Beaster: The demon god of chocolate cravings

Painting of Mara tempting the Buddha by Tinlawin

I have a pretty wicked sweet tooth. I suspect I have about 20 of them. Not for long perhaps. Sweet teeth are like the suicide bombers of the dental realm – their core desire is incompatible with their continued existence. If they get what they want, they won’t be around for very long.

After eating anything savoury, particularly anything salty, my 20 foot soldiers of desire teeth kick into action and create a craving for sugar so strong that I’m often half way into some kind of chocolate monstrosity before I know what’s happened. If I do realise, I very rarely spit it out. I normally say “oh, well. It would be a shame to toss this out,” and so I jam the entire thing into my cake hole, muttering something about hungry kids in Africa and then my body downloads a few gigabytes of regret.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Resisting desire like this is tough. It’s self generating, and so fighting it tends to give it more power. When you suppress it, you’re not getting rid of it, you’re just packing it into a smaller space – making it more dense. More focussed. You’re spring loading your desire, and given any opportunity, it will break out with an explosive power directly proportional to the degree to which you tried to keep it down.

It seems really powerful, when you think about it like this. And it is. You suppress the feelings, at the cost of being eternally vigilant. You have to play a perfect game to keep them down, but they only have to leverage one opportunity, one moment of weakness and they’ve won.

But this power is really brittle. In only works in one direction. It only grows when you resist or run away from it.

This kind of power doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny and is absolutely devastated by a loving curiosity. Willingly get closer to it, examine it with curiosity, and before your eyes, it’s power will diminish.

In the buddhist mythology, this is known as “inviting Mara to tea”. It comes from the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, during which the Demon god Mara assaulted the Buddha with doubt, fear, lust and anger. Mara failed to corrupt the Buddha and left on the morning of his enlightenment, but would periodically return.

“Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”

Tara Brach

The story is a great illustration of the power of leaning into difficult feelings with a view to depriving them of they illusory power.

If you want some chocolate, if you have an itchy head, if you crave a cigarette, you have a couple of options:

  1. you can satisfy the craving by eating, scratching or smoking
  2. you can resist the craving or run away from it, in which case you’re spring loading it for a time when you’re not so strong, or
  3. you can invite Mara to tea, and sit down with the experience and examine it.

This last option is interesting because it tends to have the same effect as what you want from options 1 and 2, but without the negative consequences. The price that you pay in this case, is attention, effort and time. It requires your attention to realise what’s going on. It is a brief effort to stop and sit and turn the craving over in your mind. It will take a moment to watch all the power fall away.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t banish the craving forever. Like Mara, it will probably come back, but each time it does, it has to start from scratch. It doesn’t have any residual power from your last encounter.

It’s also worth noting, that this kind of metaphor or mythological framework is just as illusory as the power of desire. Mara doesn’t exist, and neither does the tea. But they are both helpful tools for dealing with powerful behavioural and chemical processes which happen in our body at a speed and scale which are difficult for us to fathom.

Sometimes it’s helpful to move the fight to a battleground where we have more options, where we’re more familiar. Since we’re creatures driven by story and narrative, mythological stories resonate with us pretty deeply. Hence Jesus et al.

So, back to the chocolate.

If you don’t want to contribute to the world’s alarming Diabetes statistics and but you’re staring down the barrel of 20 sweet teeth screaming at you for sugar, then all you need to do is step a little closer. Invite those teeth to tea, sit down for a second and look at what they want. Approach their demands with curiosity, turning them over in your mind and then watch them dissolve.

It’s surprisingly easy, the difficulty comes in remembering to do it. Mara moves quickly, riding in on a storm of fresh horses with the wind at her back. You have to be prepared to get out in front of her and just sit.

But I figure, if you’ve got time to smoke or eat chocolate, you’ve got time to have a cup of tea with an imaginary, demonic, manifestation of human desire for the purposes of combatting the impulses of invisible chemical forces at war in your brain. Right?


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A Flo-cratic Easter dialogue

A conversation in which Kent (37, atheist) and Flo (6, Jewish), have a semi-successful discussion about religion. At Easter.

Happy Jesus weekend.

Kent: Are you ready for the last day of school before Easter?

Flo: Not everyone believes in Easter. My teacher is a little bit Jewish. That’s what she said, “I’m a little bit Jewish”. People can be whatever they want. They can believe whatever they want to believe.

Kent: That’s right, lot’s of people believe lots of different things.

Flo: Do you want to be be Jewish daddy?

Kent: …um… [tumbleweed] … because my Mummy isn’t Jewish, I can’t just say “I’m Jewish”, I would have to do a test.

Flo: Well why don’t you do the test? I just did my spelling test. It was easy. The Jewish test is probably easy.

Kent: I like hanging out with Jewish people, I’m married to one, but that doesn’t mean that I need to become Jewish as well.

Flo: But why don’t you want to be Jewish? If you’re not Jewish, then what are you?

Kent: I’m not sure of what the right name is, but I believe different things to Jewish people and Christian people.

Flo: Are you a Muslim then? You don’t have a mat, do you?

Kent: No, I’m not a Muslim. And you’re right, I don’t have a mat.

Flo: But I have seen you wrap a book up.

Kent: That was just to stop it getting wet in the rain. Christians and Muslims and Jewish people all believe certain things about God and life, but I don’t think the same things about God. That’s why I’m not Muslim, or Jewish.

Flo: What do they believe that you don’t.

[getting into dangerous territory]

Kent: Well, most of those groups think that God has written rules for how we should live. But I think that people are better at writing those rules. A lot of God’s rules were written a long time ago, and while some of them are good, I don’t think they all make sense any more. So this means that some people are using some rules that don’t make sense. I think what when people come together and share ideas, we can do a better job of figuring out what’s good to do and what’s not good to do. Better than using rules that don’t make sense.

Flo: Like what?

Kent: Like lots of things. Like whether it’s a good idea to eat bacon, or help people, or kill people who believe different things, or give your money away.

Flo: I like bacon.

Kent: That’s right. You’re Jewish and you eat bacon, because you’ve decided that it’s a good thing to do. That’s a people decision.

Flo: Bacon is soooooo yummy.

Kent: Yeah, it’s one of the tastiest things in the world.

Flo: But you don’t eat it. If you like it, why don’t you eat it?

Kent: Because I think it’s better if we don’t eat meat. I think this is one of those things that most people will do a good job of figuring out if we keep sharing ideas. It might just take some time, and even then, lot’s of people might not agree.

Flo: Because bacon is yummy?

Kent: Because bacon is yummy. Especially with banana and maple syrup.

Flo: Banana?!? That sounds disgusting.

Kent: See, I told you people might not agree.

The difference between acceptance and being a doormat

Much of our anxiety and suffering comes from the fact that the world isn’t what we want it to be.

We see situations and people which could be so much better and think, “if only they were different”.

When the reality of the world, collides and conflicts with our models and expectations, we experience cognitive dissonance. We realise that something is out of joint and either we, or the world (or both) will need to change if we’re to feel better.

Typically the world – and the billions of people in it – is so big and indifferent and external and out of our control, it doesn’t change (at least without a good deal of effort). So the burden of change naturally falls to us.

But surprisingly, changing our personal attitudes and beliefs is difficult as well. Often this is because we’ve emotionally invested so much into them that we feel like we’re losing when we let them go. We also often feel that by recognising the status quo for what it is and accepting it, that we’re in some way condoning it in a way which compromises our beliefs. That by accepting what we think is wrong, we’re being a doormat and letting our situation or peers walk right over us.

Neither of these are actually true, but treating them as if they are is our biggest barrier to moving forward.

When we experience conflict between what should be, and what is, we resist it. This resistance (as opposed to the other Resistance I like to write about), arises from our acknowledgement that something needs to change, and our fear that the burden of change might fall to us.

This is the behaviour which causes us to cling to old beliefs when we see compelling evidence to the contrary. This is the behaviour which causes us to avoid conflict with those who challenge our ideas. This is the behaviour which turns away from the waves instead of facing directly into them.

This resistance has a formidable stranglehold on our behaviour and can… well… make us act like a bit of a dick. But what we don’t often realise, is that it’s power is entirely illusory and self generated. It’s not an external force, it’s one that we ignite, fuel and perpetuate ourselves. And just as naturally as we can kindle this resistance, we can snuff it out.

Thankfully, the process for unplugging this resistance from its main power source is surprisingly simple – all you have to do is to recognise that it exists, look at it directly, and let it go.

Unfortunately, not everything which is simple, is easy. Skydiving is simple: fall out of a plane. Stand-up is simple: be funny on stage. Juggling is simple: don’t drop the balls. But that doesn’t mean that they’re easy.

Like these examples, letting go of resistance is simple, but not that easy. But also like these examples, it’s just a skill – and any skill can be mastered with practice.

It takes practice to identify resistance. It takes practice turning to face it. It takes practice to let it go. It’s not arduous practice, and it pays dividends – but the only way to get better at it, is to do it and do it and do it again.

The reason this practice is worthwhile, is that as soon as the resistance drops away, you can better see the situation for what it is. You’re not viewing it through the lens of your personal attachment, or existing beliefs, you’re seeing what the reality of what it is, in the here and now. And while you might not condone it, you might not like it, you can at least accept that this is the currently reality.

And as soon as you accept this, you’re in a much better place to respond to it skilfully. Now that you’ve looked at it dispassionately, you can decide if it’s even worthy of your future attention and effort – most of the time it’s not.

If you have any kind of meditation practice, then you’ve probably got some experience in letting this resistance go. If you don’t, then a good place to start is with headspace or Tara Brach – both of which are effective, accessible and free. Tara has also written an entire book on the subject.

Being a doormat is the result of emotional attachment limiting your options in a situation which isn’t going your way.

Acceptance is about stripping away your attachment to a situation and creating a better set of options for spending your precious time and attention in the future.

The Goldfish

photo by Rabun Warna -
photo by Rabun Warna –

I have a goldfish at home. I wish could say it was for my kids – to teach them about responsibility and life and death. But all of that would be a lie. It’s for me. I dragged it into my life, because I wanted a goldfish.

I’m not even certain what need or want it fills. It’s comforting to watch him/her swim around. It’s pleasant to have a moment of connection through the plastic as we see each other when the rest of the family is asleep. But all this occurs at the expense of whatever liberty and happiness that fish might otherwise have were it not in our flat.

I’m not exactly sure what the natural habitat of the goldfish is – I’ve never see one in the wild. I suspect it’s not “the brief space between a fake plant and a miniature bridge, in an 8 litre plastic tank, on a kitchen bench, in North London.”

The only other place I’ve seen them is in pet shops and toilet bowls, but I don’t think either of those are closer to the natural state.

I have no concept of its happiness or health, concerns or ambitions – and I’m not sure that he/she does either.

Irrespective of what the fish feels, I dragged it into my orbit, to satisfy my needs. Like a drowning swimmer who has latched on to another person and won’t let go, I have bound our fates together and given the other no choice in the matter.

I know this sounds morbid, but it’s not. If it’s horrible, then it’s on a scale which is microscopic enough to not cause much harm to the world (except to the fish).

But it did make me think that we can do the same with people. That we can get needy, start thrashing in the water and become a peril to those within arms reach. That we can drag people into our obit and forcibly bind their fates to ours.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t reach out when we genuinely need help. That’s one of the main advantages of community, society and family. Perhaps we should just avoid trying to have too many goldfish.

Changing your mind about changing your mind

I’m a big fan of changing my mind – of updating my opinion/position as new information becomes available.

It’s not an easy process, personally or socially, as changing your mind can be an incredibly humbling experience. But it’s something that we all have to get better at. Given the polarity of opinions on hot button issues, at least some people are going to have to change their mind if we hope to reach any kind of consensus.

In that respect, the ability to change our minds, especially about emotionally-charged situations is fundamental to resolving some of the world’s stickiest issues.

The problem we have is that changing our mind is often perceived, both by ourselves and others, as a sign of weakness, when it should be our greatest strength. Politicians are lambasted for “flip-flopping” on issues, and even us mortals can get a roasting, especially from those who’s position we abandon.

I (currently:) believe that the ability and will to honestly and publicly change our position on key issues is a super-power which we should cultivate as broadly as possible.

There are few who willingly undertake this process publicly, Sam Harris being one of the notable exceptions. Regardless of what you think of Sam’s ideas or politics, you’ve got to admire the way he will wade into a discussion, prepared to update his position, and to openly acknowledge that he has done so. It’s an admirable approach, but you can see that it is costly for him (although it’s admittedly difficult to discern how much flak he gets from changing his position on inflammatory issues as opposed to being vocal on sensitive issues in the first place).

This is a rather long way of saying that I really enjoyed the latest episode of The Knowledge Project podcast which spends quite a bit of time focussing on the benefits and mechanics of changing our mind.

The Knowledge Project is made by Shane Parrish who runs the excellent blog Farnam Street. Each episode is a deep dive into the world of an expert whose work touches one of Shane’s areas of interest. The guest for this episode was Julia Galef who hosts her own podcast (Rationally Speaking) and is a co-founder of the Centre for Applied Rationality.

This episode is full of cool insights about influence and persuasion and the ethics of both, but the best bit (at least from my point of view), was the brief section where Julia and Shane discuss actual tactics for being open to having your own mind changed.

It sounds like something that we should be able to do as humans without tips and tricks from experts, but we’re so hard-wired to hang on our beliefs and reject conflicting information, that sometimes we need a helping hand.

One of these tactics is to have a Trigger Action Plan. This kind of plan, is a deliberate attempt to take a specific course of action in a situation in which would otherwise have a more automatic response.

An example of this might changing your automatic response upon hearing some information which seriously conflicts with your current world view (e.g. the sky is made of marmalade). Instead of automatically dismissing the information out of hand or seeking out answers which support your view, your deliberately seek out information which supports the conflicting viewpoint. In this way, you will be able to get a better understanding of the arguments and evidence supporting this claim and be able to make a better assessment of whether the claim is valid.

Another useful tactic was specifically geared towards hearing information from people we don’t like. In this case, our feelings for the person will prejudice our perception of the information, usually for the worse. The intervention here, is to imagine that we are receiving the same information from someone we like and/or respect, with a view to noting how much of our resistance is due to our personal feelings.

This second tactic seemed particularly useful in situations where you genuinely want to make progress with difficult people, a situation which I think we all find ourselves in.

There is a lot more in the episode which is worth checking out, but at the very least, I hope that I’ve given some food for thought on the value of having a more open mind about changing your mind.