the practical buddhist : essentials

9 ways you suffer without realizing it

Suffering: It’s the most self-destructive, self-created habit ever. It usually results from anything that takes us away from the present moment.

Everyone experiences pain in life. As part of the human experience,  it’s unavoidable. However, suffering is self-created. As stated above, it results when we leave the here and now for some other place in our mind like the past or the future. Suffering may be optional, but we choose it over and over again.

I think we choose suffering because it’s a familiar friend. Of course, it’s not really our friend but neither is the cigarette we smoked this weekend or the assumption we made about the unkept person on the street. Still, we choose the familiar because it feels safe and less threatening.

Choosing our familiar responses, while not always the best choice, is an all too frequent one. It’s kind of like the melancholy satisfaction one gets from sobbing.  The catharsis is cleansing and leaves us feeling relieved. But not all forms of suffering are as cathartic as a good cry.

9 Ways You May Be SufferingWithout Realizing It

I’ve composed the following list of nine ways that we engage suffering, most of the time without even knowing  it. See how many you may have experienced in your journey through life thus far:

1. Worry – Worrying is my mother’s superpower. If there were an Olympic medal for worrying, she’d have won it each time. The term is even a permanent part of her vocabulary. She says that ‘She’s worried that my dad has been gone too long on a walk; She’s worried whether or not my sister’s kids are warm enough in winter.’ I love her dearly, but she’s a worrywart of the highest order.

Worry takes her away from the present moment many times each day. At age 81, she’s been this way for as long as I can recall. That’s a lot of worrying and needless suffering. Worrying is an emotional currency and she spends daily. The result is an emotional shortage of funds; Worrying robs her of more positive emotions. Having said this, she’s gotten better about it over the years but when I think of all the time she spent suffering in this manner, I feel sad.

Do you waste time and emotional energy worrying about things you have little or no control over? How could you better spend your emotional currency?

2. Doubt – The Buddha said, “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts, it is a sword that kills.”

Doubt can be a healthy tool that our mind uses to question reality. The problem is that we seldom use doubt for this purpose. Instead, it masquerades as skepticism and cynicism. We become used to being doubtful to the point that it separates us from others.

Doubt induces suffering when we are convinced that reality is something other than what it is. For example, we live in this world. But if we doubt that the world is as it seems and attach beliefs and myths to reality such as being sinful creatures in need of redemption, we are no longer in the real world; we’ve  crossed over into a make believe reality apart from the here and now.

How does doubt cause you to suffer needlessly?

3. Ignorance – Ignorance is not only not knowing, but also includes not wanting to know. This is played out in grand form in some of the states in the USA where state Departments of Education have insisted on having creationism presented as science curricula alongside evolution. It is a clear and pronounced example of ignorance.  That which we have no observable knowledge (creationism) is equated with what we can observe and measure (evolution).

Not wanting to know is a sure-fire way to suffer as well and it leads to doubt and guilt. Many family members believe I am lost and doomed to hell because I no longer believe in God or place my faith in story of Jesus Christ’s atonement for my sin. Additionally, they do not want to know my views or anything about my Buddhist path. Unwanted knowledge sometimes causes fear in those do not want to know.

Ignorance occurs in people across all strata of intelligence and education. Some of the most ignorant people on the planet possess multiple degrees and hold positions of public and/or private leadership. Some of wisest among us are also the poorest and uneducated.

What forms of ignorance are you holding to that causes you additional suffering? Do you fear knowing more or less? Do you feel threatened by knowledge you haven’t accessed?

4. Pride – Too much or too little leads to suffering. In his book, The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama has this to say about pride:

“For example, when you have a distorted view of yourself, such as through excessive pride or arrogance, because of these states of mind, you have an exaggerated sense of your qualities and personal abilities. Your view of your own abilities goes far beyond your actual abilities.

On the other hand, when you have low self-esteem, then you underestimate your actual qualities and abilities. You belittle yourself, you put yourself down. This leads to a complete loss of faith in yourself.

So excess–both in terms of exaggeration and devaluation–are equally destructive. lt is by addressing these obstacles and by constantly examining your personal character, qualities, and abilities, that you can learn to have greater self-understanding. This is the way to become more self-aware.”

~His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Is there an excessive amount of pride in your being that is cause for needless suffering? Is there not enough self-love that also causes you to suffer? Can you find the middle ground between the two extremes?

5. Guilt – Guilt is the first step in the downward spiral toward self-loathing. In my experience there is always a guilt-inducing issue to help us take that first step. In my case it was Big Religion (the term I use to combine all the issues associated with conservative Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.). BR’s view of man is that he is depraved and for a long time I too bought into that perspective. It took me a long time to divorce myself from BR. It no longer holds any power over me, or to put it in a more proactive way, I no longer allow BR to affect me with its tendency to induce guilt.

Guilt is a subconscious choice we make when we need a melancholy fix. It’s a completely normal human response and none are immune to it. The issue arises when we allow these brief guilt trips to become guilt retirements. Some live with crippling guilt their entire lives. That’s a lot of self-induced suffering.

In my experience, guilt is significantly a less frequent trip when one adopts the perspective that there is nothing broken about oneself and we are not in need of fixing by some cosmic, unseen force. This view helped me finally break free of guilt altogether. BR and other guilt-inducing issues (outdated mental tapes from authority figures, relationship failures, etc.) thrive on our weakened self-image. If we buy into the position that we are depraved, lost, in need of fixing or redemption, then we allow ourselves to choose guilt and suffering.

What are the contributing factors to the guilt you experience? Who would you be without guilt?

6. Anger – Empirically, anger is nothing more than a response to a stimulus. Specific stimuli evoke specific responses most of the time. Although we have within our quiver of response options a great many arrows, for some reason, perhaps a lack of mindfulness, we most often draw the one tipped with anger.

Anger is like a weapon of mass destruction because its explosive and uncontrolled nature, and it results in pain and additional suffering for all in its vicinity. Anger wounds the shooter as well as those targeted. It may seems that anger is a perfectly natural response, and I wouldn’t disagree with that premise, but I also  agree that it shouldn’t be our go-to response when our hot-buttons are pushed.

When was the last time you saw an angry Buddhist monk walking along the street shouting expletives and gesticulating like, well, an angry person?  Most likely, you’ve never seen one…I know I haven’t. Monastics know that anger is only one possible response and one that causes too much suffering. Push a monk’s hot-buttons and most likely you will see nothing in response. Perhaps the only detectable response is a look of surprise. Why? Because most likely he is choosing compassion and forgiveness instead of anger. He’s learned that these two responses do not create additional suffering. He’s also learned to inhabit the space between stimulus and response.

Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. Within that space is the power to choose our response.” I’ve taught this lesson to each of my children and hundreds of students. It’s a lesson I’ve learned over and over. It is perhaps the most effective lesson for eliminating suffering.

Is anger your go-to response when someone pushes your hot-buttons? What alternative response could you choose instead? Could you take some time between stimulus and response and choose a more compassionate response?

7. Judgement – I’m of the position that if we never accessed anger, we’d never access judgement. By judgement, I’m specifically talking about negative judgements directed toward either ourselves or others. The opposite of judgement, what I call assessment, is a necessary action to ensure our safety and that other others. Judgement, however, is always negative, even punitive in nature.

Religious tales of divine judgement are always preceded by divine anger, even what’s referred to as righteous anger. But if we never chose anger as a response option, would we ever judge ourselves or others ever again? I don’t think we would. Imagine what a nicer world that would be.  😎

Can you see the link between your anger and your self-judgement and/or judgement others? Imagine what life would be like if you chose compassion instead of anger and judgement.

8. Laziness – Procrastination, self-doubt surrounding our capabilities, and dedicating ourselves to non-virtuous activities are the three ways Buddhism has framed laziness. In laying out The Eight-fold Path, the Buddha provided a wisdom path to cultivate a life free of suffering. Appropriate action is the the fourth element of the Eight-fold Path and is concerned with taking the action that is wisest, that does no harm, and is beneficial to all sentient beings. Taking this as our definition for action, laziness seems to fall in direct opposition.

Have you ever known someone that is always moving forward, and never seems to stagnate? I know several of these people and they are a joy to be around. They seem to know just the right action to take at the right time.

Because I tread this wisdom path I am always evaluating what my next course of action should be. I seem to have an easier time of it when I’m mindful and in the present moment. The wisest action is always the one that follows being fully aware in the here and now.

How does laziness cause you undue suffering? Is the thought of taking the next step overwhelming? Could it be that you feel overwhelm when you are not in the present moment?

9. Daydreaming – We all daydream; our mind wanders off -even during meditation- and we have to bring it back to the present. We do this when we’re in love or when we anticipate receiving a bonus or a raise in pay and fantasize about all the stuff we can buy or how our life will be better. A certain amount of daydreaming is healthy, but too much leads to suffering.

Daydreaming definitely takes us away from the present moment and it has the potential to actually strengthen the attachments we have to unreal outcomes. For example, I was in love with a woman a few years back and I daydreamed about marrying her. (If you know me, you know it had to be serious for me to even consider the M-word). Intellectually I knew it would never happen, but that didn’t stop my mind from running down the aisle every chance it got. The relationship eventually ended and I found it very hard to recover, not only because of the depth of my love for her but also because of the kevlar-like attachments I’d created in my heart and mind to such unreal outcomes.

Daydreaming, like the occasional guilt trip, can be fun, but too much of it can lead to unrealistic views of reality. If we wish to stop suffering, we need to look at how much of our world is defined by our daydreaming.

Do you spend time daydreaming in ways that brings about disappointment, emotional pain, or excessive guilt?

Free Bonus! 

10: Belief – Belief, in anything, causes more suffering than can possibly be imagined. I define belief as the deliberate placing of faith in anything unseen or unexperienced. Objects of believe are ubiquitous, with deity being chief among them. The existence of deity (Jehovah, Allah, Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever) is an unproven concept and as such it only exists in terms of recorded myth. Much like the Greek mythological deities, God is a creation of mankind who, convinced of his own imperfection and need for redemption, felt the only answer was the creation of a supernatural being with superhuman powers and knowledge capable of redeeming the masses from their errant ways. In these mythic tales,  redemption is only possible via a perfect deity.

I hold no beliefs. Many have argued that I only believe that I hold no beliefs. However, I can assure you that I hold none. I don’t believe in deity, in man’s sinful nature, in doctrines of inequality or the universal need for man’s redemption, or an afterlife based on whether or not I believe one creed over another.

From my book, The Practical Buddhist: Buddhism Without the Robes & Ritual:

“A belief is exclusionary. To adopt a belief is to exclude all other possibilities. Personally I don’t know enough to adopt a belief about anything.  Not only are beliefs exclusionary, they are also not based on experience. You may say you believe in gravity, but I’d counter that you’ve experienced it instead. You may say that you believe in love or hunger but again, I’d say that you experienced them.

Over the years I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Belief distracts me from experiencing what’s real.

To fully accept one thing, you need to reject every other possibility.  Alternatively, to experience something is to know it firsthand.  If you blindly accept 2 + 2 = 4, you don’t really know it to be true.  Without having two blocks set before you, adding two more, and them counting the resulting number you are accepting someone else’s version of this truth. It is only when small children perform this tactile experiment that they experience the truth of addition’s sum.

I’ve known love, gravity, poverty, hunger, illness, joy, sadness, guilt, etc.  I don’t need to form any beliefs about these topics to make them real. When I find myself wanting to place faith in something I haven’t experienced, I have to pause and consider what I’m doing and ask myself whether this is an appropriate view and/or action.

Without exception, it is not.”

Is there a belief that causes undue suffering for you? Does your belief in that concept/creed increase your self-worth or decrease it? Does that belief take you out of the reality of the present moment?

Closing thoughts

In this 2,500 word post (if you’re still reading, congratulations! I applaud you.) we’ve looked at nine ways we choose suffering over the alternative. I hope you’ll consider each of the questions I’ve posed following each section. Your responses to these questions that reveal a lot about how your mind operates.

I want to end this post by asking you more question:

Who would you be if you didn’t choose suffering?