Recently, in my Buddhism and Modern Psychology class on Coursera, we explored the neuropsychological nature of dukkha—that feeling of unsatisfactoriness, often roughly translated as “suffering,” and its cause, tanha, or “craving.” This particular lecture presented an experiment with monkeys to show us what happens behind the neurological scenes of this experience we all know so well. When these monkeys were given a nice bit of fruit juice, they experienced a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine, suggesting that they were very happy to receive such a treat.
But—to the surprise of no one—this neurochemical spike quickly abated. The satisfaction we primates receive from dopamine bursts is fleeting, and we quickly move on to our next craving. Psychologically speaking, we are not wired for happy stasis. It’s all about the pursuit of happiness.
Soon after I watched that Cousera lecture and in pursuit of what I thought was a wholly separate interest, I happened to stumble upon an essay by George Orwell, famed author of 1984 and Animal Farm. What they don’t tend to tell you when you read his work in high school is that Orwell was an avowed democratic socialist. His writings were not against socialism per se (as they are too often presented to credulous students), but against authoritarianism. So, yep, though he had no qualms about stating his disagreements with other Leftists, Orwell was a fellow traveler.
But as far as I know, he wasn’t a Buddhist. So it’s was striking to me that the essay I read—entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy?“—conveys precisely the same Noble Truth of Dopaminergic Dukkha preached by both the Buddha and the juice-wielding psychologists. Here’s how Orwell puts it, with my emphasis:
It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast. That is why the conception of Heaven or Utopia varies from age to age. In pre-industrial society Heaven was described as a place of endless rest, and as being paved with gold, because the experience of the average human being was overwork and poverty. The houris of the Muslim Paradise reflected a polygamous society where most of the women disappeared into the harems of the rich. But these pictures of ‘eternal bliss’ always failed because as the bliss became eternal (eternity being thought of as endless time), the contrast ceased to operate.
Hey! I thought, This is just what happened with those monkeys! Given that fruit juice appears to be at least part of what they dream of in their monkey utopias, it’s significant that as the experiment went on, the monkeys got their dopamine burst merely by anticipating the juice—with no further neurochemical reaction once the juice finally arrived. Again, we are wired to keep craving, to have only the most fleeting satisfaction, because satisfaction tends to put an end to our striving—and that would mean death in an environment where sugars and nutrients are hard to come by.
Faced with this bit of science, we can see how some with a right-wing bent might use it to encourage us to just keep working harder: “Neurologically speaking, we can’t ever truly meet everyone’s needs, so capitalism is the only system that can work. Keep on craving, proles!” Others might find in the Buddha’s teaching the same old “opiate of the masses”: instead of telling poor people they’ll get pie in the sky when they die, Buddhists just try to teach them meditation so they can transcend cravings for things like, you know, health care and stuff.
So what is that ideologically unreliable Orwell chap getting at with this essay? Here’s his takeaway:
At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood.
Oh! Now he’s done it! Now that bleeping bourgeois has really jumped the shark! Human brotherhood?! From where we stand in the polarized, cynical world of 2018, some might think that a far more utopian goal than seizing the means of production or a $15 minimum wage or whatever anyone means when they say they want “socialism.”
But I actually think he’s on to something. Just as Orwell noted, we can’t tell you what socialism will look like, because it will need to be more than just meeting the needs of today. In fact, we don’t claim we’ll ever be able to meet all needs, particularly as we get beyond the basics for survival. There will still be human misery under socialism. And people will still be imperfect.
This, however, is all compatible with “human brotherhood.” Brothers, after all, routinely beat each other up. They may participate in family feuds, compete against each other, or resent not being Mom’s favorite. But they do also have a tendency to look out for each other.
And if we scale that up to a broader level, we can call that community. Indeed, if you’d asked me what I mean by socialism even before I read Orwell’s essay, that’s what I would have told you: socialism is a return to community.
This is an idea that merits its own separate post, so I’ll hold off on a broader explanation, and instead wrap this post up with tying this back in with George Orwell’s apparent Buddhist leanings.
See, when he talks about human brotherhood and I talk about community, we might also say that we want to replace tanha—that craving for ever more juice-induced dopamine—with chanda, which one of you delightful readers brought up in the discussion of an earlier post as the answer to the question of whether Buddhism recognizes any positive desires. According to this write-up on Buddhist economics, if tanha is the craving for pleasure, chanda is the desire for well-being; tanha is based on ignorance while chanda is based on wisdom.
It seems to me we could also say that capitalism runs on tanha, and socialism will require a reorientation toward chanda. At first glance, this may seem to suggest that socialism is as distant and difficult as Buddhist enlightenment is for most of us. But I actually think that getting to Orwell’s ideal of human brotherhood, and my idea of community, won’t take an enlightened monk or the New Soviet Man at all. If chanda is already compatible with broadly shared American values—and in my upcoming post on community, I’ll argue that it is—then we don’t have to change hearts; we merely have to change policy. And while that’s a pretty big “merely,” it is relatively much easier than getting all of humanity to reach Nirvana.
One thing’s for sure: when 21st century psychologists, 20th century democratic socialists, and and 6th century BC spiritual teachers are all pointing in a similar direction, that’s a promising path to follow. Stay tuned and we’ll follow it further.
Image credits: sasint, studioessen, and happymom33 on Pixabay, with special thanks to Calliope, resident dukkhat.