The Eight Worldly Concerns and Conceptual Framework

The Eight Worldly Concerns

Apart from the experiences and feelings within our minds, there is also the content of our life. It’s the same thing here; we should try not to make a big deal out of it all. The Buddhist teachings emphasize a list of eight transitory things in life – the so-called "eight worldly concerns" or "eight worldly dharmas" – following the same principle of everything always in motion, going up and down.

Gains and Losses

Sometimes we have gains, sometimes we have losses. Financially, sometimes we make money and sometimes we lose money. Sometimes we buy something and it’s very good (it’s a gain), but sometimes it breaks quickly (it’s a loss). Again, there’s nothing special about any of this. It’s like playing a game of cards or a children’s game; sometimes we’ll win and sometimes we’ll lose. So what? Nothing special.

Actually, we need to remind ourselves not to be like that little child that cried when they lose, shouting “I want to win!” Why should you always have to win? It’s like the hope that everyone is going to like me. There’s a useful saying in Buddhism, “Not everybody liked the Buddha, so what do we expect for ourselves – everybody’s going to like us?” Obviously not. Not everyone is going to press the like button on our Facebook page. Some people just won’t like us. What to do? It’s totally normal.

It’s all gains and losses. When we get into a relationship with someone, eventually it will end. We used the image of a wild bird at our window before, where it comes for a while but because it’s free, it’ll fly off. It’s the same in a relationship. No matter if you say, “Don’t ever leave me, I can’t live without you,” and even if you stay together for your entire life, one of you will undoubtedly die before the other. We gain a friend, we lose a friend, there’s nothing special about that. That is simply the way that life is. It doesn’t mean that we can’t feel happy when we have that friend and sad when we lose them – to feel nothing would be the attitude of “whatever,” and that's not at all the same as “nothing special” – but we don’t go to extremes and we don’t make a huge deal out of it.

It’s interesting to look at ourselves and see how we respond to gains and losses. I always look at myself as an example because I’m quite obsessed with my website; it occupies my thoughts and activities pretty much all day long. Of course we have a statistics program and so I know every day how many people are reading it. If there’s an increase one day, then it’s really very nice, but if it doesn’t reach a certain number or what I think it should be, then that’s not so nice. So that’s a gain and a loss.

In a sense I do feel a very low level of happiness. It’s not a dramatic thing. A few weeks ago we reached 6,000 visits in one day, which was really, “Wow, 6,000, that’s a lot!” but the happiness from that is very trivial. It wasn’t a big deal because it didn’t really do anything. The feeling was, “Well, that’s good. Now what? What else is new?” Then another day it goes down to 4,500 views and I became a little disappointed, “Oh, not so many people looked at it today.” But what seems to be more prominent is the self-preoccupation, which I confess to, of wanting to look at the statistics all the time. Buddhism says this preoccupation about the self is much stronger than preoccupation with other things, because thinking about “me” is so instinctive. It doesn’t even have to manifest as thinking oneself is so wonderful or great or that nobody loves us, but there’s always this underlying thought there.

You can all think of your own examples, perhaps to do with Facebook or text messages? How many messages did I get today? Who liked my posts today? How often do we check Facebook or take out phones out of our pockets to see if anything came in? Before, there wasn’t any of this Internet stuff, but people did the same thing with the postman. “Do you have any letters for me today?” There are no letters: “Aw, nobody likes me.” Or it’s only advertisements and we don’t want those. This attitude of “nothing special” can help to make the emotional ups and downs much less extreme, because we’ll have more emotional balance and equanimity to whatever is happening. What is much more difficult is dealing with the preoccupation of always wanting to check and see what came in.

Changing out attitudes is a slow and long process. Things don’t just change quickly, but gradually. It’s interesting when you start to view yourself in a more realistic way, where you see, “I’ve become a slave to the computer and to my cell phone, because I’m always having to look at them. I’m always having to check how many people are responding to me. Why have I become a slave?” Look at all the people on the subway and how many always have their cell phone in their hands. Why? There’s self-cherishing and insecurity, with the mentality of “I don’t want to miss out on something.” Why? What is really so important? Some things may be important, we’re not saying that nothing is important, but we over-exaggerate the importance of constantly being in touch, constantly being online. It’s good to analyze this in terms of our own emotional balance.

So, sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. This is one set.

Things Going Well and Things Going Badly

The second set is that sometimes things go well, and sometimes things go badly. We can understand this on many levels but again, the response is “nothing special.” One day will go really well, and the next will be full of obstacles, people giving us a hard time and everything seems to go wrong. This is normal. In the morning our energy can be high, and in the afternoon really low. Sometimes we’re healthy, sometimes we catch a cold. Nothing special.

Praise and Criticism

The next set concerns praise and criticism. Some people praise us, and others criticize us. How do we deal with this? Not everybody praised the Buddha; some people, especially his cousin, were very critical. So why should we expect everyone to praise us?

I’ll use my own example again. I get many emails about my website, and while the majority say how helpful the website has been to them, occasionally there’s criticism. Of course it’s easier to deal with praise; the criticism can be much more disturbing to our minds.

With praise, we shouldn’t go to extremes of thinking we’re so great or the opposite, “Well I don’t deserve it. If they really knew the true me, they wouldn’t like me.” But it’s much easier to carry on with praise. Why is criticism so much more difficult? Because we cherish ourselves. With attitude training, we look at them rather than us, so we would think about what we did that might have caused them to send us their criticism. If we can do something to help, even if it’s just an apology, “I acknowledge that this maybe gave you a difficult time. I’m really sorry, that wasn’t my intention.” Slowly we can shift the focus from self-cherishing to cherishing others.

We can do this in our normal, everyday interactions with others. Sometimes they’re going to be happy with us and sometime they won’t be. When people are happy with us, it’s easy. Then we have some people in our lives who are just difficult to deal with and who are always criticizing us or being negative toward us. What is our attitude toward them? Do we recognize them just as a very difficult, unpleasant person? Or do we recognize that they are a very unhappy person? I’m sure you all have people like that in your lives. They call you or want to meet up and have lunch and you know it’s going to be 100% talking about themselves and complaining. You could think, “Ugh, this person again.” But you can’t always say you’re busy!

If our response is to think about how unpleasant it will be for me to be with them and listen to their complaining, then we can change our view: this person is complaining all the time because they’re actually very unhappy, and lonely too. People who complain usually are, because no one wants to be with them. So if we need to spend some time with them, we can develop more sympathy, and it’s not such a horrible experience because we think in terms of them, not in terms of “me.”

Hearing Good News and Bad News

The fourth set is hearing good and bad news. It’s like before: everything is always going up and down. Of course, the four sets overlap each other and the principle of “nothing special” applies to each of these eight. There’s nothing special about hearing either good or bad news, that’s what happens to everyone in their lives.

Now, some people object to this type of training, proclaiming that they like being on an emotional rollercoaster because if you don’t have the ups and downs, then you’re not really alive. But we need to examine whether this is a helpful attitude to have.

First off, whether we’re on an emotional rollercoaster or not, we’re still alive. That’s a bit of a silly objection. So what happens when we’re on an emotional rollercoaster? Well, we’re not really thinking rationally because we get overwhelmed by the emotions. If we’re more calm, then our life isn’t so dramatic, and we’re able to deal with situations in a much better way. If you’re not thinking clearly and get angry, you say things you regret later on. Being even-minded in terms of our emotions means that we don’t do this kind of stuff. And in terms of everyone wanting happiness, this sort of calm, peaceful happiness is much more stable than the dramatic “Ooh whoopee!” kind of happiness.

The Conceptual Framework for “Nothing Special”

Let’s look at the basis, or conceptual framework, for this attitude we’ve been discussing. Here its important to understand conceptual thoughts. What is a conceptual thought? A conceptual thought is viewing things or experiencing things through a category, which could be like “something special.” It’s like having some sort of mental box, and when we experience something and we put it into that mental box of “something special.”

We do this all the time, because it’s how we’re able to understand and process things. There’s a mental box of “woman.” I see a person and put her in the mental box of “woman.” Like this, we’re able to put the various things we experience together into different mental boxes. For instance, the same person that we put into either “man” or “woman” could also go into “young person” or “older person” or “blond hair” or “dark hair”. There are so, so many boxes.

In actuality, things don’t exist in boxes. While it might seem obvious, it’s still a very difficult thing to really understand and digest. For instance, we might put someone in the “terrible person” box, but nobody exists just as a terrible person, because if they truly existed like that, then everyone would see them like that, and they would have to have been like that from the time they were a baby.

These mental boxes help us make sense of things, and our attitude toward others is very much determined by the type of mental box we put things in. We need to keep in mind that these mental boxes are simply a mental construct and don’t refer to reality – there are no boxes out there, are there?!

How Do We Create These Boxes?

Now let’s see how we identify and place things in this type of mental box rather than that type of mental box. We do this on the basis of a certain feature of the item that we think really distinguishes it from other things. This can be called the “defining characteristic,” a technical term for it. A simple example would be to see what the defining characteristic is when we put things into the box of being a “square.” Well, it’s to have four equal sides – so things that have this we put into the mental box called “square.”

That was a simple category, but how about the category of “annoying person”? What are the features on the side of the person that makes us view them in this box of “you’re an annoying person”? It’s interesting to try and see what exactly it is that’s annoying. What do the fly buzzing around your head and this person have in common that makes us put them both in the “annoying” box?

What I would say is that both do something that causes me to lose my emotional balance and peace of mind, my calm state of mind. So, actually, we’re defining the mental box in terms of me, not really in terms of them, because what I find annoying you might not find annoying. And as for things that make me lose my peace of mind, that could also be something I’m totally attracted to, that makes me go crazy. So the interesting thing is that how we define things and put them into boxes is really all concerned about ourselves.

Then we have all these feelings. Now it starts to become interesting (maybe it was already interesting). So we have the mental box of “happy.” How do you put things into that box of “happy”? That’s very difficult to say. Somebody asks us, “Are you happy?” and we don’t even know what to answer. If we ask ourselves, “Am I happy?” – well, I don’t even know really what that means? So what’s the defining characteristic of being happy? We want so much to be happy, but we don’t even know what happy is. Odd, isn’t it? The definition is it’s something that when you experience it, you don’t want to be parted from it; you’d like it to continue. That’s the definition we find in the Buddhist literature, so that helps us a little bit.

What about Facebook? How do we define things to “like?” It might be something that makes us smile and makes us feel good. But imagine if you had to look at it and nothing else for the whole day, we wouldn’t like it anymore, would we? So that’s strange, isn’t it?

When you have a conceptual thought, there is always a mental image of what represents the category. So when you think “dog,” you have sort of a mental picture of a dog, which I’m sure is different for everyone. It’s the same with the mental image of what represents a sexy person or an annoying person.

So what represents something that I like? That’s more difficult. We have this way of talking though, don’t we, of “I like this style, I like this type of food, I like this type of movie, that girl is not my type, that guy is my type.” What represents what I like? With an image on Facebook, do we compare it with our experience of what we like and then put it into our “like” category? We have to remember that this is all coming from the side of our minds, not from the object itself. If there was something coming from the object, like a real likeability within the object, then everyone would like it. So it’s all subjective.

Defining “Special”

The next step is to look at what makes something special. Is there something on the side of the object or just a mental box of “something special,” which we’ve defined ourselves? When we look at what makes something special, we start to understand the theoretical basis for “nothing special.” There is absolutely nothing special on the side of the object itself. Any idea of “special” comes totally from our own ideas, from our own mental box of “special.” It’s a filter through which we perceive things: this is special and that isn’t.

Then we can ask ourselves, how do we define special? Some people will say that it’s when something is unique: “This is a really special painting” or “This is a special meal.” But isn’t everything unique? No two things are exactly the same. Each cabbage in a pile of cabbages is a unique cabbage.

Then you might think, “Well, things have to be different. To be special, they have to be different.” But how different do they have to be? How and where do we draw the line between ordinary and special? How could we possibly decide?

Then you could say that something special has to be something new. But is that new to me, or new to the universe? We usually define everything in terms of “me,” and every experience we ever have is new, isn’t it? I am not experiencing the same thing that I experienced yesterday as today. Today isn’t yesterday. So in a sense, everything is special, which actually means that nothing is special. Everything is unique, everything is different, and everything is individual, so there’s nothing we can posit as being special. If we say that something is special because we like it, well we all know that what we like changes all the time; if we get too much of it, we don’t like it anymore, and if we have it for too long, we get bored.

These are the things that we work on to help us overcome our addiction to putting things in the “special” box. “What I’m feeling now is SO important.” Why? Why is it in the “important” box? So what we try to do is not view anything in unnecessary mental boxes. Of course there are useful, necessary boxes; we wouldn’t be able to understand language without them. People make different sounds with different accents and volumes to say the same word, which we can only understand due to having a mental box for the word.

So we can’t throw away all the boxes. Certain mental boxes aren’t helpful though, because they’re entirely subjective, like “something special.” When you start to analyze it, it’s all in our attitude: what we believe to be special, even if we can’t define what special is.

In this way, we’re not just using self-control and discipline to say, “I’m not going to view things as anything special,” because that’s actually very difficult to implement. But through understanding, we can see that because it’s all just a mental construct, really nothing is special.

Attitude Training through Understanding Conceptual Thought

There are so many levels with which we can work with attitude training. We can perceive things through different mental boxes, and we can shift the objects we perceive from one box to another. So instead of placing someone in “annoying, complaining person” we place them in “unhappy, lonely person,” which completely changes our whole way of dealing with that person. We realize that there’s nothing inherent on the side of the person that makes them this or that, but that it’s our attitude of how we perceive them that affects how we experience and deal with them.

Some mental categories, like “special,” are just not helpful at all. There are special people and special occasions and all sorts. But have you thought of how arbitrary it is when we think of birthdays or New Year being so special? What makes it special? Just that people decided it’s special. There is nothing particularly special about January 1st, and the date doesn’t even correspond to anything astronomically. The earth circles around the sun, and you can’t posit a beginning: “Ah! This is the first day of the year.” There is no first, which is why each culture has their own New Year. Nothing special about that. If you’re in a culture that is celebrating a New Year, there’s no need to be a grouch or think it’s stupid, but there’s also no need to get so overexcited and make a big deal out of it.

When we understand this basic nature of how conceptual thought works, with mental boxes and categories and these defining characteristics or features, we can use it when it’s helpful and drop it when it’s not.

Lastly, when we change and improve our attitudes, there needs to be some motivation, and a lot of patience. The more familiar we become with the change through repeated practice, the more naturally it will come in our daily life. All we need to do when we feel unhappy is to remind ourselves, “Hey, I’m just thinking about me, me, me.”

Attitude training is a long process, but a very worthwhile one.

Summary

We wake up each morning with same goal: we want a better, happier future. In this, we are all the same. We are also all equal in thinking that “I” am the center of the universe, a fact that causes us untold problems. Because of self-cherishing, which seems so attractive because it looks after “me,” we actually run toward unhappiness, and away from the happiness that we so desire. When we start to understand reality, the way things really exist, all of this is turned around. Life goes up and down, and it always will; we can’t control this, but what we can control is our own attitude: how we respond, every moment, to the things that we experience. With effort, we can transform our lives into happy ones, where we really care about ourselves and others, no matter what the external circumstances.