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

It’s Eliminating the Causes of Suffering, Stupid

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“The Buddha taught that beyond suffering lies great bliss. As we take steps towards removing the causes of suffering, we experience progressive levels of happiness. The path is a long one. But staying on it leads to a tremendous sense of liberation. There are other benefits from adhering to this philosophy – one can live in happiness, untroubled by any kind of negativity. At the end of this path, when desire and ignorance would have completely fallen away, one may experience the same transcendental joy that the Buddha did.” – Buddha Groove


In a previous essay the first Noble Truth was discussed, reflecting the patently obvious fact that there is suffering, a.k.a. unsatisfactoriness. In the next essay the second Noble Truth was discussed also stating the obvious that there are causes to the suffering. But, not so obviously we saw how, all encompassing, unsatisfactoriness is in our lives and how subtle are its causes. We saw that most of the unsatisfactoriness emanated from our inability to accept things as they are and instead, go to war against reality.


As we look carefully and deeply at this unsatisfactoriness, we find that it is much more encompassing than we initially thought, affecting every aspect of our lives and experience, day in and day out. In fact, unsatisfactoriness is the rule and not the exception. It is the biggest single impediment to being truly happy, making progress on a spiritual path, and experiencing liberation. The Buddha recognized this and held out hope in the third Noble Truth, that suffering can be eliminated, that there can be a cessation of unsatisfactoriness.


At first glance the idea of eliminating suffering would seem simple, just eliminate the cause of suffering. Since, the cause of suffering, desiring things to be different than they are, is also simple, it should be an easy task to eliminate the desiring and thereby the suffering. But, it’s not simple at all. It took arguably the greatest, most mentally disciplined, mindfulness practitioner of all time, the Buddha, six years of struggle to accomplish it. For most of us, it would seem to be an almost impossible task. To get an idea of the difficulty just realize that wanting to eliminate the desire for things to be different, is itself a desire for things to be different!


The complexity of the cessation of desires is also underscored by the fact that many desires are healthy and in fact necessary for life, e.g. hunger, thirst, breathing, etc. Obviously these desires should not be eliminated. In addition, many are for pleasant things that make life enjoyable, such as companionship, love, art, music, good food and wine, etc. It would certainly be a bland life without them. Others are unpleasant things that need to be avoided or tempered, such as pain, illness, fear, loneliness. It would seem problematic to remove these desires. In fact, the third Noble Truth does not call for the elimination of desires. Rather, it suggests that we should eliminate clinging to, grasping onto, these desires.


The difference between desires and clinging to desires is a subtle but very important distinction. There is nothing wrong with desires themselves. It is human nature to have them and if not clung to, they are normally healthy. But to be invested in the outcome of the desires is where the problem arises. It is perfectly fine to desire going to a concert, but it causes suffering when the outcome makes a difference. If the concert is cancelled or sold out or your car breaks down so you can’t get there would you be OK with it, or would you be upset? If it’s the latter then you’re attached, you’re grasping, you’re clinging. If it’s the former you’re displaying the equanimity that the Buddha taught is the way to the cessation of suffering. Similarly, if you desire to get rid of a headache and take analgesics and rest, this is fine. But, if the headache continues and you’re angry and upset to have to deal with the continuing pain, then that’s clinging, grasping, and attaching to the desire. You can only alleviate the suffering by accepting that the headache is still there. Indeed, research has shown that the headache pain lessens just as soon as you cease to fight it and let go of resistance. As Ajahn Chah said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you’ll have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely . . . you’ll be completely happy.”


Once again, though, this sounds simple, but in practice is devilishly difficult to do. The mind is programmed to control. It automatically tries to produce good feelings and hold onto them and eliminate bad feelings and prevent them from returning. So, even though we may wish to cease clinging to desires, our own mind works against us. We might try to force our will on the mind and battle its tendencies. But, as Adyashanti likes to say “If you go to war with your mind you’ll be at war forever.” The Buddha found this to be absolutely true as his attempts to control his mind with asceticism were a nearly mortal failure. He finally found a better way, “The Middle Way” where one works to restrain the mind, but doesn’t get upset when failure occurs, simply returns to the effort with expectations of slowly moving more and more toward equanimity. This is a patient practice in the middle between striving and giving up. It works to tame the mind, but not dominate it.


The practice begins with an intention to explore everyday experiences, looking at each and asking the question, do I feel unsatisfactoriness and when you do exploring why, what is the cause of the unsatisfactoriness. Sometimes it’s simple. You’re caught at a red light and detect unsatisfactoriness and realize that you want to get somewhere (you want things to be different) rather than appreciating the drive. With this realization, you can often spontaneously let go and stop clinging to the desire to be somewhere else and simply enjoy a relaxing interlude to the stress of driving. At times, though, it may be difficult to release the clinging. You may feel that you’re underpaid at work and thus feel unsatisfactoriness with you job rather than enjoying the moment to moment experience of the work. This feeling of unfairness may not simply diminish upon realization. This will take more work. One important lesson here, is that the key to ending suffering and becoming happy is not in a monastery or a pilgrimage, but right here in everyday life. This is where the practice is. This is where equanimity can be developed. It’s right here, right now, in the present moment, in the midst of your life.


The practice from here becomes subtle. It involves first working with everyday experiences and noticing when unsatisfactoriness arises and secondly noting the underlying cause, the desire, the wanting, the craving. Then, thirdly, noting and observing that both the unsatisfactoriness and the desire go through a phase of arising, increasing in magnitude and fourthly noting that they both go through a phase of decline, falling away. Obviously, this requires patience and mindful observing. But, it reveals that unsatisfactoriness and its cause, desire, just like everything else, are impermanent. They come and they go. Note that you have just observed the cessation of unsatisfactoriness and desire, the exact state that you want to achieve. Note also that you didn’t do anything. It all happened spontaneously, on its own.


For example, you may want to go out for dinner at a restaurant for a nice meal but realize that your budget won’t allow it. This will likely be followed by feelings of frustration, the unsatisfactoriness. Observe the feelings arising. Then, look deeply for the underlying cause, perhaps the desire to have more money, greed. Observe, also how this desire for money arises and strengthens. Then if you patiently stay with these feelings, you’ll note that they begin to decrease and fall away. The unsatisfactoriness and the greed slowly dissipate and eventually completely cease. You are left not caring that you can’t go out for the meal, that you don’t have the money. You have achieved a brief equanimity. As I’m sure, you’ll recognize, this liberation will not last long, the feelings will arise again either immediately or at a later time. You haven’t extinguished them, only experienced a brief cessation.


Once, the falling away of unsatisfactoriness and the underlying desire, is experienced. There is nothing else for you to do. Do not attempt to control this experience in any way. Do not attempt to maintain or lengthen the experience. This is a form of desiring things to be different than they are; the exact cause of unsatisfactoriness in the first place. It’s very hard not to try to control it. Remember your mind is programmed to do this. Don’t get upset if the mind jumps in and tries to do so. It’s just what minds do. Simply watch it and see how this itself creates unsatisfactoriness that arises and falls away.


This is where the subtlety comes in. The equanimity, the decrease of unsatisfactoriness, and the cessation of desire can’t be controlled. They must simply be allowed to come and go. As the practice continues the number of times this equanimity occurs and the duration of the cessation will start to increase on their own. The realization begins to dawn that you really don’t have to do anything. All you need to do is accept things as they are. This acceptance produces a pleasant state that reinforces the process, making it occur more frequently and for longer duration in the future. You come to not only understand, but directly experience that unsatisfactoriness and desire can be ended simply by patiently waiting for them to spontaneously diminish and cease. When you do a pleasant feeling will spontaneously arise. This in turn leads to an upward spiral leading slowly to enduring equanimity.


It is important to understand that attempting to actually do anything to produce, hold onto, or lengthen the state is counterproductive. Patience and persistence is required here. Trust that it will all happen on its own if you just let it. Don’t meddle. But, don’t stop observing. This is the method revealed in the Third Noble Truth. It is the way to true happiness, true liberation, true enlightenment.


The Buddha provides a path that makes it more likely that this will occur. It is the fourth Noble Truth, also called the Noble Eightfold Path which is the subject of other essays.


“After suffering, the Buddha taught, there is supreme happiness. Every step of the way to removing the causes of unhappiness brings more joy. On the path to the end of suffering, which is a path that Buddhists may spend their whole lifetimes practicing, there are levels of happiness and freedom from craving and ignorance that can be achieved.” – Buddhist Studies


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Spiraling Up with Mindfulness!


Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was designed to treat depression. It has been so effective that the British Medical Service considers it a treatment of choice for depression. In a prior post the effectiveness of MBCT for depression was discussed. The relief of depression was evident even with depressed individuals who did not respond to antidepressant drugs.

Depression is characterized by negative mood states. But, depression is also supported by thought processes which tend to emphasize the negative. In addition the depressed individual tends to particularly pay attention to negative stimuli. They even contribute to their negativity by interpreting ambiguous situations as negative and even tend to see their own thoughts in a negative light. This creates a negative downward spiral where a depressed mood is interpreted negatively, for instance as indicative of low self-worth, which increases the depression, where they pick out the negative to focus on from all that is available in daily life, increasing depression, where even neutral events are seen as negative, increasing depression. So, depression leads to more depression which leads to more depression etc., a negative spiral into the depths of depression.

MBCT combines cognitive therapy for depression, which aims to alter the thought processes that reinforce the depression, and mindful meditation practice, which enhances focus on the present moment. Since depression is often characterized by rumination which is repetitive thoughts about negative past or future events, mindfulness training by its emphasis on staying in the present moment tends to markedly reduce ruminative thinking. ( ). Hence, there are clear reasons for MBCT’s effectiveness as it combines two components, CBT and meditation, each of which individually are effective for relief of depression and prevention of relapse.

It is obvious that depression emphasizes the negative. In fact, depressed individuals are not only characterized by increased negativity they also have very little if any positive feelings or thoughts. One way that MBCT is thought to ameliorate depression is by increasing positive thoughts as well as decreasing negative thoughts. In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness training promotes upward spirals of positive affect and cognition: multilevel and autoregressive latent trajectory modeling analyses”

Garland and colleagues investigated how MBCT works on a day to day basis in improving positive mood and thoughts in depressed individuals in remission and find that it creates a positive upward spiral of thoughts and feelings, the exact opposite of untreated depression.

They found as others have that MBCT tended to increase positive thoughts and feelings. But, in looking day to day after the end of the active treatment phase they observed that each day the positive feelings tended to increase the positive thoughts and feelings on the next day which in turn increased the positive thoughts and feelings on the next day etc. leading to an upward spiral where positivity led to greater positivity which led to even greater positivity. Hence the combination of CBT with mindfulness training creates an emotionally driven upward spiral by stimulating positive thoughts and feelings among people with deficits in positive feelings.

Hence MBCT relieves the negative thoughts and feelings and in addition produces a cascade in the opposite direction of positive thoughts and feelings. No wonder it’s so effective.

So, practice mindfulness and spiral up!