9 – Carrots & Sticks


In this episode, I’ll discuss how our evolutionary hardwiring causes us to chase after carrots and avoid getting hit with sticks. This constant seeking and avoiding can make it difficult to live authentic lives. We tend to focus on showing a good front and hiding any aspect of ourselves that we deem unworthy. The Japanese haiku “showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall” teaches us to be vulnerable and authentic. I hope you enjoy this episode.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the secular buddhism podcast. This is episode number nine, I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about carrots and sticks, specifically the fact that we chase carrots and we avoid sticks. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, let’s get started.

Now before we jump into the topic, this is a friendly reminder that the secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week, covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular Humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism, so if you’re new I recommend listening to the first five episode in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order. And remember, the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

Keep this in mind as you listen to and learn about the topics and concepts we discuss in this podcast episode and if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

Hey guys, I wanted to talk a little bit today about, well, several things. But starting out, I watch a show called brain games on National Geographic and the first episode of this season talks about the brain, the wiring of the brain and it compares the way our brain works to a city, and specifically to London. It kind of shows, as a city grows, there’s the downtown or the center of a city and then as the city grows it expands and then you add highways or bridges or there are suburbs or neighborhoods. And the idea here was that, no matter how big the city gets, the downtown is still the same. That’s the old part of the city. The buildings are generally older, the streets are laid out in a way where, that’s just how they are, they’re not gonna change.

And it talks about how our brain is very similar in the sense that as our brains have evolved, there are aspects of how our brain works that are hard wired and they’re very, very old, it’s the ancient workings of the brain. For example, the habitual or instinctual habits that we have to seek reward or to avoid punishment, this concept of chasing carrots or avoiding sticks. And it’s hard wired in us in a very old part of the brain that comes from an evolutionary standpoint, this is like the reptilian part of our brain.

That’s why, at one point in the evolution of our species, there was a time when getting the right reward, finding the right food or accomplishing the hunt, our life depended on it. And then on the flip side of that, the avoiding the stick. There was a time when, if you were to be driven from your group, from your “in” group, that meant life or death. The hard wiring that exists in our brain that is old, as old as human beings are and even older because it goes into how we were wired that way from an evolutionary standpoint before we were even human, you can start to see the remnants of that way of thinking in our day to day life.

If can be that if someone cuts you off on the road, the habitual reactivity is to treat that like a life and death thing. You’re suddenly full of rage and you’re angry, almost like you would be if someone was trying to kill you or somebody were to say something to you, if a stranger came up on the sidewalk and insulted you, wow that’s like life or death. The reactive part of our brain treats that like life and death no different than it evolved to treat certain scenarios that way, and it can activate the fight or flight mode. It’s just important to know that that’s how the brain works. By knowing that we’re hard-wired that way, very much like a city has downtown and that’s just how it is, our brain is similar. Our brain is wired in a way where there’s a part of it that still functions that way and it treats everything life or death, it treats everything like we’re chasing the carrot as if our life depends on it or we’re avoiding the stick as if our life depends on it.

And I think it’s interesting to be able to take some time and just pause and think, “What are the carrots that I chase in life? Or what are the sticks that I try to avoid in life?” And I treat these things as if my life depends on it. It can be comical to analyze these scenarios and think, “Wow, I make such a big deal about this, and really I shouldn’t,” and then to recognize, “But I can’t help it, that’s just what happens when I react.”

When we go into that reactive mode, we have a very old part of the brain that’s taking control of your emotions and your actions. And that’s why it’s, first of all, important to know that that’s how the brain works, second of all it’s important to learn how to throttle that or to control it. That’s where meditation comes in, and in past podcast episodes I’ve talked about the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exercise that gives us the ability to observe things as they arise and to simply observe them without having to react. The reactive mind would be like, monkey mind or the reptilian mind. That’s the instinctual part of us that treats everything wrongly as if it were a matter of life and death.

But we can train our mind because it’s grown, just like the city. There are new highways, there are new parts of the city where commerce works, our brain is the same. There are other parts of the brain that work pretty well that can throttle and control and say, “Hey wait a second, don’t, you don’t need to react about this.” Meditation is a form of exercising those parts of the brain so that when something does come up, rather than reacting we can pause and just observe and recognize, “Oh wow, that’s what’s happening, okay.”

And going back to the example of driving in your car, if somebody were to cut you off, the instinct is there. Immediately you’re gonna feel anger or aggression, but you can pause for a second and then smile and think, “Oh how funny, who would have ever guessed that you could get so mad because somebody cut in front of you. So what? Now I’m 10 seconds behind the schedule that I was on.” What difference does that make? If we know that that’s how the mind works we can look at that reactivity and say, “Oh, there went the reptilian mind kicking in. Okay, I’m good now, he’s fine, his cutting in front of me is not ending my life so I’m not gonna treat this like a life or death situation.”

It sounds comical to even have to talk about it that way, but notice next time you’re in that situation, or any other similar situation, how we really do treat things like life or death. If somebody were to insult you, that’s a matter of life and death. Somebody cuts in front of you, that’s a matter of life and death. I might be losing my job, that’s a matter of life and death. Everything is treated like it’s just such a big deal. Well, that’s because we’re hard-wired to think that way.

Maybe take some time and think about, “What are the carrots that I chase in life and what are the sticks that I’m avoiding in life?” When we recognize that our hard wiring is what makes us be that way, we can have more compassion towards ourselves and recognize, that’s just how we are. I don’t have to treat that like that’s wrong and say, “That’s something I need to change,” it’s just recognizing, you don’t change out, that’s like downtown in an old city, that’s just how it is. That’s how human beings are, that’s how our brain works. But we can have compassion and then in that moment, what you try to do it, you catch yourself.

This would be the analogy of the two arrows. The first one happens, you can’t control that. You’ve been struck by an arrow and you cannot do anything about it. The second one you do control, and that’s what you do with the moment that you’re struck with the arrow, what are you gonna do with that? And going back to the example of the car, somebody all of a sudden cuts you off, boom there’s the first arrow. And you might have an emotional reaction, whatever happens with the reaction of the first arrow. Now if I decide to make that personal and say, “How dare this guy cut me off? Doesn’t he know who I am?” Or anything they start to add to that story, there’s just … What happened is one thing, the story I’m gonna add to it determines if I’m gonna get that second, third, fourth or however many arrows of suffering I’m gonna compile on top of the first arrow, those are all self-inflicted.

Because there’s what happened, and yeah it made me upset and that’s it, they can end right there and you go on, or you can start to feed that and then you start getting hit with that second, third, fourth, however many arrows that are completely self-inflicted. “Now I’m mad because I’ve been personally offended,” or, “Doesn’t he know I needed to be at that meeting? Now I’m gonna be late.” And you start compiling all these new layers of suffering on top of the first one, and the first one was the one that you can’t control, it’s just what happened, it’s just everything that you add to that that you can control.

So in what other ways do we go through life reacting to the arrows that we’re stuck with, and unfortunately reacting in a way that it causes more arrows of suffering to hit us. One of the big misconceptions, I think, as people learn or study Buddhism is that the intention of Buddhism is to prevent or stop all suffering. And that’s not the case at all; Buddhism is saying suffering is universal, everyone is going to experience it and there is no way to end that. That’s because it’s part of life. When you recognize that, then what’s the point if I’m just gonna suffer?

What Buddhism is trying to teach is this concept of the multiple arrows. That first arrow you cannot help it, life is gonna throw arrows at you. In one of my earlier podcasts I talk about the concept of walking on a trail at night and somebody comes out dressed as a bear and they’re gonna scare you. If you know that’s what’s going to happen, then as soon as it happens you can recognize it. You’ll still be startled, but you’ll recognize, “Oh, okay I knew this was going to happen at some point.”

Now the aftermath of that initial scare is significantly reduced and you recover from it much quicker. Well applying this to this concept of the multiple arrows, it’s similar. You know that the first arrow’s gonna get you, you’re gonna be hit by arrows at various stages in life and you cannot do anything about it. But now you immediately know the follow-up arrow of suffering, if you’re gonna experience that, that’s on your own because of your lack of perspective and understanding what’s happening. When we personalize things, when we make meaning of things, add to the story, that’s when we start to experience the second level of suffering, the second arrow.

And for some of us it’s beyond second, it goes third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and all these layers of arrows and suffering, and all of them are self-inflicted after the first one, the first one we couldn’t help. I would invite you to think about that for a little bit and imagine in what ways do I add multiple layers of arrows after having been struck by the first arrow. Remember, the first one we can’t help, it’s the ones that come after that we can help.

When we understand the way we’re hard-wired, we start to get a glimpse into the nature of how we are. Remember that Buddha’s very first lesson, his key teaching was understanding the nature of who you are. This would be an example of understanding the nature of how we are. We’re hard-wired in a certain way. When we know that and when we can start to see that that’s how we are then we can start to work with it. This takes me to the next part of this conversation I want to have is that there is a haiku, a Japanese haiku which is a 17 syllable Japanese poem that says,

“Showing front, showing back maple leaves fall.”

And that’s it, that’s the lesson. And you might think, “Well what the heck does that mean?” Well let me tell you. The natural way of things, when a leaf has fallen from a tree, in this case it’s a maple leaf and it’s falling. Picture this in your mind; does it just fall straight? Or is it kind of drifting, showing the front, showing the back as it naturally falls? The idea here is that we should be as maple leaves, that when we fall we show front and we show back. But for us, in reality, we try to put up a front, right? And we only want to show the front and there’s no need to show what’s going on in the back.

If we were to live like maple leaves, we would understand that there is no front and there is no back, there’s just the totality of what we are, there’s nothing to hide. And in his book Everyday Suchness, [inaudible 00:14:29] talks about this and he says, “If we were able to live as the maple leaves, showing the front as front and back, and showing the front as front and back as back, there would be no falseness, no pretense, no secrets to hide; we just show ourselves to the world, we live our life.” We live a life of front and back.

I like Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, and this ties in perfectly with that concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability, she says, is about having the courage to show up and be seen. She goes on to say that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. It takes considerable courage to show up and be seen because our tendency, again, is because we’re chasing carrots and avoiding sticks, this causes us to live a life where we treat everything as if our life depends on it. Something as simple as, “I want to liked by this group, I want to make sure this group doesn’t dislike me. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” and we get caught up in a way of living where it’s not vulnerable and it’s not authentic. It’s putting up fronts and hidings backs.

The Buddhist life is a life of awareness, it’s learning to be aware of how things are and specifically how we are, and an important part of that is having the courage to just be exactly how we are; showing front, showing back. In his book, [inaudible 00:16:08] talks about how what we’re concerned with in terms of living like a maple leaf is to live with no shamefulness. We just live with straightforward honesty and sincerity in life. We don’t have to be caught up in this way of thinking where it’s like, “Is this side better to show the public? Should this side of me be hidden from the public?”

The Buddhist life is a life of honesty, it’s a life of ‘there is no front and there is no back.’ A true life is a life of complete oneness and totality. We want to live life like a maple leaf, showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall. When we understand these facts of life, how we’re hard-wired, what our reactive, instinctual way of living is, then we can start to live life in a new way. A whole new way of life begins the moment that you learn what you are and what life is. And what life is is always different than what we think life is, and what we are is always different than what we think we are; that’s why I brought up the concept of the wiring of our mind. That’s part of what we are, that’s part of how we are.

Like I mentioned before, the very first teaching of the Buddha was to know yourself. He taught that the most important thing in solving your problems is to know yourself first, and that means knowing what you are. Hopefully this week you can have that in mind, the hard wiring of the brain, the downtown part of my brain is, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s what reptiles have. It’s what the donkey has that’s chasing the carrot, it’s what the donkey has that’s trying to avoid being hit by the stick. We’re no different, that part of our brain is no different.

Try to notice in what ways does that hard wiring show up in day to day life. When something pops up, how is this a stick or a carrot? And am I really, instinctually treating this as if my life depended on it? I think you’ll be surprised to find how easily we do that with everything. Being in line, getting stopped at a red light, somebody cutting in front of you, the risk of losing job or whatever it is, notice how the hard wiring part of, the natural part of you that’s hard-wired to think this way treats everything like it’s such a big deal. See if you can pause for a minute, take a break and recognize, let’s the newer part of that city, the newer more evolved part of the brain take over for a minute and just pause and not have to react.

There’s that gap between what happens and reacting, and it’s in that gap, before we react that the more evolved part of the human brain can take over and say, “Oh I don’t have to react this way, my life’s not in danger, this isn’t that big of a deal.” Try that this week and see, see if that’s something that you can work with, see if it’s something that you can notice and I think you might find, on certain occasions, how comical it can be to have instantly been carried into this place where we were reacting in a way as if our life was in danger.

And then you can look objectively back at what it is that happened and realize, “Wow, that’s incredible that something that minor and insignificant was causing me so much stress or so much anxiety, because my poor, reptilian mind was thinking that my life was in danger.” And then have that compassion for yourself, knowing this is how we are. This is part of being human, this is part of the evolutionary process of being human, and you can have compassion for the downtown part of your brain, the reptilian part of the mind and then try to extend that compassion out. When you do something, next time you accidentally cut someone off and then that person immediately pulls up next to you and flip you the bird you don’t have to react, you can know where they were coming from and smile and say, “Wow, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to activate the reptilian part of your mind that made you think your life was in danger, and I’m not gonna escalate that because I know, I probably would have done the same thing.”

It’s a really powerful thing to be able to know, even a tiny aspect like this of how we are and what makes us do the things that we do, and then you can have compassion for yourself and extend that compassion to others, because now a little bit … You have a little bit more of an understanding of the hard wiring of the brain and have compassion for the reptilian part of our mind, the reptilian part of the brain, the downtown part of the city. Those are the thoughts I wanted to share with you guys in this podcast episode. I hope you enjoyed that and I love catching myself activating the fight or flight mode in my own head for silly things and then realizing, “Oh wow, that’s just what we do,” and trying to pause in that gap between what happens and the reaction to what happens.

The whole key is finding a gap in between the two that allows you to stop and pause and then actively decide, rather than just reacting. It’s when we react that we get ourself in trouble, because that’s the older part of the brain that reacts. If you can catch yourself before the reaction, the majority of the time you’re going to be able to react in a way that’s significantly more helpful than allowing the other part of the mind to just react and be instinctual.

And I promise you, for the vast majority of these things, if not all of them, your life really isn’t in danger, it’s not a matter of life and death even though it can feel that way. Thank you guys, and I will catch up again next week with another podcast episode, thank you.