cause and effect in our minds. Evolution, habits, and society all affect our behavior. How do we gain conscious control of our behavior, much less our thoughts? One method is a daily practice of self-appreciation and self-forgiveness that lets us release regret and pain to face each day with renewed presence and joy.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

There’s an incredible moment in a movie called The Tree of Life when a grief-stricken mother is praying to god, begging to understand why her son died. And then the movie suddenly cuts to the Big Bang.

For about twenty minutes the film goes through the evolution of the whole universe—nebulae coalescing, stars forming, planets fusing, eventually arriving at Earth where life begins and rapidly evolves. 

We slow down and zoom in to a riverside seventy million years ago, where an angry velociraptor is about to kill a gentler plant-eating dinosaur. Somehow this predatory creature has second thoughts, and walks away from his chance to kill, in what looks like the first moment of compassion on our planet. 

Moments later this compassionate dinosaur looks up and we pull way back again, to watch an asteroid enter earth’s atmosphere, obliterating him and most of life on earth. 

Eventually, we get back to the present time. This twenty-minute flashback gives us the answer to the mother’s question of why her son died. It’s an answer that required the recapitulation of all of history itself. What I think Terrence Malik, the director of this movie, suggests in this magnificent sequence is that everything in the universe is interconnected in an endless chain of cause and effect. Everything affecting everything else, back to the very dawn of time.

Now is a good time to reflect on Cause and Effect in the outer world today, where a novel variation on the common cold, a Coronavirus that evolved in bats and jumped to humans has managed to ground the world to a halt. In our richly interconnected world, small causes can be amplified to have large effects.

In the search for the cause and effect in each of our lives, we may need to take a similar journey backward, looking at how our minds are affected by the social environment around us, our parents, our education, the media, evolutionary psychology, and even, like Tree of Life’s awe-inspiring rewind, to the unfolding of the universe itself.

For ages, people have asked the impossible question of why bad things happen in the world, why we have disturbing thoughts and emotions, why humans do things we later regret. It’s impossible to answer these, but as we’ve learned in prior episodes, the more practical questions of how can be answered: how we cultivate mental stability, inner happiness, stronger connections with others, and ultimately, how we make a better life and a better world through mindful self-awareness and meditation. 

This episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment explores cause and effect as it practically affects our day-to-day existence: psychological cause and effect. 

We’ll focus in this episode and the next on a specific technique to alter our habitual mental loops. It’s a relatively simple meditation that can be done on or off the cushion, reviewing our actions of the day, reinforcing the beneficial ones, gently forgiving ourselves for those we regret, and training our mind toward its better nature.

Universal cause and effect

Through science, we have come to understand cause and effect in the material universe, from planets to particles. At the astronomic scale, based on physical laws, we can now make precise predictions about the movements of the stars and planets. We have learned that these massive entities once emerged from clouds of dust, and that the fusing of fundamental particles in stars’ furnaces created all of Earth’s natural elements.

At the human scale we are now able to exert exquisite control over our physical environment. We can fabricate microscopic supercomputers for our cell phones and build hundred-ton airplanes that fly themselves.

But beyond physics, the higher-complexity domains of scientific inquiry elude prediction and control: chemistry, biology, and consciousness. The boundary between each of these scientific domains is a chasm we still don’t fully understand: How does the diversity of chemistry emerge from physics? How does biology emerge from chemistry? And how does consciousness and intelligence emerge from the primitive, automatic forms of life? From cells, viruses, fish, and frogs? 

Conscious beings don’t seem to be bound by the clockwork mechanics of Newtonian physics, or by the roulette-wheel quantum mechanics of subatomic particles, or even by the evolutionary programming that wholly drives animal behavior. Fundamentally, we conscious beings can purposefully create and change objects in the world, altering the mechanistic cause and effect that operated before minds appeared in the universe.

For a moment, let’s consider this mysterious boundary between consciousness and matter.

Mind is more powerful than matter

There’s an enigma within each of our conscious minds, as to how thought becomes action. The simple act of having the thought to move your arm, and then your arm moving, is in one sense an act of telekinesis, where mind controls matter. 

How does this occur? The rational skeptic starts by describing neurons, action potentials, potassium pumps, ATP, and muscle fibers. 

But what was the first cause? How did that thought of the muscles to move occur? Where is it and where did it come from? Is it made of matter, energy, or information? A fundamental mystery lies at the movement of any action from the mental to the physical.

A human mind can conceive of moving a rock, building a skyscraper, or fabricating a rocket ship. Scientists have conceived of even larger manipulations to our physical universe that humans are in principle capable of accomplishing, like terraforming planets or traveling to other stars.

But all physical achievements of conscious beings are preceded by mental events. Before a scientist received her Ph.D., she had the thought to do so. Before building a skyscraper, someone imagined it. Before uniting a nation, someone believed it possible.

Mind precedes matter in conscious beings.

Without any hint of the spiritual or supernatural, we can say that mind is more powerful than matter. It can even transform a planet, as humanity has now shown with the earth’s environment. 

Mental cause and effect: Do we have free will?

Though the gap between the mental and physical has a certain mystery to it, our mind must operate on some principle of cause and effect, since it’s part of the same universe, with the same underlying laws. Psychology says that our future actions are determined by some combination of past actions, ingrained habits, innate propensities, and rational thought. Three-hundred years ago, in the era of the Western Enlightenment, rational thought was seen as the differentiating factor of humanity. 

More and more, we now see that such logical decision making is rarer than we wish. People seem to be driven more by instinct and strong emotions than reason. And unfortunately our instinctual actions are driven by our primitive brain – fears and desires we evolved in a more deadly and frightening world than we live in today.

Psychology and neuroscience now increasingly point away from notions of free will to notions of conditioning: that most of our actions are automatic, “loops” of behavior that are triggered from simple causes, like our morning alarm, the smell of hot food, the face of our child, or the first words of a familiar argument with our partner. 

There’s a great recent BBC video series called “The Strange Idea that we are Really Not in Control of Our Minds,” about this subject which I highly recommend.

Increasingly, psychology acknowledges that most of our actions are unconsciously triggered and habitually repeated. There’s an increasing emphasis on practical therapies that instill new habits, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, where you deliberately cultivate a new way of thinking, a new mental habit, that you practice daily, and that counteracts a mental problem you’re having, like fear, anxiety, or strong craving.

We know that our higher brain can short-circuit evolutionary psychology, so that we are able to reflect on our actions, learn from others, and condition our behavior in any direction we like. The trainability of our mind distinguishes us from animals, and means that we can alter the cause and effect of both the natural and social worlds. 

The Buddhist view of cause and effect

This relatively new habit-forming psychological approach is the same approach that Buddhism takes. Meditation practice seeks to harness rational, conscious awareness to instill new beneficial habits in our own minds. It seeks to bring our minds’ actions and reactions under conscious power, so that the automatic, habitual actions we later take with our speech and body become more positive and beneficial. That’s the approach of conditioning our automatic behavior. 

And then, through mindfulness, meditation practice seeks to make our behavior more and more conscious and present, rather than compulsive and automatic, so that at times we are able to escape our loops entirely, to become present, aware, and in conscious control of our response.

And then, through compassion, meditation seeks to instill a rational, other-centered worldview, where we see others equally deserving happiness and wishing to be free from suffering, and we want to do our part to make the world more just and kind.

With sustained practice, it’s even possible to realize that getting angry at someone for harming you is as logical as getting angry at gravity when you fall down. We realize that there’s a larger chain of cause and effect behind our actions that has little to do with the immediate face-to-face conflict in which we find ourselves.

Forgiveness of ourselves and others starts also to come more naturally from practiced meditation on cause and effect. We realize that our harmful actions don’t generally stem from a strong will to harm, but rather from myriad causes and conditions, stemming back to how we were raised and how our brains evolved. 

Karma as action rather than destiny

The Buddhist view of cause and effect is much like the scientific. Since we observe cause and effect operating all the time in the natural world, it would be illogical to think that the internal world of the mind is any different, and that causes have a traceable connection to effects.

The dreaded and misunderstood K-word comes in here, karma, which I don’t want to dwell on, because it’s best known for predicting that various external events, like accidents, sickness, and financial problems, will fall upon a person based on forgotten bad things that they did in their past lives. In a single sentence, karma posits a force greater than physics that magically manipulates the world, and requires multiple lifetimes to explain why bad things happen to good people.

The word karma itself is often translated as volition, which we discussed and meditated on in the two episodes on The Mind (Episode 6: What Is the Mind? and Episode 7: Guided Meditation — What is the Mind?). Volition is action, an action resulting from prior conditioning. Buddhism so wholly embraces this view of mental conditioning, that another translation for volition is “conditioned reality.” Volition manifests in our minds, wrapped up with our motivations and desires, and then often carries through to our verbal and physical actions that affect the outer world.

The Dalai Lama has made some clarifying statements about karma, which are more aligned with the scientific view of cause and effect. To oversimplify, he says that he believes events of the natural universe are controlled by the laws of physics, just as science understands them. But he says that mental events—how people act and react and make decisions—are governed by internal psychological laws that relate more to ethics and motivations than forces and particles. 

His assertion is that humans are fundamentally moral creatures, and when we act against others’ interests, or against our own, we create inner psychological pain that must somehow be resolved. 

The role of ethics in human behavior is now increasingly acknowledged by science, understanding that we evolved as social beings who care about those around us and feel compassion when others are distressed. There are more and more scientific validations of altruistic behavior in both animals and people that show how such noble states of mind are evolutionarily advantageous in sustaining a species. I’ve included a link to a good article on this topic on the episode’s web page at skepticspath.org.

So, when we go against others’ well-being—or against our own—we feel bad. And when we don’t address our daily conflicts and misdeeds somehow, when we don’t forgive ourselves and resolve to do better in the world, the negative impact on our psyche grows and deepens, affecting our happiness, our mood, and eventually our personality.

This is one of the observations of the Buddhist view of the mind, that without inner reflection and some daily form of forgiveness and self-soothing, the little and large misdeeds of life come to control our behavior, causing us to compulsively act out, to see ourselves needlessly separated from others, to sow the seeds of unhappiness in our own minds. We ourselves create the unhappiness that we perceive around us. 

It’s not that the world changes based on our inner state, but the way that we see the world changes based on our attitude and our mood. Have you ever had one of those days when every song sounds terrible, where you can’t find even one among the thousands of songs in your playlist that you want to hear? And then a day later, everything sounds terrific. The songs haven’t changed, it’s your inner mood. Your attitude in facing the outer world changes how you perceive it.

Consciously or unconsciously, we know how our actions make us feel inside. And those feelings create our moods, our personality: either a sense of well-being, ease, and concern for others; or one of fear, anxiety, anger, and selfishness.

Psychology has many labels for the pathologies that result from unethical and selfish behavior, and for the damage inflicted by abuse and violence. It has ways of managing and healing problems. But psychologists have only recently started to explore positive psychology, the ways we can cultivate our most beneficial states of mind, to create the good mental habits that are the true cause of a thriving, happy, meaningful life.

A first, practical step in the direction toward such a life is a daily practice of frank evaluation of your acts during the day, rejoicing and reinforcing the ones you feel proud of; and processing, forgiving yourself for the ones you regret. This is the most practical approach to cause and effect: how to evaluate and process your own beneficial and harmful actions each day.

How to forgive ourselves

With the meditative approach, we don’t dwell on mental pathologies, but instead focus on how we can productively process the difficult experiences of each day. Meditation helps us reinforce our more positive ways of being, reinforcing good habits that bring mental peace, presence, and caring for others. And it helps us quickly heal from pain and conflict, so that we can meet each day fresh and open. 

This is an empirical approach to mental cause and effect that Buddhists have perfected over two millennia, which I’d like to discuss for the remainder of this episode. Next week, we’ll go through a simple guided meditation on this type of daily check-in where we rejoice, reflect, and forgive our actions of the day.

I’d like to pause for a moment, though, and say that if you are someone who has experienced severe trauma or abuse, these techniques may not be helpful and could even be harmful. The daily techniques for evaluating our mind-stream are for the relatively healthy-minded, and if you find yourself in great pain or distress, please seek out psychological help. 

That said, there are a few meditation experts who have found effective applications of meditation to trauma, like Sujatha Baliga, a deserving winner of last year’s MacArthur Award who also leads meditations at the same center I do. She comes at these problem after years of personal experience with the same traumas of her audience. Using meditation to recover from trauma is a vibrant, active area of psychological and contemplative learning and research that we’ll explore in later episodes. But in general, the audience for the Skeptic’s Path meditations are people without severe trauma or abuse or major clinical psychological problems.

What if life is meaningless?

I’d also like to address an objection that some people may have, which is that events are fundamentally random, and actions have no consequence: the nihilistic point of view that our actions don’t matter. If you want to think again about movies, Lars von Trier comes to mind, with a film like Melancholia, which argues through a depressing, but beautiful story, that life is meaningless, harmful actions have no consequence, other peoples’ feelings don’t matter, and death is a welcome obliteration of our short, painful existence in a cold, uncaring universe. Ouch. Melancholia even has a very similar scene to Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life, with a massive cosmic event as its climax, one that basks in the joy of obliteration, rather than the complex chain of continuous cause and effect.

But even if the actions of the world around us are random, as cold and uncaring as Lars sees them, we still have control over our minds, how we respond to events, and what new things we do in the world. We can empirically experience our inner world. We can observe the actions that bring inner happiness and meaning and connection; and those that bring frustration, anger, and isolation. We can move ourselves and others to joy or to pain. And since each of us inherently craves happiness and hates suffering, it makes sense to cultivate those thoughts and actions that make everyone’s lives happier and more meaningful.

Unless you’re a sociopath—hello out there to all you sociopaths listening to our meditation podcast!—you feel a strong sense of inner pain even at minor grief you inflict on others. Rarely do we harm people deliberately. Most of the time we hurt others by accident, saying something we don’t mean, or letting out inner judgment, rage, or fear that we couldn’t quite keep inside.

The Buddhist view says that the positive conditioning of our mind comes with self-control, and that self-control advances in levels, like a video game, starting first with the actions of our body. Most of us have achieved this first level, which we master as a child, suppressing urges to lash out with violence when we don’t get what we want, or when we feel mental pain. 

The next level is verbal, which most of us have some degree of mastery over too, albeit incomplete. I know for myself, even on the best of days, I say a few thoughtless things that I regret, that hurt others in some small or not-so-small way, sometimes accidentally, but often through carelessness or self-centeredness.

After taming body and speech, comes level 3: the mind, which is far more difficult. The Buddhist tradition says that even highly realized beings still have thoughts of anger and desire, but that they are able to let those thoughts pass without grasping onto them, without acting on them, and without judging themselves. They’re able to see the disturbing thoughts as separate from any solid identity of themselves and let these unwanted emotions simply float away without causing any harm to themselves or others.

Tara Brach talks a little bit about this way of accepting whatever passes through your mind, in a wonderful audiobook called Radical Self-Acceptance. I find this view profound—that even for a highly realized being, disturbing thoughts arise, but that without our grasping onto them, they naturally fade away, without disturbing our being at all. We don’t allow the disturbing thought to take center stage in our consciousness. 

This view is a good advertisement for the popular mindfulness approach to meditation, which says that simply becoming aware of and accepting everything that passes through the mind, without reacting to it, is a sufficient and complete spiritual practice.

A daily practice of healthy self-forgiveness

What we’ll conclude with today is how to practically deal with the level most of us are probably at, one of moderately uncontrolled speech, and a few harmful actions of body we do when no one’s looking. 

From time to time we speak falsely, speak harshly, speak divisively or frivolously. In the course of our day, we may try and defend our actions to others, or through internal dialogue rationalize them to ourselves. But if we look closely at our mind, each of these actions leaves us with a feeling of disappointment in ourselves, which unchecked, can grow into self-loathing. 

I know that when I look back at the events I most regret in life, they’re mostly things that I said or did unthinkingly, spitefully, out of anger, or pain, that caused someone else harm, sometimes lasting, sometimes even destroying a good relationship. 

What do we do with these feelings? The shame and guilt we feel for having hurt someone else? We may defend our actions to others. And our friends might even reassure us that our actions were justified. But deep down, we know that what we did was wrong. The pain of hurting another person lingers and grows. What do we do with these feelings?

This is where the Buddhist psychological approach to cause and effect becomes useful. When my teacher Geshe Dakpa was teaching us this technique for clearing away the psychological sea-wrecks of past misdeeds, he said the first step toward processing the day’s deeds is sincere regret.

I asked him, what’s the difference between regret and guilt? And he gave a simple answer: Regret is honestly acknowledging that something you did was harmful and sincerely wishing not to do it again. Guilt is thinking that you are a bad person, judging or even hating yourself for having done something wrong.

I think about his words all the time when I’ve done something I wish I hadn’t. Of course, the emotions of embarrassment and shame don’t immediately clear away. But once the first wave of strong emotion diminishes, in the quiet time before bed, I find it possible to make a clear-eyed catalog of the actions I regret from the day, and to rehearse what I would have preferred to have said or done.

At least as important too, and something I find useful to do before counting any demerits, is to go through the good things I’ve done during the day. I think most of us fail to acknowledge all the good we do in the world each day, and instead ruminate unproductively on our few regrets.

So, in the evening before bed, you can start by thinking of all the good you’ve done that day. And then, after that, after you’ve felt good about yourself for a while, you can honestly reflect on the words and actions that you regret. 

For most of us, these are primarily verbal, like lashing out in anger or gossiping about someone we dislike. But for some of us there may be physical actions too, minor or not-so-minor, like cheating on our taxes or cheating on our partner.

This first step of psychological clearing is to honestly regret these actions, in a way that’s free from shame and self-loathing. To understand that most of these actions come from bad habits, and that we’re now sitting on our cushion to reinforce our more positive ways of being. 

What would I rather have done in that situation? Think of the words you would have rather said, the actions you would have rather performed, and in your imagination, picture yourself actually doing these, rehearsing for the next time you’re in a similar situation.

The next meditative step is a special form of analytic meditation where you find a way to forgive yourself. This type of meditation is usually called “purification,” and is often accompanied by some form of visualization, which you’ll experience directly in the next episode. 

It’s a little less religious sounding to call this a forgiveness meditation, self-forgiveness, which is really what it is. This self-forgiveness meditation requires no belief or religion. The meditation usually involves some form of imagined bright light that cleans and heals your mind and body. Variations on this technique are even used in clinical settings with cancer patients to help heal the body in concert with chemotherapy and other medicine. 

Because humans are such visual creatures, this visualization approach can help with psychological, and in some cases even physical healing, reducing the felt pain and symptoms of disease. The mechanism isn’t fully understood scientifically, but likely has something to do with that gap between the mental and the physical, that mysterious boundary where thoughts turn into action.

The last step of this self-forgiveness practice, after the visualization, is to make some resolution to not to do that thing you regret for some duration of time, whatever is reasonable for you. Often, you do this meditation right before you go to bed, so you can commit to at least not performing that harmful action until you wake up the next morning. 

Depending on the action, you might be able to commit to not doing it for a day, an hour, a minute, or just a second—whatever duration seems achievable for you. It’s similar to the “One Day at A Time” motto of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like exercise, this process of expanding your virtue is gradual and you should only make the commitment you feel capable of right now.

To help remember the process, these three steps are all words that begin with the letter “R”: regret, remedy, and resolve. There’s also a fourth “R” that you usually begin with, one that we’re already familiar with from the beginning of our Skeptic’s Path meditation sessions, which is “refuge,” taking refuge in your natural goodness, like we talked about in our second episode, “What is Meditation?” 

Part of this process of refuge, of inner refuge, is realizing that your disturbing thoughts, emotions, and actions are not your true nature, which is kind, open, knowing, and aware. 

Refuge, regret, remedy, and resolve. These are the four steps of a self-forgiveness meditation that most practitioners in the Tibetan tradition do at the end of every day. It’s a practice that clears your mind, that helps you sleep peacefully and return quickly to your best self the next day. And when it’s warranted, the practice also helps you to take remedial actions like apologizing or otherwise making practical amends in the world where you can.

We also discussed another “R”—rejoicing—that counteracts self-criticism; to first rejoice, to rejoice in all of our good actions of the day, the manifestation of our best inner qualities. 

I find this way of ending the day so helpful to clearing the mind, to sleeping well, and to waking up the next day ready to do my best, to be a force for good in the world. And at the end of the next day, repeating this gentle practice: genuinely acknowledging all my good qualities and deeds, forgiving myself, and then resolving to try and be my best self. Without guilt, without shame, and also without unrealistic promises that I’ll be perfect forever from here on out.

This has been a longer than usual episode, one of the most challenging topics to organize in a wholly secular way. If you have any feedback on how this psychological approach to cause and effect worked for you, please share it at skepticspath.org, or through our skepticspath account on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. 

In next week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, I look forward to guiding you through this self-forgiveness meditation which is far simpler than today’s long discussion, as most of our meditations turn out to be.

Further Reading

cover of Samsara Nirvana and Buddha Nature book by his Holiness the Dalai Lama

Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature, His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Photo illustration by Kanchi Rastogi

SHARe

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