The Psychology of Ending Suffering

The Psychology of Ending Suffering


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” – anonymous


The Buddha taught that every one of us is already enlightened We simply need to remove those things that are preventing us from realizing our true nature, and those things are our sufferings. But suffering unsatisfactoriness is rampant in our daily lives. But these unsatisfactorinesses have causes and by eliminating the causes of unsatisfactoriness we can bring about equanimity and happiness. The Buddha and his followers have developed many methods for eliminating unsatisfactoriness and many of them are identical to the teachings of modern Psychology on how to eliminate unwanted behaviors.


The usual way most people tend to think about stopping a behavior is to punish it. This is the ubiquitous solution in our society, particularly exemplified by our treatment of criminal behavior. But we do it also at work. B. F. Skinner analyzed the work environment as dominated by punishers and the avoidance of punishers. He taught that the salary that is earned sets up a lifestyle and we become reliant upon the income to support it. Behavior at work is then controlled by threatening to withdraw this lifestyle, e.g. threat of firing or layoff, lack of raises or promotions, etc. But, psychological research has clearly shown that for the most part, punishment is ineffective in removing unwanted behaviors. Instead, it at best temporarily suppresses behaviors that can reemerge at any time or it leads to the individual avoiding the punisher, the supervisor, the police, or often parents and teachers.


The frequent use of punishment is apparent in our contemplative practice, where we frequently punish ourselves for not being or doing what we think we should be. We get angry at ourselves when we fail at quieting our mind in meditation. We get upset at ourselves when our mind wanders. We feel ashamed when we let our desires control our behavior. We feel bad when we see how we’re constantly wanting things in our lives to be different than they are. But, these punishers, like those in society are ineffective. Instead of improving our practice, they can lead to our avoiding or abandoning the practice.


But, the science of Psychology has a lot to offer in place of punishment in our quest to end unsatisfactoriness. Much has been learned through the years of research of how things are learned and unlearned and how to change behaviors. One of the key notions in Psychology is known as Thorndike’s Law of Effect. Simply stated it teaches that when we do things that lead to a pleasant state of affairs, we tend to repeat them while those that lead to an unpleasant state of affairs tend to become less likely to be repeated. This simple, seemingly obvious principle is actually quite powerful and suggests how we should proceed.


As we’ve discussed, applying unpleasant states, punishment, is not generally effective. Note, the Law of Effect states that we tend not to repeat behaviors that lead to an unpleasant state of affairs. So, if our contemplative or spiritual practice leads to self-punishments, it doesn’t lead to better practice, rather it leads to our becoming less likely to practice. This is the exact opposite of what we want to happen. So punishing ourselves for our failures in practice, instead of correcting them, leads to less practice.


All of this is also true in our everyday lives. Punishing our boss by getting angry at him or her is likely not going to change his or her behavior, except maybe to prompt the boss to punish us. Honking, making obscene gestures, or tailgating a driver who cuts us off is unlikely to make the driver stop cutting people off. Rather it’s likely to anger the driver and make for a more dangerous driving situation. Yelling at your life’s partner when he or she does something that we don’t approve of is more likely to sour our relationships than change our partners’ behavior. Telling people whose political opinions vary from our own that they’re stupid or ignorant, is not likely to change their opinions, but rather to cause them to avoid talking politics with us in the future. Getting upset at ourselves when we’re not as fast, adept, or as effective as we want to be in our exercises, is unlikely to make us faster or more adept or effective, but rather to make it less likely that we’ll engage in exercise in the future. In a nutshell, punishment doesn’t work to change behaviors in our lives. So, it is unlikely to work in helping us eliminate our unsatisfactorinesses and remove the obstacles toward spiritual realization. We need to find another way.


The Law of Effect, though, does provide a powerful prescription for changing behavior. If you want to change a behavior you need to remove what is reinforcing or supporting it. Discover the pleasant state of affairs that is produced by the behavior and eliminate it and the behavior will gradually go away. This is a process called extinction and it is very effective in eliminating unwanted behaviors. So, in our practice, if we want to reduce mind wandering, then we just simply watch it, not punishing it nor giving it any energy. Slowly mind wandering will go through extinction, becoming less frequent. It will sometimes happen so slowly that you won’t notice its changing, but it will inevitably slowly dissipate.


While driving a car, we may want to decrease our impatience with traffic and stop lights. We should first look at removing what’s supporting it and that means reflecting on the impatience to investigate why we feel that way. We may be able to see that it’s supported by the idea that getting somewhere else will make us happy. The thought of it reinforces the desire to get there quickly. But, we should remember that in the past whenever we got to that next place it didn’t make us happy. So, we again became impatient to get to another somewhere else where we feel we’ll really be happy. Hopefully, we can see our delusion that happiness is elsewhere is supporting our impatience. Recognizing this, each time we sense ourselves becoming impatient we bring this thought to mind that where we’re going will not necessarily make us happy, we can only be happy in the present moment. This can begin to extinguish the impatience. There’s no need to be impatient as it’s not going to get us what we want. So, impatience slowly lessens and becomes less frequent. We’ve eliminated a suffering by removing its cause. We’ve extinguished it.


There’s a problem with extinction that modern Psychology has discovered and that is over a period of time the lost behavior can reemerge. This is called spontaneous recovery. To overcome this the behavior must be extinguished again and if spontaneous recovery occurs again, it must be again extinguished. So, patience and persistence must be practiced. Eventually, the behavior will cease and no spontaneous recovery will happen again. So, if impatience while driving occurs again, we need to repeat our extinction process until we stop impatience completely and simply enjoy the present moment.


Psychology has also discovered that learning in one situation will generalize to other similar situations. This can be quite helpful as what we learn is not just effective in the exact circumstances in which we learned it. As a result, if we extinguish impatience while driving we’ll tend to have less impatience at work, with our life partner, with political discussions, and with exercise. Impatience will still be there in these other situations but the generalization from driving results in a lessening in its intensity. Impatience then becomes easier to extinguish in these other situations. If we go through the process we used with driving with our impatience with work and extinguish it, it will also generalize producing a further reduction in impatience with our life partner, with political discussions, and with exercise. Continuing this process will make us much more patient and happier people in virtually every circumstance.


Another method that Psychology has developed for eliminating an unwanted behavior is to replace it with an incompatible behavior. This is called counterconditioning. In this process positive reinforcement, reward, is used to build up a behavior that cannot coexist with the behavior we wish to eliminate. For example, to eliminate a phobia to spiders, a psychologist may attempt to have the patient relax in the face of thinking about spiders, replacing fear with relaxation. Similarly, a child that is hyperactive and engages in problematic behaviors in the schoolroom can be rewarded for paying attention. Since, paying attention cannot occur at the same time as disruptive behaviors, strengthening attention, reduces disruptive behaviors.


For example, we may feel unhappy because our life’s partners have a habit of not picking up after themselves. This feeling of unsatisfactoriness can build up and produce a nasty outburst and upset our partner. But, if when confronted with the mess, we simply remember a wonderful endearing characteristic of our partner, we can begin to replace the unsatisfactoriness with pleasant thoughts. The good feelings then begin to replace the irritation toward our partners. If we continue this practice we will slowly begin to react to the mess with loving feelings and can then confront the behavior with kindness and love, making it more likely to have a positive effect on our partners lack of tidiness. This is the process of eliminating our unsatisfactoriness through counterconditioning. Tangible rewards are not available, but pleasant memories are, and they can be used to reinforce the incompatible behavior.


Positive Psychology has clearly shown that we can replace unsatisfactoriness by strengthening satisfactory states, such as happiness, contentment, joy, and bliss. By simply working to amplify the positive the negative declines. Simple things such as putting a smile on our faces, can brighten our day. Smiling at other people when we pass them in the corridors and streets not only lifts their spirits but also our own and a return smile amplifies the contentment even more. We become so much happier and more content when we focus on the good things in life rather than the bad. When we do, unsatisfactoriness fades away.


The great sage Thich Nhat Hahn teaches us to focus on our non-toothaches. When we have a toothache we’re miserable and suffering and find this very unsatisfactory. We think, if we can just get over this painful condition then things will be good again. But, once it’s gone, we quickly forget and focus on something else that’s unsatisfactory. We need instead to be happy that our teeth are sound, without pain. Simply notice it and rejoice in it. It is a simple miracle that our bodies work so well that we can enjoy great oral health. Simply, occasionally, reflect on our good health and the miracle of being alive with most everything working well. What a beautiful state! What a joy! How can we find our lives unsatisfactory when we appreciate all that is right with our lives.


Psychology has found that positive reinforcement is extraordinarily powerful in changing behavior. So, we should reward ourselves for making strides in our practice and in our lives, rather than punishing ourselves for our failures. During contemplative practice when our minds wander, we shouldn’t get upset that we lost focus, rather celebrate the fact that we returned to focus. When we realize that our mind is wandering we punish ourselves by getting upset with ourselves, what we are effectively doing is punishing returning to focus. As we’ve seen, this leads to making it less likely that we’ll return to focus in the future. But, if we rejoice when we realize our minds are wandering and congratulate ourselves for returning to focus, we increase the likelihood that the next time our minds wander we’ll be more likely to detect it and get back to focusing on our practice. This is far more satisfactory


The other day I was riding my bicycle and got extremely tired before completing my scheduled ride. So, I stopped and rested even though I only had a couple of miles to go. Rather than getting angry and upset at myself for not pacing my ride properly, I congratulated myself for knowing my body and recognizing that a rest was necessary. So, I replaced an unsatisfactory state of self-anger with a satisfactory state. Rather than suffer about my failure, I celebrated my good sense. So, use positive reinforcement and reduce unsatisfactoriness, building happy and satisfying states.


It’s useful in this regard to contemplate happiness. Look carefully at when we’re happy, joyful, or content look carefully at exactly what we’re feeling in our bodies. This will help us at becoming better at recognizing these positive states when they are present. When they are there investigate what were the conditions that led up to these good feelings and thereby begin to learn what really makes us happy. We’ll probably be surprised that it is mostly not what we think will make us happy, but often something simple and everyday, particularly with family and friends. Recognize what truly makes us happy, we can learn how to increase our happiness. Doing so markedly reduces unsatisfactoriness. So eliminate suffering by building happiness, joy, and contentment.


Sometimes our suffering is too strong to simply replace it. Psychology also has a method to use in this case. It’s a process of slowly replacing similar but less intense unsatisfactoriness with counterconditioning and letting it generalize to more intense situations that can now be addressed. This is called systematic desensitization.


We might try this with political discussion where the issues produce so much anger that trying to replace them with good feelings is almost impossible, perhaps discussing abortion. Instead, look for issues of discussion that are contentious but less emotional, perhaps taxes. First practice relaxing by taking a deep breath and focusing on relaxing the facial muscles and smiling. Once, we’ve developed this ability to evoke relaxation and a smile at will we can begin to apply it to replacing anger. After all, it’s impossible to be relaxed and smiling and angry at the same time. Now, we should try this while discussing taxes, while the other people are presenting their viewpoints, produce the relax and smile response and as we’re presenting our viewpoint also produce the relax and smile response. Slowly, anger will be replaced with pleasant feelings so while discussing taxes we are no longer angry.


Next, we move to a more contentious subject, perhaps welfare. The previous counterconditioning for the taxes discussion generalizes to the welfare discussion making it substantially less emotion provoking, so it can be more easily addressed. Then repeat the process of conditioning relaxation and smiling while the other people are presenting their viewpoints on welfare and as we’re presenting our viewpoint. Slowly, anger will be replaced with pleasant feelings so while discussing welfare we are no longer angry. The final step, after these and perhaps more intermediary steps, will be to repeat the process with the most anger producing discussion, perhaps abortion. The previous counterconditionings will have generalized to this discussion and the level of anger may be reduced to the point where it is manageable. We then repeat the process of strengthening the relaxation and smiling response while discussing abortion. Eventually, we’ll be able to take on the worst of the worst and do it while relaxing and smiling. Our unsatisfactoriness will have been eliminated by replacing it with a pleasant state.


These are some of the methods that Psychology has developed that can help us to eliminate our sufferings, unsatisfactorinesses. Applying extinction, counterconditioning, and systematic desensitization to our unsatisfactorinesses can be an effective means of getting rid of them. As we’ve discussed this is fundamental to unmasking our true nature, our Buddha Nature. So, the principles of modern Psychology can be useful tools on our contemplative and spiritual development. We can use the skills developed by following the principles of Psychology to eliminate our unsatisfactorinesses leading to spiritual awakening.


‘if we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy’. – Alan Watts


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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

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.