Have you noticed? Suffering exists. In myriad forms.
From the minor irritations we encounter each and every day to overwhelming states of anxiety, depression, envy, and countless others. In macro forms like war, cruelty, hunger, poverty, and addiction.
Another word for suffering is frustration. Or discontent. The continual feeling of subtle dissatisfaction that underlines our life. Even when we have it good, we’re still trying to make it better.
So how can we end suffering? The first step is to understand it.
It is said that there are three types of suffering:
- The suffering of suffering – outright, blatant suffering.
- The suffering of change – when a pleasurable experience changes and becomes the source of suffering. For example, the death of a loved one or heartburn after a delicious meal.
- The all-pervasive suffering of conditioning – this is subtle and far more difficult to understand. It’s the fact that in every aspect of conditioned existence there’s the potential for future suffering.
What Causes Suffering?
Mental states are the primary cause of suffering and they propel us into harmful actions, which bring further suffering. But they occur as the result of our past actions (karma) so there’s a dynamic duo en force.
For example, violence typically results from anger and aggression. Wars are the result of hatred and a sense of division. Thus, harmful actions are triggered by a mental state.
It is said that there are six root destructive emotions:
- Beliefs (for example, the belief in “I” and “Mine”
And there are twenty subsidiary destructive emotions if you care to boil it down a bit more.
Why do these negative mental states arise?
They arise from misperceiving the world and projecting more than what is onto reality, onto a person, a business, a situation, a country.
Our tendency is to see in black and white. This person or this country or this situation is all bad, in the case of hatred. Or eminently desirable, in the case of desire or greed. This incorrect perception fosters destructive mental states and these drive us to harmful actions. And the cycle of suffering goes on and on, until you cut the circle.
This active misperception, known as ignorance in Buddhism, is based on these three mistakes:
- Seeing what is impermanent and transient as permanent.
- Seeing what is interrelated and interconnected as independent.
- Seeing an autonomous self where there isn’t one.
So the cause of suffering is karma and destructive emotions; these are rooted in ignorance, the misperception of reality.
An End to Suffering
If we come to understand that the deeper cause of suffering is the misperception of the nature of reality, we know how to undo suffering. We can follow the bread crumbs back home to the village of peace, compassion, and wisdom.
Following the Path
That’s the spiritual path and its aim is to end suffering. It is replete with a variety of methods to that end.
Of them all, mindfulness – also known as calm abiding meditation – is fundamental and essential.
If suffering comes from the mind, then it’s imperative to keep a constant awareness over all your thoughts and emotions. You need to have an early warning system in place.
When a negative thought or emotion arises, knowing full well that it contains the seed of suffering – for yourself and, perhaps, others – you can dismantle it with the proper antidote or method. When a positive thought or emotion arises, you can reinforce and multiply it, creating a new habit.
In the backdrop – like the sky – you practice holding the awareness of impermanence, interdependence, and emptiness as the larger space of your mind and the nature of reality. This is the wisdom that informs your actions.
Without mindfulness, we act willy-nilly propelled by whatever thought or emotion pops into our mind. Often causing a mess and sometimes much worse.
So it’s simple. If you want to be happy, be mindful and engage in positive actions. If you want to avoid suffering, be mindful and disengage from unwholesome actions.
Yes simple, but not easy. After all, we are attempting to change a lifetime of habitual patterns. So we proceed with a sense of gentleness towards ourselves, an acceptance of our imperfections, and self-forgiveness. We face forward and keep moving, knowing full well that training the mind requires diligence.
As Buddha said in his first teaching, the root of all our suffering in samsara is ignorance. Ignorance, until we free ourselves from it, can seem endless, and even when we have embarked on the spiritual path our search is fogged by it. However, if you remember this, and keep the teachings in your heart, you will gradually develop the discernment to recognize the innumerable confusions of ignorance for what they are, and so never jeopardize your commitment or lose your perspective. – Sogyal Rinpoche, Glimpse After Glimpse
This is the essence of the Buddha’s first teaching, after he attained enlightenment, called the Four Noble Truths:
- The Truth of the Cause (Origin) of Suffering, which is to be abandoned
- The Truth of Suffering, which is to be understood
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, which is to be actualized
- The Truth of the Path, which is to be relied upon
There’s so much in these four lines to reflection upon. Imagine what it would be like if we were able to truly take them to heart.
What are your thoughts on suffering? Do you believe that suffering begins in the mind? Do you believe there’s a way to end suffering?
Image: Rigpa Wiki