It’s the Causes of Suffering, Stupid

It’s the Causes of Suffering, Stupid

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

“Basically, life is suffering. And we create our suffering by thirsting or craving for what we cannot have. But are these really all the causes of suffering? Do we really create all of our suffering? I would argue that there is more to suffering than what we cause with our craving. Fighting with reality surely adds to our suffering – if I do not accept that I am sick, for example, and moan the whole time that I shouldn’t be sick, I will suffer more.” – Rachel Buddeberg

In a previous essay
the first Noble Truth was discussed, reflecting the patently obvious fact that there is suffering, a.k.a. unsatisfactoriness. Although I previously overlooked and ignored this important truth, an investigation of my daily life revealed that it was chock full of unsatisfactoriness. It became clear that this unsatisfactoriness must be witnessed completely to see the Buddha’s wisdom. Life is so full of unsatisfactoriness that it’s impossible to move forward on a spiritual path until it is addressed. Unsatisfactoriness is at the very core of existence and a major impediment in attaining true happiness let alone enlightenment. It became evident to me that it was the suffering, stupid.

But, once this is clearly realized and a complete inventory is taken of unsatisfactoriness, what’s the next step. This is presented in the Second Noble Truth that there are causes to suffering. My initial naive thoughts were that the causes of suffering were obvious. If I stepped on a nail and experienced pain or contracted the flu and experienced malaise, the causes were obvious. But, once I realized that unsatisfactoriness was rampant in my life, I realized that I wasn’t always sure what caused it. Why should I care if someone thinks highly of me? Why should I try to avoid boredom? Why should I be unhappy when certain forms of music are played? Why should I be afraid of heights even when I know it’s safe? The causes here are subtler and more difficult to identify. But, it’s important to do so, as unsatisfactoriness can only be eliminated if we first know what’s producing it.

To put it simply, unsatisfactoriness arises whenever we want things to be different than they are. Struggling against what is, is the primary source of unsatisfactoriness. This is a simple and absolutely true statement. But as with everything there’s more to it. There are a number of sources that are either built into us or inculcated by our society that produce a desire for things to be different. But, keep in mind that no matter what the source, ultimately it’s the refusal to accept what is that’s the source of unsatisfactoriness.

Our attraction and aversion to sensory experiences is a big driver of wanting things to be different. We want pleasurable experiences, be they beautiful sights, music, the flavors of a good wine, perfumes, sexual orgasm, ocean waves hitting our skin, etc. There is nothing wrong with these desires. Many are programmed into us by evolution. The problem arises when we are attached to these sensations and are never satisfied unless they’re present. Hence, in order to obtain them we strive to change the ways things are. When we don’t accept their absence, we suffer. There’s nothing wrong with liking pleasant sensations. We can enjoy them when they’re present. After all that’s accepting the present as it is. In fact, we can even seek them out. Problems arise when we’re not OK when we can’t get them or when we strive to hold onto these experiences even though they will inevitably fade. Not accepting that this is the nature of these experiences causes us to grasp onto them and then suffer when they dissipate. These are seemingly subtle distinctions, but they’re crucial. Grasping is the key. If we don’t grasp, then there’s no unsatisfactoriness.

We are not only wired to seek out pleasant sensation we’re also wired to avoid or eliminate unpleasant sensations, be they ugly or disgusting sights, grating sounds (the noise from lawn tools is one of my aversions), the taste of spoiled wine, the odor of rotten eggs, feeling of being chilled or overheated, pain, etc. There is nothing wrong with not liking these sensations, avoiding them, or attempting to stop them. Again evolution has programmed many of them to help protect us. The problem arises when we do not accept that these sensations arise as they inevitably will, or when we grasp at their avoidance not accepting what is. So, rather than accepting that we’re experiencing a headache, we fight against it, which amplifies the pain. Sure, lie down, close your eyes, rest, take an analgesic, but also accept that pain is present. There’s no sense in denying it or fighting it. That’s what causes the unsatisfactoriness. Just accept it, and relax knowing that like all sensations it will eventually go away. Additionally, we suffer when we become fearful of the possibility that they might occur. So we worry about the next headache or ruminate about the last one. This is a waste of time and makes us miserable. There is no headache present. Enjoy your non-headache. Aversion to certain kinds of sensory stimuli can be a major source of unsatisfactoriness, but only when we don’t accept what is.

Another major source of unsatisfactoriness is the unwillingness to accept ourselves as we are, to desire to be different than what we are. We want to be more successful, more attractive, more knowledgeable, more liked, happier, healthier, more assertive, younger, older, slimmer, stronger, less fearful, a better parent, less fidgety, etc. Just look in the self-help section of a bookstore as evidence of its pervasiveness. This is especially true in western society, where most people simply don’t like themselves. They want to be different. Once again, this is not accepting what is, rather wanting things to be different, producing intense unsatisfactoriness. This lack of acceptance of the self can generate unhealthy jealousy of others who seeming have what we wish we had. It can also cause us to judge others, making us feel better about ourselves by denigrating others. Hence, this desire to be different than we are can be a major source of unsatisfactoriness.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t want to improve ourselves. There’s no problem with working hard to advance one’s career, to lose weight, to exercise, to change hair color, to save toward purchasing a house, etc. This is normal and healthy. The problem arises when we can’t accept what we are in the present moment, when we can’t see that we’re just fine as we are even though we’re working to improve ourselves. There is much about us that we can’t change. No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to make myself taller, smarter, or unemotional. This is what I am. To be happy, I need to accept myself as I am in the present moment. Fighting it is a waste of time and energy and a major source of unsatisfactoriness.

It is easy to say “got it”, I see the causes of suffering, so let’s move on to how I get enlightened. But, it is important to thoroughly investigate the causes of unsatisfactoriness. It drives home how we go about making ourselves unhappy. Every time you wish that things were different than they are right now, ask the question, why? What’s wrong or missing from the present moment? This doesn’t have to be done for major agonizing suffering. It’s best to look at something simple, like we’re bored. Ask why? Why are we unsatisfied with what’s going on right now? Is it that we crave more sensory stimulation? Then take a careful look at the sensations you’re currently experiencing and ask why they’re not sufficient. It can be an amazing revelation to see how we’re bored because we’re used to and are ignoring the incredible wonder of what is right around us. We’re not happy with the same old experiences, we crave something new. Why?

Don’t try to move on too quickly. Take the time to explore this thoroughly. This morning I was out for a speed walk workout in the heat and humidity, wishing it were cooler. If it was, I thought, then I’d enjoy the walk. But, I explored this a bit more deeply and realized that I was missing the extraordinary feelings of my body being hot, the sweat on my brow, the sun on my face. Then I started to appreciate the present moment and started to enjoy the situation that I was in at the time. The exploration of unsatisfactoriness can lead to greater happiness and simple enjoyment of what is. So, explore the reasons for your unsatisfactoriness and begin to understand your mind and to learn to appreciate what you have right now.

“If we can recognize when incorrect comprehension has affected our mind states, we can then make more sound judgments. We can tell when we are seeing things correctly, because we can notice peacefulness inside of us. Only when incorrect comprehension is in action do we feel tension and agitation.” – Lisa Mitchell

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

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