Sometimes I hear people opine on what is natural or unnatural human behavior. Doesn’t this depend on what part of the elephant one currently feeling? Elephant parables aside, I see this issue as emerging layers of the onion of reality. (See Tao as Emergent Property.) Let’s sort this out…
Like all animals, humans are naturally inclined to take the easy way, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In the wild this bio-hoodwink usually works out well. This primal instinct drives life, from ants to duck to dogs to people. The first photo exemplifies this with a human highway on the left and the ant highway on the right. Both species are just trying to make life as easy and efficient as possible. As I pointed out earlier, the similarities between humans and ants are striking. (See Ants are Us.)
Over time, but especially post agriculture, this drive has evolved modern civilization to its present condition through the development of tools and materials to make life as comfortable and secure as possible. A sense that ‘more is better’ lies behind the urge to fatten up whenever possible; who knows when the next famine is coming? That seals in the next photo feels it has to eat its fill while it can. The human male next to the seal is not truly any different; his biology does not know the supermarkets are always overflowing with food, nor the danger of long term overeating (1).
While we are thoroughly natural in how we live, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, we are not living under the wild conditions for which our instincts evolved over millions of years to live. The instinct to make living easier combined with the cognitive and manual ability to succeed has led us to an unbalanced situation. We are increasingly faced with having too much of a good thing. Naturally, biologically, letting go of our ‘good thing’ is not easy, and so we remain bogged down in difficulty (2).
Any species that evolves capabilities, which allow it to circumvent nature’s counterbalancing forces, will evolve in ways that bring it back into balance or become extinct. Of course, external conditions can also change quickly to a degree that brings it lethally out of balance (e.g., a comet met the dinosaurs, humans met the dodo bird).
We are simply responding to life naturally and like all other creatures, we do so in overall ignorance of the consequences. Like all other life forms, we react to circumstances and adapt accordingly. The unusual and ironic thing about humans is that human knowledge is a major source of our ignorance. Other animals are just ‘dumb’ and ignorant; we are smart and ignorant. As chapter 18 says, When cleverness emerges there is great hypocrisy, chapter 16, Woe to him who wilfully innovates while ignorant of the constant, and chapter 70, It is because people are ignorant that they fail to understand me.
(1) I’ve really noticed my biology as I’ve aged. Toward my late 20’s, I found myself gaining weight ‘naturally’. My diet was not really changing, my biology was. When I quit smoking, my weight really shot up. I suppose I was replacing the pleasures of tobacco addiction with pleasures of food. As Buddha’s Second Truth points out, if I had continued taking pleasure’s bait, the result would be corresponding pain — I’d be morbidly obese.
We burn fewer calories as we age. This slow-down prepared us in the wild for becoming decreasingly capable of hunting and gathering, and less able to recover from injury. Our biology ‘thinks’ we are still living in the wild, even as our mind knows otherwise. There is a colossal disconnect between who we are biologically and the civilized conditions where rich and abundant food is always available.
Interestingly, it took me about 10 years to unlearn the ‘eat today for who knows what lies ahead’ approach to life that years of living abroad in developing countries ingrained in me. It took me that long to settle down psychologically enough to know food was always at hand. It took me even longer to know I needed to rein in pleasure’s drive. Though I theoretically understood that ‘short term pleasure attracts long term pain‘, it took time and experience to begin to put preaching into practice.
(2) Here are a few passages from Chapter 63 that speaks to the obvious difficulty we face.