Life is not fair, it’s true! But is that really a problem? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the monkey reward experiment where one monkey was given cucumbers and another was given grapes and the result of that decision. I will also discuss the idea of sitting with discomfort. If you can sit with discomfort, you can do anything…
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Welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 80. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m talking about the idea of fairness in life.
Keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. As we jump into this topic, life is not fair, I want you to join me in this little thought experiment. Just imagine for a moment that you’re driving along the highway in your car, and suddenly you hear a pop and you have a flat tire. So, you pull over, you get out of the car, you’re looking at the flat tire trying to decide what you’re going to do next. You look up and you realize a really nice car pulls over to assist you. You can just envision whatever a nice car is to you. This car pulls over, somebody gets out of the car, they come over, they look at your flat tire, and they say, “I feel really bad for you. Here, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to give you $100 and hopefully this will help you to have a better day.”
Imagine for a moment how that would feel as the recipient of this cash. $100, there you are, how do you feel for this person? How do you feel about having received what you just did? In fact, let’s make it $1,000 just to make it much more of a big deal. I guess $100 is a big deal, but let’s just say it’s $1,000. You’re probably quite shocked and surprised. And this person, based on their nice car and everything, you’re assuming they have a lot of money and they just felt bad for you because you have a flat tire, so they give you this cash. How does that feel?
Most people are probably going to feel very grateful. Very grateful for what just happened. Now let’s pause that experiment and let’s imagine … Well, actually let’s continue the thought experiment. While you’re there, suddenly this other car pulls over behind the nice car. This is an older car, maybe not much different than yours, but this car has a flat tire as well. They pull over and you see the person get out of the car and they just start working on fixing their flat. They take out the tools to start removing the tire and all that. So, this person that you’re with who gave you the money looks at them, and you see them walking over towards them.
You’re thinking, “Oh wow, he or she is going to offer them the $1,000 too.” But no, you hear the following. This person walks over there and says, “Oh no, looks like you got a flat tire.” And the person says, “Yeah, I got a flat tire and horrible timing. I’m on my way to a job interview. I just lost my job. So, I’m trying to get another job and I’m dealing with all these issues at home. They kind of go on to give a more elaborate picture of their current life situation. You hear this person say, “You know what? I feel really bad for everything that you’re going through. Here, I’d like to give you $100,000.” Now how do you feel? Everything that just took place with you receiving your $1,000 felt a certain way. But now that you saw this person happily extend $100,000 to this other person because of all these other complications they’re going through in their life, now how do you feel?
Now if you are like most people, you probably feel a sense of frustration and anger and you’re like, “Wait a second, why didn’t … I could certainly use the $100,000 dollars too.” So, there’s the sense of fairness that comes into play where suddenly, this is not fair. Here’s what’s interesting about this thought experiment. When you think about receiving $1,000 out of the blue, that feels a certain way. But when you have the comparison of receiving $1,000 coupled with the thought you could have received $100,000, that changes the relationship that you have with $1,000, doesn’t it?
This thought experiment, this is an experiment that has actually taken place. Not with the car and not with the money, but with monkeys, capuchin monkeys. You can see this video, there’s a TED talk and then the videos on YouTube. If you just search for monkey videos, unfair monkey experiment, or I think you can search for grapes and cucumbers. Because the experiment that they did was the experimenter had two monkeys in two separate cages right next to each other. They taught the monkey that if the monkey hands the experimenter a rock, the rock would be, or the monkey would be rewarded with a cucumber. A slice of cucumber. And the cucumber was very happily received. The monkey ate it very happily. And then they would do it with a monkey next, the one right next door. Same thing, that monkey gets a cucumber. So, now they both see what’s happening. Both monkeys.
Then the experimenter goes back and does it again where this time, in exchange for the rock, the experimenter hands monkey number one a cucumber, but monkey number two exchanges the rock and the experimenter hands monkey number two a grape instead of a cucumber. Well, monkey number one sees this and right away recognizes, oh, okay, next time I do this, I’m going to get a grape. So, monkey number one, goes back to monkey number one, exchanges the rock and gets another cucumber. And the monkey just immediately looks at the cucumber and then throws the cucumber at the experimenter and starts shaking the cage.
The experimenter goes back to monkey number two, repeats, gives monkey number two a grape. So now, monkey number one is really realizing, oh my gosh, this is so unfair, and the experimenter puts their hand out again asking for the exchange of the rock, and monkey number one, it almost looks like he’s thinking about it and he finally hands the experimenter the rock. Once again, gets a cucumber. At this point, the monkeys just really, really upset, shaking the cage, doesn’t accept the cucumber, throws the cucumber again. This is the second time the monkey has thrown the cucumber back at the experimenter. That’s essentially the clip of the video if you were to search for it.
But what’s fascinating about this, again, is the relationship where they’re receiving the cucumber is neutral. In fact, there’s a sense of gratitude for it, the monkeys happily enjoying the cucumber. But something happens when the cucumber becomes compared to something else, something perceived to be better. In this case, a grape. And suddenly, at the thought of not receiving the grape, the perceived injustice and the perceived inequity that took place in that exchange makes the monkey no longer care about or want the cucumber. Kind of like in the thought experiment above or before. If you thought about the $1,000 and how grateful you would be to receive $1,000, there probably was a lot less natural gratitude flowing when you realized you could have had $100,000 like the other person who got the flat tire.
So, what is it that’s taking place there? Well, and in these experiments, what they’re finding is we’ve evolved, so to speak, to perceive and justices and we’re not happy with injustice, we’re not happy when we perceive that something is not fair. This is totally normal. It’s natural. We’ve all felt this at one point or another as kids with toys. But we continue to experience this in our day to day lives when we compare our situation or we assess whatever it is that we have and compare it to what we think we should have.
I want to correlate this to the Buddhist practice or the Buddhist teaching of seeing with the eyes of wisdom, seeing the interdependent nature of things and the impermanent or continually changing nature of things. We start to see the uniqueness of each moment, and it becomes more habitual for us to appreciate the cucumber for being a cucumber, and not comparing it to a grape because it’s not the same as a grape, or $1,000 being unique. It’s the $1,000 I received and not comparing it to the $100,000 I didn’t receive.
Now, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating in any way that we turn a blind eye to the injustices in the world, or that we start to accept inequality. That’s not where I’m trying to go with this. What I’m trying to highlight here is our natural tendency to compare. Comparing moments, when we’re talking about anything in terms of space and time, everything is unique. And the truth is, there is no comparison. Here is here, there is there, this is this, that is that. But this isn’t that and here isn’t there and now isn’t then. The challenge here is to try to see the uniqueness of each moment. Whether it’d be pleasant or not, it’s unique. Unpleasant moments and pleasant moments are equal in the sense that they’re both unique.
The exercises to try to minimize … Well, I don’t know if that’s appropriate to say, minimize the comparison. I guess what’s more appropriate just to recognize how natural it is to compare, and then not cling to the emotions that arise due to the comparison. Because, again, I’m not advocating that, “Oh, you got $1,000, your neighbor just got 100,000, you should not be mad.” That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, notice that the anger, the sense of injustice that arises that is natural. Now, how you react to it and what you do with that emotion while you’re experiencing it, that’s what comes next. How do we learn to sit with that discomfort? In fact, there’s a thought or an expression that seems to be pretty common in Buddhism and in a lot of Buddhist teachings. And that’s this idea of sitting with discomfort.
So, I want to take this whole concept and kind of go a little bit further with it now with this notion of sitting with discomfort. What does that look like? What does it mean? For me, in my own day to day life, and I think I’ve alluded to this in previous podcast episodes, but the idea of sitting with discomfort is like recognizing that I’m going to have to have the difficult discussions with family or loved ones about views that I have, or whatever it is. Parenting decisions. It’s about allowing ourselves to really feel the emotions that we’re experiencing. It’s about recognizing that our tendency, our natural tendency is to chase after the emotions that feel pleasant, and to feel a version or to run away from the emotions that feel unpleasant.
What we’re trying to do with this notion of sitting with discomfort is trying to gain more understanding. Well, what am I feeling? Why am I feeling this? Why does this feel so uncomfortable? Why do I want to avoid having this discussion? Things of that nature. Consider the physical sensations that arise when your body feels stressed, or anxious, or worried, anything along those lines. And the goal here is instead of resisting them, what if we could learn to sit with them?
I had this experience this weekend. This past weekend, we were at a … it’s like a community function. It’s a festival that we do in our little town. But anyway, what was unfolding was during the preparations for the festival where you have to build the little huts and the tents and all the things, this is the night before the event. So, emotions are high, people are stressed about getting stuff done in time. And two of the people there helping got into a little verbal altercation. One was complaining about having to be there to help. Saying why we always have to be here helping this person who organizes this event and puts this on, and the other one was saying, “Well, you shouldn’t be complaining about having to help because you receive a lot of help too.” And they happen to be siblings. So, you can imagine it’s much more natural to have these altercations with with the people who are closest to us.
But here’s what I thought was interesting. The third sibling observing all of this, this third sibling happens to be like the peacemaker in her family, was extremely uncomfortable with the event that was unfolding. Which is there was a conflict and words are being thrown around. This third sibling literally jumped in the middle of the two, was waving her arms and saying, “Stop. Stop. Stop. Guys, stop.” I had this moment of recognition as I was observing all of this, that for a significant portion of my time, I was that third sibling. So uncomfortable with conflict, so uncomfortable with the discomfort that arises in me when I’m witnessing or experiencing any kind of conflict like that. I felt for this person watching that unfold, saying, “I know what that feels like.”
But it was strange to see it from this perspective that I have now where I’m comfortable with discomfort. I have practiced extensively the exercise of sitting with discomfort. As this was unfolding, I felt no aversion to the conflict. It was like, “Well, you guys say what you need to say. That’s fine.” But inside, I wasn’t feeling what I had felt in the past, which is a pit in your stomach and this intense feeling to just stop. Get this to stop. I don’t want to hear this. I am very uncomfortable with people yelling at each other. I didn’t have any of those feelings. And I thought about this concept, sitting with discomfort, and I kind of correlated that whole experience to what I just tried to share with this teaching of sitting with discomfort.
Again, I think it’s natural. We’ve all grown up learning to avoid discomfort at all costs. And I think this idea of avoiding discomfort, it honestly permeates in our societal views and norms, in our marketing messages. All you have to do is turn on the TV or the radio and you’re going to get some kind of a message that is essentially saying, “Hey, is life uncomfortable? Well, it won’t be if you buy this product or the service. It’ll fix it. You don’t have to sit with that discomfort. Fix the discomfort. Buy this thing today.” That’s essentially the marketing message you’re going to get about anything, any product, any service. That’s what they’re trying to accomplish, is to make you realize that you don’t have to sit with the discomfort.
Now, again, I’m not saying that it’s a good thing or a bad thing to sit with the discomfort. I’m glad that we have progressed as a society, we’ve been motivated by discomfort to make life better. We thought, “Enough with walking everywhere, let’s invent the wheel.” Things like that. I am the beneficiary of that kind of progress, because you guys may know from other podcast episodes, or if you follow me on social media, I love to fly. I love to fly a paramotor and paraglide. Those are all technologies that certainly arose out of the sense of discomfort with life. I’m going to chase after something, I want to fly. Sure, that’s fine.
Again, I want to be careful that everything that is ever shared here, none of it’s absolute. It’s not like, “Hey, here’s the way. Sit with this comfort. That’s always the answer.” It’s not. Sometimes it’s not the answer. But in a lot of instances it is. It can be an answer to live more skillfully. Again, I just want to emphasize that.
At times, I think the mindfulness movement that is kind of prevalent right now in our culture, or even Buddhism, you could say, it’s kind of preached in this way like marketing does. Where it’s saying, “Hey, this philosophy, this practice meditation, it’s going to remove the discomfort from your life. Just meditated and it’ll all be well.” And the truth is, that’s not how it works. Truth is, you’re still going to deal with all the same crap that you had before. That kind of stuff doesn’t necessarily change. So, what does change? Well, what changes, again, is our ability to sit with that discomfort, like I mentioned in that scenario that I experienced over the weekend. That’s where peace comes from. It’s not the external world that’s changing, it’s your relationship to that external world that’s changing and that’s where peace arises naturally inside.
So, how does the need to avoid discomfort manifest in your own life? This is an invitation for you to sit with us for a moment and think about it like I did. I noticed that for me, I didn’t like being judged. I didn’t like people disagreeing with my views in life. So, I was a people pleaser, and that’s fine. I still am. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the discomfort that arises from people not agreeing with me. Now, I’m totally fine being around people who don’t like my ideas at all. People who will say, “Oh, you’re going down this path to hell because you’re not following the right ideology.” They could tell me that and it honestly wouldn’t bother me at all, because I’m totally comfortable with the discomfort that was arising when I was experiencing conflict like that.
So, this is the invitation or the challenge that I would want to extend to you for this week, for this podcast episode, is to try to sit with the discomfort and see what that’s like for a moment. And again, I’m not advocating any kind of resignation or giving up. I think too often, we experience discomfort, and we just give up. We don’t like it, so we run from it. We try to drown it out by chasing after whatever it is we think is going to make us forget about the discomfort. We avoid the hard discussions. This is a common example. We avoid the hard discussions and we put up with how things are, because we’re not willing to experience the discomfort that it might take for things to actually be better.
I’ve experienced this numerous times in my own relationship dynamics. Topics that I know are going to be uncomfortable to bring up, but I bring them up because I know that sitting through the discomfort is the path to something better on the other end of that. So, try to see this moment for what it is. Not for what you think it should be, but just for what it is. I think this is why so many meditation practices start with just noticing the breath. Because when I’m sitting here and I’m noticing my breath, I’m experiencing just being for a moment. We’re here, we’re breathing, how unique is this moment? Truth is, life is not fair. But that’s not a problem. It’s not a problem unless we make that a problem. It’s not about fairness, but we can strive to correct any injustices or inequality that we see out there.
I applaud the people who spend time and resources and efforts doing that. But I do think it’s important to also understand that there is a sense of uniqueness to every situation and every moment that happens in our lives, and they’re not meant to be compared. So, try to notice that more. Try to see through those eyes of wisdom of impermanence and interdependence, and ask yourself, what did it take for this moment to exist? Think about all the instances in our own lives where we are that monkey and we’re comparing the cucumber to the grape. We do this on social media, right? Oh, so and so got that job. Well, I got this job. Or so and so married that person, I married this person who’s grumpier.
We play this game. So and so drives that kind of car while I do this. Or so until it gets to go do all those fun trips, I never get to leave. And we’re making ourselves miserable like the monkey in the cage. Again, naturally. We do this naturally. But if you’ll remember in the episode where I talked about rebellion, we can rebel against this natural game and say, “This isn’t the game I want to play. I’m not going to play this anymore. I’m going to go beyond my natural tendency to throw the cucumber back at life and say, “Well, wait a second, this is a cucumber. What did it take for this to arise?”” And you start to change the nature of the game, the relationship you have with the game out of almost this act of rebellion that says, I’m not going to keep doing this the way that I’ve been doing.
That’s what I wanted to share with you in this podcast episode. As always, if you want to learn more about Buddhism, you can always check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, with 60 questions and answers around Buddhist history and concepts, teachings, and practices. You can learn more about that book by visiting everydaybuddhism.com. And as always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. You can always write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. If you would like to join our online community, you can visit secularbuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, visit secularbuddhism.com, click the donate button.
That’s all I have for now. As always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.