In this first part of lesson 2, Stephen reflects on the topic of reactivity [#add text].


Stephen’s talk on reactivity [Download this audio file here]


[#place video here]
Discussion Question
Find examples of occasions in your own life of being stuck in reactivity. Consider how your dharma practice or meditation practice was of help in those moments: was it of help in freeing you from the reactivity or not?


Q&A / discussion


[Download this audio file here]





Stephen's notes

Chapter 3: Reactivity

Reactivity is a key concept in Secular Dharma. Yet there is no word for it either in the Pali canon or elsewhere in traditional Buddhism. We all know what it means to be reactive — particularly when we start practicing mindfulness. In meditation we become conscious of how the mind is constantly being triggered either by external inputs or internal impulses, then carried away either into fantasy or worry in endless loops. We realize how little control we have over the inner workings of our own life. So much of what goes on inside us is not the result of our own choices but happens to us without our consent.

I often become aware of myself as mildly depressed and anxious, worrying about some trivial problem that I magnify out of all proportion, turning it into a disaster. Or madly anticipating something that will happen later in the day that I likewise exaggerate in its capacity to bring fulfillment and happiness. Such states can completely dominate how we feel and can last for a long time.

The suttas use a number of terms to describe reactivity:

  • Fires: greed, hatred, confusion, which flare up on contact with the world, cf. The Fire Sermon. These were later spoken of as poisons.
  • Craving: (tanha), defined as “repetitive, wallowing in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that, craving for sensual stimulation, craving to exist, craving to not exist.”
  • Effluents: (asava), literally: leakage: opinions, desires, confusions, actions that pour out of us uncontrollably to infect the world we share with others.
  • Death: (mara) — an inner death where one is not really alive. A “dead end” (anta), i.e. a path that goes nowhere but tries to maintain a status quo in which nothing changes.
  • Hindrances: (nivarana) Reactivity is a condition of being blocked and stuck, obstructed by attachment, aversion, restlessness, lethargy and vacillation.
  • Afflictions: (kilesa), more widely used in Mahayana Buddhism. Defined as “what disturbs the mind”. Reactivity is thus painful.
  • Uprisings: (samudaya). Like flames they blaze forth when an organism encounters an environment, triggering feelings of pleasure and pain (vedana).

“Reactivity” is a term that tries to capture all this in one word. (We could also compare reactivity to neurosis, defined by C.G. Jung as an “autonomous complex in the psyche”.)

We might also explore how reactivity can become an internalized social habit and not just a personal psychological habit. Take, for example, racism or sexism and other forms of widely socialized prejudices that are perpetuated and reinforced not by individuals but by media, political parties, religious groups and so on. Reactivity is a natural process, the result of evolution, the legacy of our biological past, which has been so successful in providing survival advantages to our ancestors. Those individuals and groups who succeeded in passing on their genes to future generations were those who were good at getting what they wanted, getting rid of what stood in their way, and had a strong sense of me and mine.

“Reactivity” is not the same as “reaction” (sankhara), which simply describes how we are inclined, either naturally or culturally, to respond to whatever impacts our organism. We can react with sympathy, generosity, love, wisdom. These are not reactivity because they are not necessarily “repetitive” or “indulgent”, they need not block us but can liberate us to respond selflessly.

In traditional Buddhism of all schools, the problem with reactivity is that it is the origin or cause of suffering. “Uprising” (samudaya) is interpreted to mean “origin” or “cause” even though it does not mean this in any other contexts except that of the four noble truths. “Craving is the Origin of Suffering” is the fundamental metaphysical dogma of Buddhism. It is metaphysical because it makes a truth claim about something that is non-evident. While we can find many examples of specific instances where craving evidently causes suffering, Buddhism claims that craving — reinforced in many texts by ignorance — is the origin of life itself: birth, sickness, aging and death.

If the goal of Buddhism is the cessation of life, how does it escape the charge of falling away from the middle path into the dead end of nihilism?

Buddhism shares this metaphysical dogma with its Indian sister religions of Jainism and Brahmanism, who to this day regard Buddhists as nastika — nihilists — since they reject both an immortal soul and God. Secular Dharma follows Gotama’s rejection of metaphysics in also rejecting this metaphysical belief that, I believe, inserted itself into his teaching at a very early period in order to align the dharma with the soteriology of Indian religion. In Secular Dharma the problem with reactivity is not that it is the origin of suffering but that it prevents one from flourishing, i.e. from entering the stream of the eightfold path. Reactivity is therefore described as “arid” (khila), a place where nothing can grow or flourish. The “aridity of the heart” [Cf. M.16] describes a mind that is trapped in reactivity and thus incapable of being fully alive.

Reactivity is the opposite of creativity.