Learned Helplessness

I just got an email from one of my very dearest Dharma sisters. I met her in India and her friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life. I know that I have said this before and I do not mean to beat it to death (well, maybe a little), but other than Enlightenment itself there is nothing more precious in life than “good friendship in the holy life,” as the Buddha put it.

On of the things she wrote me is this:

“So often folks tell me that Buddhism removes people from emotions and ‘real life’, puts them in a sort of happy trance…”

I just had to smile. My first reaction was that there are all these unhappy, stressed out, neurotic people in the world. OK. Got that. But, as the infomercials say, Wait! There’s more! We want you to be unhappy, stressed out and neurotic, too.

Of course, that would be a very unkind thing to say to someone, but that is how it feels. Misery loves company.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called “learned helplessness.” One of the most famous experiments involved dogs who were put into a box from which they could not escape, and given electric shocks. Because there was no way for the dogs to escape from the box, they learned that the shocks were “inevitable.” Then those dogs were put into a box with a low partition. They could escape the shocks simply by jumping over it. But because they had learned from the first box that there was “no escape,” they did not leave the box. They just stayed there and accepted the pain.

The Buddha, through his extraordinary effort and compassion, found a way out of our dilemma. He found a path whereby we can be happier, more useful people, and then he spent 45 years teaching that path. Admittedly the operating manual is, as I like to say, rather long. But if you do not like to suffer and be stressed out, it is all there.

It seems self-evident that no one would want to suffer, be unhappy and stressed out. Then there is the bonus, and that is that by being happier, wiser and more skillful in life you are more useful. You are at least not adding to the world’s misery, and on a good day you can make it a little better.

I suppose one thing to say is, “Do you like being stressed out?”

Then again, there are those dogs who just won’t leave the box.

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