dukkha (suffering)

A meditation for accepting aging

A man's hand reaching out to touch its reflection in a mirror.

An elderly friend of mine once said to me, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” She was talking mainly about the physical difficulties of getting older, and especially the aches, pains, and difficulty in doing things that were formerly easy.

To add insult to injury, though, we often feel critical about our appearance as we age, as if it were a sign of weakness instead of an inevitable part of living. Getting older is not a personality defect; it’s an inherent part of being human.

The Buddha talked about aging a lot. He listed it as one of the descriptions of dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

See also:

He also talked about youth as something we get intoxicated with. We become convinced when we’re young that we’re of a different nature from those who are old, forgetting that we’re all on a continuum. But because of this intoxication, which becomes a kind of addiction, we have difficulty accepting the fact of aging.

Today I led a meditation from in front of my bathroom mirror. I’m going to explain what i did, so that you can practice it as well.

To do this meditation you’ll have to be in a place where you can see yourself in a mirror. You should be able to see at least your face, but preferably your whole upper body. My bathroom mirror was ideal.

One thing that’s important but not obvious is that the place where you do this should be brightly illuminated. You don’t want to do this meditation in dim light, because looking for a prolonged period of time at your own face in a dark place can confuse your brain’s visual circuitry, leading to odd illusions. Let’s avoid that.

You could be sitting or standing depending on what’s convenient for you.

We’ll be meditating with the eyes open. And let the eyes be a little soft, by allowing the muscles supporting the eyes to be at rest.

You also shouldn’t stare, but should let there be a gentleness in your focus.

Also, don’t keep your eyes fixed on one spot. The image is your object of mindfulness, so let your eyes gently explore it.

With the eyes soft, notice the sensations of the breathing. And perhaps also seeing the rise and fall of the breath in the mirror.

And let your eyes be kind as well, remembering what it’s like to look with kindness, and reconnecting with that experience. And you might be able to see that kindness in your own eyes as you’re regarding your reflection.

Now, most of us judge our own appearance more harshly than we do the appearance of others. So we focus on blemishes, wrinkles, gray hair, and flesh that’s no longer as firm as it used to be. And we tend to judge those things.

When you see them in another person, they’re just part of that person’s appearance. They could have exactly the same blemishes and wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy parts as we have and we think they’re a beautiful person. We might love those features that they have.

So just see if you can appreciate the texture and the detail of your own appearance, without judgment, in the same kind and appreciative way that you would if this was another person you were seeing.

You can even drop in some words of appreciation. So seeing a wrinkle, a grey hair, or some other feature of the face, you can say to yourself:

“How beautiful that is! How beautiful is this sign of humanness!”

Repeat this a few times.

And you can say to yourself, to yourself as a whole now, not just talking to a feature as you did a little while ago:

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

Repeat this a few times.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

And there’s one more phrase I’d like to suggest, that we can say to ourselves. It’s

“May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

So repeat that a few times as well:

“May I support myself with kindness as I age. May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

And so you can just continue in this way for the rest of this period of practice, however long you’ve chosen to meditate for. Just keep regarding yourself with kind eyes, and be accepting and appreciative of signs of aging and other imperfections.

Guided Meditation

The following meditation is “Sitting With Bodhi”-style. This means that although the recording is ten minutes in length, you’re invited to continue for longer. I’d suggest that before you begin you set a timer for at least 15 minutes.

This recording is one of those I’ve recorded for Wildmind’s sponsors. If you’d like to find out more about what that means, click here.

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What the heck is “the unconditioned”?

close up of a sparkler, with two blurred hands in the background

I often hear Buddhists talking about “the unconditioned.”

I’m extremely suspicious of this expression. In fact think it’s positively unhelpful, in that brings about a sense that Enlightenment is something that happens far, far away. “The unconditioned” becomes a sort of mystical realm — some kind of mysterious entity or metaphysical reality. Sometimes people call it “the Absolute.”

Why I’m Skeptical of the Unconditioned

I started thinking about this when I made the discovery that a well-known Buddhist teaching on suffering: that there is ordinary pain, the suffering of reversal (e.g. loss) and the suffering inherent in “conditioned existence” said no such thing.

Actually, the teaching says that there are (in this order) inevitable physical suffering (the first arrow), suffering we create through reacting to the first kind of suffering (the second arrow), and suffering that hits us if we try to immerse ourselves in pleasure as an escape from these other forms of suffering (I call this “the third arrow”).

A Calamitous Error

My own teacher, Sangharakshita, makes what I regard as a calamitous error when he says “there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.”

But there cannot be two realities. Only one of these things can be real, although one single reality can be looked at in different ways, and perhaps that’s what he meant.

The habit Sangharakshita had — shared by many others — of capitalizing “Unconditioned” reinforces this idea of the term referring to something very special and abstract. If you say “in reality” you’re simply describing what happens. If you say “in Reality” there’s a very different implication. We start wondering where and what this “Reality” is.

See other articles in the “Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma” series:

What Is this Term?

Let’s look at this  expression, “unconditioned” or “the unconditioned,” or even (heaven help us) “the Unconditioned.”

One of the key places it’s found are in translations of a famous Udāna verse:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

There are several other places in the scriptures where this saying is found.

This passage is invariably interpreted in a metaphysical way — as if the Buddha is talking about different worlds. “The unconditioned” sounds even more mysterious now, because it’s accompanied by other terms: “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made.” How mystical! Surely the Buddha is talking about some otherworldly realm, other than the one we find ourselves in — the world where we are born, brought into being, etc.

What Does It Really Mean?

Remember, first, that there’s no direct or indirect article in Pāli. The text just says “there is not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned.” That already sounds quite different.

These four terms (not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned) are synonyms, so asaṅkhata, “not-conditioned” or “unconditioned”) means the same as “not-made.” Saṅkhata can mean “made” or “produced” and so asaṅkhata here can simply mean that something hasn’t yet come into being or no longer exists.

In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha actually explains what he means in using the term “uncreated” (asaṅkhata).

“And what, bhikkhus is not-created? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called not-created.”

So now we have states of mind that are “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.”

Creating or Destroying Mental States

It’s actually, I think, a very practical statement that the Buddha is making. He’s simply saying that things (specifically the experience of suffering, which is what he was most interested in, and the mental states that are the causes of suffering) are sometimes created, and sometimes they are not. They can be “de-created.”

What he’s saying is that because suffering can be not created or destroyed that the experience of suffering can be escaped. If we can create suffering, then we can also not create suffering.

If we had previously created certain mental states of suffering, like craving or hatred, and, through practice, we let them die away. They’d no longer be “born, brought-to-being, made, created,” but would now be “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.” And that would be the state of nibbāna, which is literally the “burning out” of suffering. When suffering’s fuel burns out, suffering burns out, or is “not-created” (asaṅkhata).

“The Unconditioned” is not a thing.

“The Unconditioned” (asaṅkhata) is not a thing. It’s not some kind of “absolute.” It’s not a “reality.” It’s not even “the unconditioned,” because both the “the” and the “unconditioned” parts aren’t right. What it refers to is the  “non-creating of things that would otherwise be created.” Practically, it’s the non-production of suffering, through the non-production of that which causes suffering.

I think that’s all the Buddha is saying.

The Traditional Interpretation Is a Distraction

All this metaphysical stuff about “the Unconditioned” is a million miles away from how the Buddha actually taught, and presumably also from how he thought. I want to know the mind of the Buddha. I want to see things they way they saw him. And having a goal which is not the Buddha’s goal just isn’t helpful in that regard. In fact it’s a positive distraction.

Making the Buddha’s teaching metaphysical leads us into realms of nebulous speculation. It takes us away from the here and now. It takes us away from our direct experience. It diverts us from actually practice.

We don’t need to try to conceive of, let alone strive to attain, some mystical state called “the unconditioned.” We just need to keep working on letting greed, hatred, and delusion die away, so that they are no longer things that are born, brought-to-being, or made within us. Instead they are not-born, not-brought-to-being, not made.

To be very simple and concrete, we stop creating greed, hatred, and delusion, and destroy them instead.

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Buddhism, free will, and non-self

Woman standing in front of two doors, one red, one blue, implying a choice.

The concept of “free will” doesn’t sit very easily with Buddhism. As far as I’m aware, it’s considered an important idea because God rewards and punishes us depending on whether we choose good or evil, and in such a belief system it’s necessary that we be considered capable of choosing freely.

Actually, the concept of free will doesn’t sit very well with some aspects of Christianity. Think about it: if God is omniscient, he therefore knows every choice you will make in your life, and so every choice you make is predetermined, and so you have no free will. An omniscient God therefore rewards or punishes you based on something you have no choice about.

There’s no creator God in Buddhism, but because our culture has been steeped in Christianity for centuries, the question of whether there is free will often comes up, presenting itself as a pressing dilemma that we need to urgently solve.

First there’s the question of whether our will is actually free. And second, there’s the question of how there can be free will if there is no self to make choices.

The Buddha Often Taught In Terms of Contrasting Options

Buddhist practice rests on the notion that we can make choices. This seems to be in the same ball park as the concept of free will. The very first chapter of the Dhammapada is titled “The Pairs,” and it presents us with alternative choices. The first two verses illustrate this very clearly:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The point here is that there are choices, and our choices matter. The Buddha doesn’t explicitly say here that we have a choice, or that there’s such a thing as free will, but he is implying that there are choices to be made.

The Buddha Explained In Detail How Choice Happens

In other teachings, for example in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta,  the Buddha expands on how choice happens:

Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘Why don’t I meditate by continually dividing my thoughts into two classes?’ So I assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class. And I assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class.

Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a sensual thought arose. I understood: ‘This sensual thought has arisen in me. It leads to hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting both. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.’ When I reflected that it leads to hurting myself, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting others, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting both, it went away. When I reflected that it blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment, it went away. So I gave up, got rid of, and eliminated any sensual thoughts that arose.

The Buddha is clearly describing a process of making choices here. He makes a decision to categorize his thoughts, apparently on some kind of hunch that had arisen. As he notices the untoward effects of “thinking imbued with sensuality,” etc., he abandons those forms of thought.

Choice Is Karma

This choice arises from cetana, which is “will” or “intention.” And this cetana, the Buddha said, is “karma.”

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Karma is choice. Specifically, it’s the choice that shapes our character, for better or worse.

He Pointed Out That Our Choices Are Limited

But he also saw a limit to our ability to make choices in any given situation. For example, he pointed out:

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

We’ll come back to “consciousness is not self.”

In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that you can’t just decide what the nature of your consciousness will be. You can’t decide to be happy, for example. Well, you can, but it probably won’t change anything! You don’t have control over whether your body ages. You can’t make pain or illness go away by force of will.

If we have free will (the ability to make choices) then clearly there are limits in the choices it can make.

Choices Are Limited By the Preceding Conditions

Change comes about, the Buddha teaches, based upon the nature of the preceding conditions. For example, You can decide to grow crops, but you can’t make the seeds grow by force of will.

You can however plant seeds and water them, providing the requisite conditions:

There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed and well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed and well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water and then lets it out.

These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.’ But when the time has come, the farming householder’s crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.

This Principle Is Called Conditionality (Paṭicca Samuppāda)

In making choices, we’re working within a system of conditionality (paṭicca samuppāda). Certain things lead to certain other things in a relatively predictable way. We make choices only within the realm of what is possible.

What’s true for the cultivation of crops is true for for the cultivation of the mind as well:

In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging today or tomorrow or the next day.’ But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging.

Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

If you want insight (heightened discernment) to arise, you have first to cultivate meditative states (heightened mind). If you want to cultivate meditative states, you have to practice ethics (heightened virtue). These are the laws of “mental agriculture” within which we operate. And you can’t just decide “I’m going to be free from clinging.” You can only choose from what’s possible, and that’s not possible.

How Does Choice Happen Within Conditionality?

The mind has the ability to make predictions about the future. This is crucial in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta passage. The Buddha recalls that certain mental states have led to suffering for self and others. He notices that certain other mental states have led to freedom from suffering for self and others. This has been true in the past.

And that becomes the basis of predictions for the future: this mental state that has arisen will cause suffering. And that prediction becomes the basis of choice: “Well, then, since I don’t want to suffer or to make others suffer, I should drop this way of thinking and choose another way of thinking. Why don’t I choose to think in a way that has been shown, through experience, to lessen my own and others’ suffering?”

See also:

To think this way is to be aware of the principles of conditionality.

Our choices aren’t entirely free. We could decide not to do something that we know will make us suffer (e.g. binge eat) and yet feel compelled to do it. The decision to act in a way we don’t want forces itself upon us. We find that we don’t have the resources to resist it. We know that the action will cause suffering, but the conditions aren’t right for us to make any other choice in that moment.

What Is Freedom?

If you’re talking about free will, you’re talking about freedom. Free will means we’re free to do whatever we want. It’s the freedom to. I’ve shown that the Buddha pointed out that we can’t simply do whatever we want. That’s just not how the world works. It’s not how conditionality works. There are always limits to what we can choose. Will is never entirely free, because it can only interact with existing conditions, and those conditions limit what can happen next.

The Buddha’s conception of freedom was not freedom to, but freedom from. The Buddha’s concern was always about how we free ourselves from suffering. If someone had confronted him with the notion of freedom being the freedom to he’d probably have reminded this person that the purpose of spiritual practice is to become free from suffering.

His teaching was always about how to become free from suffering, and the method for doing this was to work within the bounds of what conditionality allows, making choices that lead to greater happiness — or, if you like, freedom from suffering. We become free of suffering by becoming free of the causes of suffering, which are selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. And we become free of those things by noticing them arising in the mind, and choosing not to exercise them, but to exercise their opposites. That’s what he’s saying in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta.

The Buddha doesn’t try to prove that choice happens, but simply takes it as a given. It’s our experience that choosing takes place. We can observe choices happening.

Wiggle Room Within Conditionality

I’ve said that we could decide not to do something that we know will cause us suffering (e.g. binge eating) and yet feel compelled to do it. Conversely, we could decide to do something wholesome (like meditate) and find that we can’t bring ourselves to do it for some reason.

At times we don’t have very much freedom, because the forces of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion are strong. But there’s always at least some wiggle room. The thought “This isn’t a good thing to do; maybe I shouldn’t do it” might be weak today, but it can get stronger over time, and eventually it might have enough strength to change how you act. So keep feeding that thought. It’s a wise thought.

There does always seem to be some wiggle-room for choice arising within the chain of conditions. Even if it doesn’t change the choices we make now, it might make a difference in the future. Who we are changes as we lessen the influence of selfish desire, ill will, and delusion, and as their opposites become stronger. In making wise choices, we’re becoming freer from suffering. That’s the important thing.

There Is No Self To Have Free Will

But what of the notion of anatta, or not-self? This was already referred to in one of the quotes above, and I promised I’d come back to it.

Consciousness (and the other skandhas — parts of our being) are “not oneself” (anatta) because one can’t control them, any more than we can choose to make crops suddenly appear or make an illness vanish, or decide to be happy for the rest of our lives.

Anatta, or not-self, simply means that the kind of self we think we have don’t actually exist. We think we have a self that is permanent, separate, unified, and capable of making choices consciously. We don’t have a self that works in that way. What we are is ever-changing, entangled with the world around us, and fragmented — and the choices that take place within whatever-we-are arise outside of consciousness. They arise before your conscious awareness registers them. Conscious awareness, in fact, doesn’t even make choices, as I discuss in Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist.

In the Dvedhavitakka quote above, the Buddha says, The thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’

“The thought occurred to me” indicates that this thought wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making. It was a hunch. It just arose. This is in fact true of all thoughts. Thoughts just appear to conscious awareness. Conscious awareness doesn’t create them. The fact that it seems that it does is a delusion. Thoughts occur (the Pāli is literally something like “it was to me thus“). You can watch this happening, and realize, as Thoreau did, that nothing is as unfamiliar and startling to us as our own thoughts. If we observe thoughts appearing, we can indeed be surprised by them; we have no idea what our thoughts will be until they appear. We have little or no awareness of how they are made.

Who we are — our “self” — is not unified. One part of the brain gives rise to a thought. As that thought arises, it percolates to the various parts of our consciousness and has an effect. You (your brain, your mind) is not a unified entity, but a community. The community evolves and changes as wiser parts of us recognize that this emotion and the actions arising from it will lead to suffering, while that emotion and the actions arising from it will free us from suffering. It takes time, because this is a long, slow process of education.

Each of us is an evolving community, not a unity. It’s not the “Self” that educates the community. It’s just the wiser parts of the community (those that can draw the dots between present actions and future outcomes) that do the educating.

Ignore Free Will

In short, free will is an important concept  in Christianity because if our basic model is that God rewards or punishes us for our actions, we have to be free to choose. (Although free will also seems to be incompatible with the concept of an omniscient deity.)

But the concept of free will doesn’t fit with the observable facts of the world. Choices aren’t free. We’re not free to do whatever we want, because what happens next is constrained by past conditions. Being able to be free to do what we want is not relevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering.

There is no need for the concept of free will in Buddhism. It’s not relevant. It’s not even a real phenomenon, being based on a false view of choice (prior conditions mean we can’t always choose to do the right thing). Because it’s an illusory concept, we don’t need to reconcile Buddhism with it. In fact we should ignore the concept of free will except to critique it.

Instead we should focus on what’s relevant from the point of view of becoming free from Suffering. Choosing happens. By choosing wisely, the parts of us that have a longer-term perspective on what’s good for our well-being can make us happier — and create the conditions for greater freedom arising. The most important kind of freedom is freedom from suffering, not the freedom to do whatever we want (which isn’t possible anyway).

We need to keep our attention on our ability to choose, to choose wisely, and to observe that choice is simply happening, so that we can lose the false view that we have a self that chooses.

Forget “free will.” It’s irrelevant because it’s an illusion. It’s not necessary.

We don’t have free will, but we have all we need in order to become free from suffering. And that’s the crucial thing.

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The strange myopia of Buddhist teachings on suffering

woman having caesarian section

I wanted to draw attention to a strange myopia that affects many people who comment on the Buddha’s teachings about suffering.

In the four noble truths, the first truth is that of suffering (dukkha), and it’s described in the following manner:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

Here the Buddha lists a number of occasions for suffering that arise in life. Some, like birth and death, don’t happen in our lives very often. Others, like sickness, are quite frequent. Some, like separation from what we like and being in the presence of things we don’t like take place multiple times in the course even of just one day.

The first instance of suffering that the Buddha gives is birth. It’s a natural place to start, perhaps.

What I find curious is that many, many writers on Buddhism interpret “birth is suffering” solely in terms of “being born is suffering.” This is a long-standing tradition. Fifteen hundred years ago, or so, Buddhaghosa, in his treatise, “The Path of Purification,” listed several ways in which birth is painful. He tells us it’s painful:

  • to be confined in a womb
  • to be physically jarred in the womb when your mother moves around
  • if your mother has a miscarriage
  • to be forced through the birth canal
  • to have your sensitive skin touched after you’ve been born

You’ll notice that this is all focused on the one being born.

Was your birth painful? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember. Presumably it was traumatic at the time, but my brain wasn’t developed enough to commit the details to memory.

Now, would your mother say that birth was painful? Probably! She experienced much more pain than anyone else involved. Was it psychologically painful for her? Probably. It’s a worrying thing to give birth.

Was it painful for your father? Not physically, but he was probably anxious about the health of your and your mother.

Lots of other people were probably anxious too, and relieved when you were born, hopefully healthily.

The Buddha was of course born at a time and place where birth was much more dangerous than it is for most of us reading these words. His own mother is supposed to have died not long after he was born, presumably from complications of childbirth. In many parts of the world, death during or just after childbirth is still common. In fact both of my adopted children’s birth-mothers died this way.

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For me, the most bizarre part of Buddhaghosa’s list is the bit about miscarriages. To consider the suffering involved in such a thing and not give any thought to the experience of the mother is just bizarre.

Buddhaghosa remains an important influence on Buddhism to this day. A lot of Buddhist teaching is essentially what I call “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” And so his myopia becomes the myopia of contemporary Buddhist teachers — or many of them, at least. Just today I listened to a teaching on suffering by a very talented contemporary teacher who explained “birth is suffering” as “being born is suffering.”

Probably because Buddhaghosa was a man who had lived all his life in cultures where men were the focus of attention, he just didn’t give much thought to the experience of women. And he was talking to men. But even those men had mothers and sisters who gave birth, so there’s a kind of misogyny, or at least myopic gender-bias, in operation.

Part of what’s going on here is how people tend to pass on presentations of the Buddha’s teachings in much the same way they had first learned them — including the mistakes and the myopic omissions. So you learn from a book or a talk that “birth is suffering” means “it’s painful to be born,” and that lodges in your brain. And then having learned what this, you stop thinking about the subject. You don’t reflect on it. You don’t compare it to the lived experience of people around you. It’s just a “factoid” that inhabits your brain, in some way isolated from everything else you know.

This lack of reflection on what the Buddha taught bothers me. Not connecting what the Buddha taught to your own lived experience (a teacher may not have given birth, but they’ve surely heard women say how painful it is) bothers me. And of course ignoring the painful experience of half of humanity bothers me. Aren’t empathy and compassion meant to be part of the Buddhist path?

Buddhism is about suffering, and responding wisely and compassionately to suffering. And yet most of the suffering around the topic, “birth is suffering,” gets ignored. That’s kind of weird.

Similar things can be said about death, although that’s a less gendered topic. There’s a form of myopia where “death is suffering” becomes “dying is suffering.” But it’s not just dying that’s painful. It’s painful to have a loved one die. It’s painful to think that one day they will die.

There are many other ways in which Buddhist teachings are passed on from generation to generation in a habitual, unreflecting way. In another article here I tackled a few recurring myths about the Buddha’s life. I’ve written about another mistaken teaching about suffering that is commonly passed on. I could write a book full of these.

All of these repeated misconceptions weaken and dull the teaching of Buddhism. The less teachers (and their students) are able to connect Dharma teachings to their lived experience and to the experience of others, the more abstract the teachings seem. They exist as the “factoids” I mentioned, floating in the mind, untethered to our real lives.

So the next time you hear a teacher talking discussing “birth is suffering” purely in terms of the suffering a fetus and baby go through, I’d suggest that you gently bring up the topic of all the others involved in birth who suffer in more significant ways — the mother above all. It might end up changing Buddhist culture in the west.

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Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

See also:

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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The benefits of making things hard for ourselves

I find that a lot of the time, when people are cultivating kindness or compassion for a person they find difficult, they do it in a rather vague way. Usually in their meditation practice they just visualize an image of the “enemy” and repeat the appropriate phrases — “May you be well,” “May you be free from suffering,” and so on. That’s what I was taught to do, and it’s what most other people were taught as well.

Creating a challenge

So what’s the problem with this? It’s that when we have difficulties with people, what we really have difficulties with are their behaviors — what they say and do. Those are the things that provoke our own reactivity. When the person in our mind’s eye is just sitting there passively, we’re not triggering the discomfort that leads to us getting annoyed by them. We’re simply not making things hard enough for ourselves. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to learn how to handle discomfort without reacting. We have to put ourselves in the position where reactivity is a real possibility before we can start to recognize the signs that we’re starting to get angry, and then choose not to feed our anger.

So I tend to teach lovingkindness and compassion meditation as opportunities to rehearse facing real difficulties. When you call a so-called “difficult person” to mind in one of these meditations, it helps if we focus very specifically on the things they say and do that tend to trigger us. If we remember or imagine those things very vividly, we’re more likely to create uncomfortable feelings, and it’s those feelings that in turn trigger our reactivity. And now, in the mindful space that meditation offers us, we have the opportunity to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and be present with them. And we have the opportunity to see our anger arising, so that we can choose not to encourage it, but instead to let go of it. We have an opportunity to remember the humanity of the person facing us, and to cultivate an attitude of kindness toward them.

Superheroes of nonviolence

I was thinking about this the other day in the context of the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

When I first heard how Martin Luther King’s civil rights marchers endured, without retaliation, insults, beatings, being hosed with water, and having dogs set upon them, I was astonished and humbled. How was it they could do these things, when I take offense at merely being belittled online?

Later I learned that these brave activists trained to be non-reactive in the face of violence. They rehearsed. They met in groups where they would role-play facing insults and physical assaults, in order to learn how to respond non-violently to violence. They trained in reframing encounters with the police, so that they didn’t see arrest and imprisonment as violations of their freedom but as a badge of honor, to be worn with pride.

They trained in learning that the point of nonviolent resistance was not to insult or humiliate their opponents, but to win their trust, friendship, and understanding; it was to convert the enemy to nonviolence. They trained in understanding that the enemy was the ideology of evil and oppression, and not the persons who were committing injustice.

Training to be more loving

These brave individuals didn’t make some sudden leap to practicing love in the face of hatred; they learned, step by step, to do this. It became clear to me that we can learn to do seemingly superhuman acts of nonviolence through training.

If they could practice love while being beaten with clubs and insulted in vile ways, surely we can learn to do the same with the much more minor irritations in our own lives? And so I suggest that you make your meditation practice into a form of rehearsal. Do you get irritated with the way a household member loads the dishwasher badly, or doesn’t clear up after themselves? Or when someone ignores you, or puts you down? Visualize those things very clearly in your mind’s eye; let the feeling of irritation arise, and allow it to be present, without reacting. If angry thoughts and impulses arise, let go of them. Connect with kindness as you visualize the things that annoy you. Rehearse responding lightly, humorously, kindly, with full sensitivity to the other person as a feeling, vulnerable human being.

To create compassion, evoke powerful suffering

The same applies to compassion meditation, where we train ourselves to be loving and supportive in the face of another’s suffering. It’s fine to call someone to mind and remember that they suffer, but that’s really not very challenging. The Buddhist monk, Mathieu Ricard, explained once how he imagined suffering while meditation. One example he gave was of visualizing a friend, “terribly injured in a car accident, lying in his blood by the side of a road at night, far from help.” This is a potent image, evoking powerful feelings.

In fact, Ricard suggests that we imagine “different forms of distress as realistically as possible, until they become unbearable.”

It’s not about making ourselves suffer

The point is not to make ourselves suffer. It’s to give ourselves an opportunity to develop a compassionate response that envelops, sustains, and protects the person who is suffering. In fact, compassion is heart-warming, nourishing, and loving, and this to a large extent insulates us against sinking into suffering ourselves.

At the same time, it’s best if we stretch our capacity to bear suffering gradually. If we’re not able to respond to suffering with kindness and compassion we’re likely to become overwhelmed. And that’s not going to help us or others.

In short, our meditation practices of kindness and compassion are only going to lead to very slow change if we don’t challenge ourselves. But if instead we vividly imagine situations that provoke us emotionally, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to really grow the strength of our kindness and compassion. And as the civil rights marchers showed, we can even develop what appear to be superhuman levels of love and compassion.

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Making the most of this precious human birth

Six shuttered windows in a honey-colored concrete window

Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.

First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.

So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say anything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.

The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:

Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.

So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.

But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”

This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.

In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.

And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.

The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.

  • Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
  • Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
  • Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
  • Asuras are too obsessed by power.
  • And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).

Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)

Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.

Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!

So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.

Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.

And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.

We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.

We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.

The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:

Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.

So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.

Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.

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Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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The third arrow

The weekend that my wife told me she wanted a divorce, she took our kids away so that she could spend a few days with a friend. The children, who were four and six years old at the time, had been at school all day and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. My wife thought this was no big deal, but to me it was a hard blow at a difficult time, and it set me up for a lonely weekend in an empty home. As with many people, my first instinct was to stuff myself with unhealthy, fatty foods, and to open a bottle of wine.

I imagine that evolutionary biology would say that we’ve evolved the instinct to eat high calorie foods at times of crisis, to help us weather whatever trials are ahead of us. Experientially, fatty, salty, carb-laden food like burgers and fries just feel comforting in the short term. But they often leave us uncomfortable, bloated, sluggish, and unhealthy. I felt this urge, but since I’d been working on being self-compassionate, I decided that a Thai curry, full of fresh vegetables, would be healthier and more pleasurable in the long term. I also avoided the temptation to drink, since I knew that was likely to make me feel depressed and self-pitying. I touched base with a few friends in order to let them know what was going on, and to get some emotional support. I went for a walk. I meditated.

See also:

None of this made the emotional pain I was going through vanish. Nor could I expect it to. But I wasn’t hiding from my pain, and I wasn’t doing anything that was going to negatively affect my wellbeing in the long-term. In fact I was doing many things—from exercising to bonding with friends—that would make me more resilient in the future.

The Buddha gave a very well-known teaching on the “two arrows,” which pointed out that the mind reacts to pain with resistance, which then causes more pain. Our initial pain is like being shot by an arrow. The pain that comes from our reactions is like being shot by a second arrow. But there’s a third arrow as well! This third arrow is in the same teaching, but for some reason the Buddha didn’t offer an image to go with it. Here’s how it’s described:

Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.

It’s not so much pleasure that becomes our escape from pain, but its pursuit. Pursuing pleasure can distract us from pain, even if we never actually experience any pleasure. Emotional eating, trying to drink our sorrows away, compulsive Netflix binges, and so on — if they’re enjoyable at all, they usually end up making us feel worse in some way.

So what kind of arrow is the third arrow? Perhaps we could think of it as an arrow that’s been dipped in a narcotic drug. It numbs us for a while, but it leaves us with an emotional hangover.

The healthy alternative to the third arrow is practicing wise self-care. Wise self-care is any course of action that contributes to our long-term happiness and wellbeing and that helps us to cope better with our painful feelings.

Wise self-care is the opposite of the third arrow. Third arrow activity involves pursuing pleasure in an attempt to escape painful feelings; wise self-care starts with accepting those feelings. Third arrow actions have short-term pleasure as their aim; wise self-care takes into account our long-term happiness and wellbeing

Third arrow actions are reactive and unwise; wise self-care, as the name suggests, comes from a deeper, more mature perspective. Third arrow actions result in more suffering being created; wise self-care reduces our suffering, and in fact liberate us from suffering. Third arrow actions prevent us from growing and learning; wise self-care leads to growth. The third arrow is blind and habitual; wise self-care is aware and consciously chosen.

Wise self-care isn’t necessarily all about dealing with crises, though. It can be an ongoing effort to deal with the minor difficulties we experience in life.

If you keep trying to push away the jarring effect of being in messy surroundings, wise self-care might mean decluttering the house. If you worry about money and find looking at your bank balance to be stressful, it might mean creating a household budget. If you have low energy, wise self-care might mean getting eight hours of sleep, or taking a walk on your lunch break. It might involve making sure you see the doctor annually and the dentist twice a year, or taking a day off when you’re sick. It might mean setting up a daily meditation practice, or reading a book instead of watching TV. These are things that help us, and that also help us to help others. If we take care of and nourish ourselves, then we have more energy to help support others. In the long run, we need to take care of ourselves if we’re to be of service to others.

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You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
We’re all subject to conditioning that affects our ability to be happy and sometimes makes us miserable. This conditioning actually starts before birth. Research has shown that your grandparents being exposed to stressful circumstances can change the way that your genes are expressed, so that genes that leave you feeling more anxious might be more active, while those that can made you more mellow remain switched off. We don’t choose to have such things happen to us. It’s not our fault.

We also don’t choose our early childhood conditioning. How much our parents hold us, how they communicate with us, whether they are loving or not, whether they are cruel, whether they are consistent in their affections — all these things change the very structure of our brains in a way that can leave lifelong scars.

Growing up in a household where affection was not expressed freely and where criticism was common, I have been left with certain insecurities. These include anxieties about whether I’m valued, loved, or liked. I can be hyper-sensitive at times to signs that I’m not appreciated, and this can cause me to react in ways that make me less likable — a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. This make me suffer, and it makes others suffer as well. Your early experiences may well have been different from mine, but we all have conditioning that makes us suffer, and we didn’t choose it. These things are not our fault. And so we don’t have to feel bad about being flawed. Our conditioning is not us, but is something that has been done to us. To recognize this liberates this from self-blame.

None of this means that we have permission to act badly. As adults we have to take responsibility for how we act. No one else can do that for us. If we want to be happy in the long-term, we need to become more aware of our early conditioning and understand how it affects our behavior, especially where it impacts others.

Recently I saw a social media post where a young woman wrote,

Me, dating at 21: ‘So, what do you like to do for fun?’

Me, dating at 27: ‘How aware are you of your past traumas and how actively are you working to heal them so that you don’t project that shit onto me?’

When I read that I wished that at the age of 27 I could have been so aware of the importance of past conditioning. But, I reflected, my conditioning was such that in my twenties I was in denial about such things. There’s no point blaming myself even for that.

There’s also no point me blaming my parents for not being more affectionate and for being overly critical. They too were simply living out their conditioning, in a time and culture in which most people didn’t even think about how the way they acted affected their own and others’ wellbeing.

You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect. We were all made that way. You do not have to be ashamed that it’s so hard to work with your imperfections: the very tools you have for doing this are imperfect. We are all truly doing a difficult thing in being human.

Recognizing the many ways that we’ve been set up to suffer — by our brain structure, by our genetic and epigenetic inheritance, and by our childhood conditioning — is an important aspect of self-empathy, and thus of self-compassion. We’re all flawed. We’re all suffering. We’re all doing this difficult thing of being human. Understanding these things allows us to give ourselves a break. You’d do this for a person you loved. Why not do it for yourself?

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

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