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

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are a also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

It’s the Suffering, Stupid

It’s the Suffering, Stupid


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


” If you want to understand suffering you must look into the situation at hand. The teachings say that wherever a problem arises it must be settled right there. Where suffering lies is right where non-suffering will arise, it ceases at the place where it arises. If suffering arises you must contemplate right there, you don’t have to run away. You should settle the issue right there. One who runs away from suffering out of fear is the most foolish person of all. He will simply increase his stupidity endlessly. We don’t meditate to see heaven, but to end suffering.” – Ajahn Chah


When I was first introduced to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths I was underwhelmed, to say the least. They said first that there’s suffering. Yeah, I thought, that’s obvious, there’s lots of suffering in this world. So, what’s new. Then they said that there are causes for suffering. Again, I thought, of course, there are causes for everything. So, when do we get to the good stuff. Then they said that there’s a way to end suffering. That’s clear and obvious, I thought. Of course, if you know what causes it then there’s always ways to end it. Let’s get to the meat. Lastly, they said that there was a path to the end of suffering. Yeah, yeah, of course, let’s move on and get to how do we attain enlightenment. How do we get to nirvana and eternal bliss?


I don’t believe that my response was unusual as my unscientific discussions with peers has revealed similar responses. I believe that part of the reason that we missed the importance of what was being taught was the word suffering itself. It’s a translation from the Pali word “dukkha” that was the language that was likely used by the Buddha. But, it can equally well be translated as “imperfect”, “unsatisfying”, or “incapable of providing perfect happiness.” I happen to favor unsatisfactory. Using this translation, I began to see what was being taught here. Suffering implied to me an extreme and painful experience, agony, which I saw as relatively rare. But, unsatisfactoriness, now that’s a different story. Most things in life are to one degree or another unsatisfactory. So, the teaching now seems to apply to a much wider range of experiences. This was the beginning of the revelation as to just how seminal this teaching is. It’s when I realized that “It’s the suffering, stupid.”


I should have noted the clear and precise teaching of the Buddha. When asked about how to attain enlightenment the Buddha said “I teach one thing and one thing only: that is suffering and the end of suffering.” This should have been a clear message that the pursuit of enlightenment is actually the pursuit of the end of “dukkha”, the end of unsatisfactoriness. It should have been obvious that the key to enlightenment is unsatisfactoriness, its causes, and how to eliminate them. But somehow, I wanted to jump ahead and missed the most important teaching of all.


Looking carefully at existence from the perspective of unsatisfactoriness, it is clear that unsatisfactoriness is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere.


The alarm goes off in the morning and I think, I want to sleep longer, but I can’t. The day starts off with unsatisfactoriness. I notice a slight ache in my neck and want it to go away, and this is more unsatisfactoriness. Rising out of bed in the morning there’s a need to use the bathroom. My state is unsatisfactory. When picking out some clothes to wear I find the outfit I want to wear is out at the cleaners and I’ll have to wear something less satisfactory. I feel a bit shabby and old fashioned in the clothes. Being late, a breakfast bar is grabbed as I rush out the door, wishing I could sit down and have some scrambled eggs but have to eat an unsatisfactory breakfast. I go outside and feel the cold and wish the day to be warmer. The temperature is unsatisfactory. Driving to work I get caught at a red light and want it to be green, feeling frustrated and unsatisfactory. Traffic is moving slower than I want, so I find driving unsatisfactory. At work my co-worker looks at me with a scowl and I’m unsatisfied because I think that she doesn’t like me. etc., etc., etc. The entire day is filled from one end to the other with unsatisfactoriness.


The more I look at it the more I see that some of the unsatisfactoriness is due to external circumstances, the red light, the outside temperature, and the neck pain that I have little control over. But, I see that the more insidious type of unsatisfactoriness is of my own making. I make myself suffer by my interpretation of how I look in the clothes I’m wearing or how I think about events like my co-worker’s scowl. I assumed it was because she didn’t like me and I want to be liked. But, that was my interpretation. I brought that unsatisfactoriness onto myself. She may have just had a bad morning or been called on the carpet by the boss. I make so many assumptions and interpret a large number of events as suggestive of some personal failure or fault when they probably have nothing to do with me whatsoever.


Once we take this perspective it begins to dawn that life is replete with unsatisfactoriness. There is no end to it. Now I get what the Buddha was talking about. It’s the suffering, stupid. It’s the unsatisfactoriness. I am constantly dissatisfied with virtually everything. What a miserable way to live. Seeing the all pervasiveness of my suffering, it becomes evident that I’m rarely truly happy and even then when it’s over I feel unsatisfied. This reveals another way that unsatisfactoriness arises. One that is produced by the impermanence of all things. Everything is constantly changing and I find it unsatisfactory when good stuff goes away or when bad stuff begins. I want pleasurable experiences never to end and unpleasant ones never to begin. This is perfectly reasonable, but nevertheless a major source of the unsatisfactoriness that fills my day.


So, life is inherently unsatisfactory. How can one ever experience eternal bliss, if unsatisfactoriness is everywhere? I guess that’s what the Buddha was talking about. It has been said that the way to nirvana is through samsara or in plain language we must go through suffering to get to bliss. If this is true, then we must fully experience and understand our unsatisfactoriness in order to make progress on the spiritual path toward enlightenment. The first step is to carefully explore our experiences and see where and what we find unsatisfactory.


So, begin with the suffering, stupid.


“On top of the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death, we encounter the pains of facing the unpleasant, separating from the pleasant, and not finding what we want. The basic problem lies with the type of mind and body that we have. Our mind-body complex serves as a basis for present sufferings in the form of aging, sickness, and death, and promotes future suffering through our usual responses to painful situations.” – Dalai Lama


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

The Causes of suffering!

The Buddha in his statements on the Four Noble Truths used a Pali word that is often translated into English as suffering. This translation, however, may be eliciting associations of torment and painful experiences. I prefer the translation of the word as unsatisfactoriness. I believe that this translations better captures not only suffering but also the everyday unhappiness and unease with experience.

Regardless of our translation it is important to realize that we spend a good deal of our lives either truly suffering but more likely just finding most everything unsatisfactory. I frequently go out for walks and as I pass neighbors I might smile and remark about what a wonderful day it is. The response is frequently something like yeah but there are storms on the way, or it’s better than the terrible cold we’ve been experiencing. Somehow, rather than focusing on how beautiful things are right now, the person turns the conversation to something unsatisfactory.

Basically this reveals an important understanding of the nature of our minds. They are programmed to find flaws. From an evolutionary standpoint this is very useful. It helps us foresee problems before they happen and potentially prevent them. But, from the standpoint of our inner peace, they are very disruptive. How can we ever find satisfactoriness when our minds are programmed to find unsatisfactoriness?

The problem resides in the fact that we can’t accept things to as they are. Every time that we want things to be different than they are we suffer. It’s a universal law. Let me repeat, every time that we want things to be different than they are we suffer.

If we accept this, the solution is evident. If we don’t want to suffer, we simply need to accept things as they are. We simply need to stop trying to change reality into something we’d like better. Once we accept things as they are we can begin to see that how things are, is perfectly alright, nothing is really wrong, it’s only our desire that they be different that is the problem.

This simple statement turns out to be devilishly difficult to execute. We’re working against the programming of our minds. That’s where contemplative practice can be extraordinarily helpful. By learning to quiet the mind, we can learn to allow things to be as they are. It takes practice, lots of practice, but it can be the key to ending suffering.

So, practice accepting things as they are and end the unsatisfactoriness with your life, ending suffering, just as the Buddha promised.