Posts by Bodhipaksa

Breaking the cycle of resentment

Most of our suffering is self-inflicted.

When we call to mind some resentment from the past, we often assume that it’s the other person who’s making us suffer. And perhaps they did hurt us at some point. But unless they’re still in our lives doing the same thing that hurt us before, right now it’s our own thought processes that are causing us pain.

There’s a 5th century text by a monk called Buddhaghosa, “The Path of Purification,” that discusses reflecting on this very thing as a way of getting rid of resentment. He suggests we ask ourselves why, if another person has hurt us, should we then hurt ourselves?

So when resentful thoughts come into the mind, we can be aware that we’re causing ourselves pain. Now our problem with a person we have a grievance about is that they caused us pain, and yet here we are doing the same thing to ourselves!

Reflecting this way is probably not going to stop the whole process of resentment straight away. But it lessens the stream of resentful thoughts enough that we can start to think straight again.

Implicit in the practice that Buddhaghosa is suggesting is that we become aware of the way that feelings and thoughts affect each other. When we have resentful thoughts, this triggers feelings of pain, hurt, anxiety, etc. And those feelings in turn trigger further resentful thoughts. So our resentment becomes cyclical, which is one reason it becomes such a problem for us.

The Buddha talked about this in terms of two arrows. He said that being hurt is like being shot by an arrow. That’s obviously painful, but the stream of thoughts that springs up in reaction to our pain hurts us even more. He said that it’s like being shot by yet another arrow. Actually, each thought is an arrow. And because we can have a thousand resentful thoughts in reaction to being hurt, we often fire many more arrows at ourselves than the other person ever did.

Buddhaghosa offers some other reflections as well. He points out that in your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness. So why, he says, should we not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable?

He also suggests that if another person has done something we disapprove of, then we should reflect on why we are doing something (like getting angry and resentful) that we would also disapprove of them doing? We should hold ourselves to the same standard we hold other people to. He’s suggesting that we practice integrity.

Buddhaghosa further points out that if someone wants to hurt you, why give them satisfaction by joining in? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself.

These are all just ways of tapping the brakes.

I find that a very useful and important practice is to notice where thoughts appear to come from, which you’ll probably find is up in your head, and where feelings arise, which is probably down in the body, mainly around the heart and the gut.

Once you’re aware of this separation, you can more easily see the dynamic that’s in operation between those two parts of our being. You can see how a thought affects how you feel — for example causing you to be afraid or feel hurt or despondent — and how those feelings can affect how you think — provoking you to have further resentful thoughts.

When we do this we can start to see the whole cycle in operation.

Now lovingkindness practice is very important here, because we can find ourselves becoming aware of the cycle of resentment, and start criticizing ourselves. In practicing lovingkindness, however, we’re learning how to be more supportive, gentle, and understanding toward ourselves. So we can recognize that we’ve been caught up in a cycle of resentment. We can recognize the pain of knowing that we cause ourselves suffering. And we can offer ourselves kindness: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be free from suffering.”

None of these practices I’ve mentioned is a quick fix, but they help us to soften around our resentment, and this in turn helps us to let go and be at peace.

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Who needs willpower anyway?

I confess that I have a bit of an addictive personality — not in the sense of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but more in terms of getting hooked on stimulation. A minor example is that I had a tin of mints in the car recently, and I would often find that as soon as one mint was gone, I’d reach for another. The mints are sugar-free and this form of addiction isn’t a big deal, but boy can I get through a tin of mints quickly!

Similarly I can overeat, particularly on unhealthy foods like potato chips or popcorn. Again, as soon as (or even before) one morsel has been swallowed my hand is delivering another to my waiting lips. This is a bit more serious because I’m maybe 12 to 15 pounds (roughly 5 to 7 Kg) overweight, and although I run and generally try to eat healthily my occasional binges make it hard for me to lose that excess.

You might say that I lack willpower. A lot of us would say that about ourselves. But what I’m finding successful in reducing these little addictions has nothing to do with willpower. Instead, I’ve been practicing being mindful of cessation — specifically of the way that flavors fade away in my mouth.

The flavor beginning to fade away is the trigger for my habit. My normal, unmindful, habit is to reflexly seek a new “hit” of flavor as soon as the previous one has started to fade. So the phenomenon of a flavor fading away is what I’m choosing to observe.

This is a really interesting practice! Watching a flavor decay, curving slowly down to non-existence, gives me an opportunity to practice equanimity and non-reactivity. As the flavor fades, I feel no desire to reach for another hit. Watching the old flavor disappear is actually way more satisfying, just as watching the fading away of a sunset is satisfying. And I’ve discovered that I can observe the fading away of a flavor for a long time. I’ve found that the flavor of a mint is still detectable in my mouth an hour and a half after eating it.

So far this is working very well.

Now, I can also get addicted to mental stimulation as well, and this often manifests as a restless desire to consume social media. If I get a bit bored I reach for my phone or open up a new tab in my browser so that I can check twitter.

I’ve been writing this article as I wait to renew my driver’s license at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Having written the previous paragraph I picked up my phone and my finger moved toward the Twitter icon. But before it got there I checked in with the feeling tone of my restlessness. And I just watched it as it faded away. The feeling itself is hard to describe. Fortunately I don’t need to describe it, but just observe it passing. Again I found that it was enjoyable to observe it passing away, and when it was gone I had no desire to read Twitter. Instead I just let myself connect compassionately with the other people waiting with me. That was enjoyable too.

I’ve found that the concept of willpower is overrated. We either strongly desire to do the “right” thing or we don’t, and the difference is often to do with strategies. If not eating a mint or not opening Twitter can be made enjoyable (making it enjoyable is a strategy), then that’s what we’ll do.

I’ve been finding that observing the process of cessation of an experience is fun. Maybe that’ll be true for you as well. Maybe not. I’m just suggesting this as an experiment that you might want to try.

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Embrace your full potential by living skillfully

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, once asked him what the benefit of living skillfully was. The Buddha answered that skillful living leads to freedom from remorse, which in turn leads to joy. Joy then allows the mind to settle into concentration, and concentration leads to the arising of insight. That’s the path we’re following in Buddhist practice. And it all starts with learning to live skillfully.

The word “skillful” (that’s kusala in Pali, for those who are interested) is a fascinating vocabulary choice on the Buddha’s part. He didn’t generally talk about “good” and “bad” actions, although that terminology was, of course, available to him. Instead, he talked about us acting skillfully or unskillfully. Since this may seem like odd language for talking about morality or ethics, as if we’re being asked to perform some kind of trick, let’s take a closer look at what he might have meant by it.

You can think about “skill” as meaning, “actions that can accomplish an aim.” A skilled writer is one who aims to persuade or create pleasure, or whatever her aim might be, and can actually do so. Merely having the intent isn’t enough, or we’d all be good writers! Writing well is a craft, and has to be learned by the intelligent application of trial and error and well as by studying the works of other writers who are themselves recognized as having skill. An unskilled writer may have the same aim as a more skilled one but isn’t able to put those aims into action.

What’s the relevance of this to spirituality? We all have the aim, deep down, of finding peace of mind, happiness, and wellbeing. But do we have the skill to create them? Here too, just as with our example of a skilled writer, accomplishing this aim is a matter of intelligently approaching life in a trial-and-error way, while also learning from the life, example, and sometimes personal guidance of those who seem to be skilled at living well.

What stops us from finding peace of mind? We do! We contain skillful tendencies (compassion, kindness, mindfulness, etc) and unskillful tendencies (such as self-centeredness, aversion to discomfort. Both sets of impulses aim to keep us secure and happy, but all too often our unskillful tendencies create suffering for ourselves. We react, and these reactions cause suffering.

Our unskillful instincts advertise themselves as helpful when most of the time they’re not. So our trial and error process consists of observing that unskillful, reactive impulses do not bring happiness and that only a creative life based on living with mindfulness and kindness can achieve that aim.

This is something that we have to work at learning because our unskillful impulses have evolved to protect us. For example, being unpleasant to someone who annoys us is an instinct that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. If you’re a lizard, and you make a threatening display to another lizard who comes too close to you, you can chase the intruder away, protecting yourself and your food supply. But when the person we’re annoyed with is a colleague or close family member, we can’t simply remove them from our lives! Our aversion binds us in a conflicted and painful relationship. And so, in many ways, our “protective” instincts end up harming us.

Our more skillful attributes are rooted in our evolutionary biology as well. As mammals, we’ve evolved to value love and connection; a newborn baby’s first need is to be held, monkeys create social binds by grooming each other. We’ve evolved to have empathy. Even mice show distress when they see one of their fellows suffering. Scientists have observed rats trying to free each other from traps. Empathy is built into the structure of mammalian brains.

Another part of our mammalian conditioning, however, is the need to establish our position in a social “pecking order.” This can result in us competing, even with friends and family. This kind of conditioning goes against our need for connection, warmth, and intimacy.

But we also have a more distinctively human part of our brains — the most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex. This is the seat of reason, reflection, and self-awareness. The neocortex allows us to look at our reactive instincts and our more creative and skillful instincts. It helps us to see the disadvantages of the former compared to the latter. It also allows us to change our behavior, so that we choose to let go of unskillful impulses, and instead to think, speak, and act skillfully. In choosing to live skillfully, we’re choosing to live a more authentically human, happier, and meaningful life.

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What living as a Buddhist means for me

Photo by Cristian Escobar on UnsplashA while back I heard from a woman who seemed concerned that my life as a Buddhist must be very dull — just meditating and “being good” all the time, I guess. I think she thought I’d be a very boring person to hang out with, and maybe she was expressing her own fears about getting drawn in to Buddhist practice.

Tonight I just came back from a comedy improv show, where I was blown away by the humor and good humor of the performers. I had a blast: not perhaps what this woman had in mind.

I wrote and told her that for me, Buddhism is a set of principles and guidelines for living your life, not a set of rules. I said that I could boil down some of the guiding principles of my life as something like:

  • Be in your body so that you don’t get lost in your head.
  • Don’t believe everything you think. Not all the stories you tell yourself are true.
  • If your stories disempower you and make you suffer they’re probably not true.
  • Take responsibility for all your thoughts, actions, and feelings.
  • Realize that you have a choice in every moment about how you respond.
  • Keep asking: “Is there’s anything I’m doing that’s suppressing my happiness and wellbeing?” And see if you can stop doing that thing.
  • Remember: Life is short. Be kind.
  • There’s always something you can appreciate in any situation.
  • Stay in touch with your heart, but check in with your rational mind because feelings can be misleading.
  • Give yourself the same compassion you give to people you love.
  • Be true to your values; it’s not your job to please people.
  • To be honest is often the best way to be kind to yourself and others.
  • Apologizing when you’ve done something unskillful is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Keep asking: “Is what I’m about to do conducive to my long-term benefit and welfare?”
  • Helping others is usually more conducive to happiness than focusing only on your own needs.
  • Don’t try and define yourself. You’re not definable.

Together, these principles almost amount to a statement of personal philosophy. Any such philosophical statement includes the principles by which you live — or at least aim to live — your life. I’m actually going to print this list out right now, because I need to keep reminding myself of how I aspire to live my life. It’s not about rules, or “being good.” It’s about living life in a way that brings a deeper sense of meaning, purpose, and connectedness.

What would your top three or four guidelines for life be?

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Can Buddhist practice make you more of a dick?

A quick thought experiment for you. You can take a pill to extend your own life by six months. Alternatively you can give the pill to a stranger who is similar to you and add five years to their life.

Which would you choose in this hypothetical test of generosity?

This question was posed to a number of groups, including Tibetan Buddhist monks, non-religious Americans, American Christians, ordinary Buddhists in Bhutan, and Hindus in India.

You’d think that becoming a Buddhist monk would make people particularly compassionate and generous, but it turned out that this wasn’t the case, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to give the pill to a stranger.

I’m stunned. The Tibetan monastics were more likely than any of the others involved in the study to embrace the idea that the self is not fixed. The study was in fact intended to find out whether embracing this Buddhist teaching would affect the fear of death. It seems it did, but in the wrong direction, making monastics more attached to living and more afraid to dying, to the point where they would choose to live at someone else’s expense.

I’m a bit disturbed by this, although it was pointed out that these were novice monks and not people who’d been meditating for years. But this point remains that these monks were less ethical than average Buddhists with far less practice under their belts.

It makes me wonder about who is attracted to monasticism in the first place. Could it be that it attracts people who are more self-centered than average? Or does being a monk make you more selfish, perhaps because of the status involved?

In a different part of the Buddhist world, a western monk, Sravasti Dhammika, pointed out that the “excessive reverence surrounding monks” in the Theravadin world tended to make many of them “complacent and proud.” Monks in Burma have been complicit in genocide against the Rohingya people, and monks in Sri Lanka have advocated violence against the Hindu Tamil population. Things can get ugly.

Anyway, I do find this study fascinating and rather disturbing. One of my social media friends said that it shows that becoming a monk doesn’t automatically make you a better person, but the problem is that it appears that in some respects it might make you less ethical!

As for myself, I think of what it would be like to live for six months knowing that I had deprived someone of five years of life. I’d rather not have that experience. You’re welcome to my pill!

But also, there are definitely times that my practice has made me more selfish and uncaring. Sometimes the notion of having a “higher” calling can lead you to neglect important relationships, and the idea of “non-attachment” can also become an excuse for unkindness.

The main lesson I take from this study is the reminder to keep checking that I’m being kind.


PS. I wrote an email to one of the leaders of the study, suggesting another possible interpretation of the results. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Dr. Garfield.

As a Buddhist I’m very open to the possibility that at times Buddhist practice may make us more selfish — I think many of us have misused teachings on “non-attachment” in ways that have hurt others — but I have a sincere question about the “Death and the Self” study.

I gather that the monks were novices, and my question is, given that novices may have recently (how recently in this case I don’t know) left home and entered a community of which they are the lowliest members, might your findings actually be measuring the effect of what may have been a deeply unsettling change in their social connections? I can imagine that such a change might provoke an anxiety that might overwhelm impulses to generosity.

I’m assuming that the other groups were not selected on the basis of having recently gone through such a profound dislocation in their lives.

Of course I may be misinterpreting the term “novice.” Perhaps these monks have been living in a monastic context for years. Anyway, I thought I should ask the question.

Thanks for your time.

Sincerely yours,
Bodhipaksa

 


And here’s the reply I received:

Dear Bodhipaksa,

Our group included novices and fully ordained monks with a range of years in robes. And we didn’t see any effect f length of time in robes or age. The interesting question in my mind is still, what happens when we look at seriously long-term meditators; I expect a reversal of the effect.

Yours as ever,

J

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Emily Dickinson: “The brain is wider than the sky…”

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
— Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” suggests that because the brain contains the perception of the sky (and more besides) it must in some sense be larger than the sky. This might seem like no more than an interesting thought — the kind of thing you momentarily appreciate as a quote on Facebook before forwarding it to your friends and moving on to the next cute cat video.

But this is the kind of thing that becomes very profound when you choose to sit with it in meditation. I started to experiment with a practice strikingly similar to Dickinson’s verse back in the 1990s when I lived in the city center of Glasgow, in Scotland. I lived on a busy shopping street in a tenement building that had a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor. Being four floors up did little to remove us from the noise. There was a constant roar from cars, buses, and delivery vehicles, the sounds of conversations and (especially at night as the bars came out) fights. Passing airplanes and the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens weren’t rare, either.

At first this noise used to interfere with my meditation, but gradually it became my meditation. I learned that it was fruitless to try to push these sounds away, and that instead it was best to notice them as sensations, just like any other sensation. The noise of traffic was really no different from the movements of my breathing; it was all just sensory data. The noise was only a problem when I tried to fight with it.

What I did was simply to attend to whatever sounds were around me. Instead of trying to push them away I allowed them to be there. They became, along with the breathing or the act of well-wishing, my object of attention in meditation.

The result of doing this was a sense of expansiveness. The sounds that reached my ears came from a vast expanse around me. In fact, including passing aircraft, my sphere of attention might be miles in diameter. It felt that my mind was expanding to fill the space around me. It no longer seemed that mind my was a thing inside my head, receiving signals that traveled to it along nerves, but that my awareness was a vast space in which the phenomena it detected arose. My mind (and therefore my brain) encompassed the sky.

This changed my whole meditation practice. For one thing, I did a lot less thinking than I usually did. My mind spontaneously became much quieter. For another thing, when thoughts did arise they were just one very small part of my field of attention. They were less likely to catch my attention, and simply rose and passed away, without my getting caught up in them.

This was probably the single most revolutionary development in my meditation practice — one that provided an approach I’m still working within.

Later in the poem Dickinson says “The brain is just the weight of God.” This very bold comparison provides another connection with meditation. The expansiveness that I’ve been talking about is very helpful in meditations to do with cultivating kindness and compassion. These forms of meditation are known in Buddhism as the “brahma viharas” — literally “the abode of God.” Our narrow sense of self begins to break down, and we realize that the wellbeing of others is just as important as our own. Developing a sense of spacious awareness in meditation makes it easier for an expansive sense of care and concern for all beings to arise.

So I’d suggest that you experiment with expansiveness in your own meditation practice. It’s not hard. After setting up your posture, first, just allow your eyes to relax behind your closed eyelids. Then become aware of the space — and any sounds it contains — in front, behind, to the sides, and above and below you. Let your mind rest into that sense of spacious awareness. And then see where it takes you.

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This simple tweak to the way you write emails might change your entire day

How many emails do you write in the average day? I just did a quick count and yesterday alone it was 64! Many of the messages I write are business emails and don’t have a salutation or valediction, plunging straight into the message. But some of them start with “Dear (whoever)” or “Hi!” and end with a sign-off.

I usually end those kinds of emails with “Metta, Bodhipaksa.” Metta is the Buddhist word for kindness. It’s often translated as “lovingkindness,” although I think the word kindness works much better, mainly because it’s familiar and experiential.

So I was responding to someone who said he couldn’t attend a gathering today because of work, and I was signing off with “Metta, Bodhipaksa” when it occurred to me that I could actually connect with warmth and kindness toward the person I was writing with.

Normally those sign-offs are just a formality. I don’t really think about what I’m saying.

So instead of doing that I just paused for a few seconds and called to mind the person I was writing to. I simply remembered that he was a feeling human being, that he had joys and sorrows just as I do, and that those feelings are as important to him as mine are to me. A sense of warmth and kindness naturally arose as I did this. I still feel different, perhaps half an hour after writing doing this exercise, which literally took just a few seconds.

Incidentally, this is how I teach people the practice of cultivating metta/kindness — the meditation practice we call “metta bhavana” (bhavana just means cultivation). You don’t need to “try to be nice” (yuck!) or try to make anything happen. Kindness just arises naturally when we empathize with the facts that others feel, and that their feelings are as important to them as ours are to us.

So there’s a new practice for me; I’m going to pause every time I write, “With metta, Bodhipaksa” and empathize with the person I’m writing to.

I can’t believe it took 36 years of meditating to come up with that one…

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To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

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“Looking In, Looking Out: Exploring Art, World, and Self”

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Paintings by Lena Levin

I’m really looking forward to co-leading “Looking In, Looking Out: Exploring Art, World, and Self” — a course on art and meditation — with the very talented artist and teacher, Lena Levin. The course starts Feb 1.

A couple of years ago I took an online course with Lena and was impressed by how skillfully she was able to teach us to see in new ways. It was quite mind-blowing to see the extent to which what we see isn’t what’s there, but our mind’s approximation of what’s there. I felt, in some ways, that I was seeing for the first time. Also I was struck by the parallels between the techniques she taught and various approaches to meditation that I’ve explored over the years, although those are more to do with how we “see” the body — not literally but in terms of how the body is perceived internally.

In Lena’s portion of the course we’ll be looking with Lena at eight paintings, literally learning to see them — and by extension the world — in fresh ways. And in my meditations I’ll be doing the same, but with ourselves — and, again, by extension the world.

If you feel interested in learning more, click here.

I’ve put together a little promo video for this course. It’s a new departure for me, and this one’s a little basic. But I hope you enjoy it!

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The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.

Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.

So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.

3. Recognize when you are suffering

When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.

4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it

It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.

9. Learn to reframe

When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.

I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.

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