If you are normal, you have a suffering mind.
What’s very strange is that there are intelligent, thoughtful, and experienced people who deny this! That simply shows how much they are trapped by their own thoughts.
By the words “suffering mind” I am referring to a whole range of psychological discomforts from a barely noticeable uneasiness to everyday dissatisfaction to the intense distress that precedes suicide [see the posts “Suffering: Its Nature and Cure” and “Pain-Its Nature and What To Do about Pain”].
The word that Buddhists use originally meant being off-center like a wheel whose axle was off enough to create a bumpy ride. Do you go from one satisfaction to the next or is your life an up-and-down ride?
If additional evidence is required that having a suffering mind is ubiquitous, study its prevalence in any human society for which there are adequate records and contrast that to the fact that no other living organisms commit suicide.
I used to take an informal poll the first week of every course. I’d simply ask the students to raise a hand if they had personally considered or attempted suicide or knew someone who had. It was only very occasionally that I had a class in which some student failed to raise a hand. Nearly all had experience with the suffering mind.
Psychological studies have shown that half of the people in our own society either attempt suicide or struggle with suicidal thoughts in their lives.
Here’s the important point: there is nothing abnormal about you if you have a suffering mind.
Given that it’s normal, the question should be: “What can be done to alleviate it?” In this post let me simply state my belief that suffering is optional. There are humans, called “sages,” who reduce and even eliminate it. Furthermore, every normal human being has the innate capacity to become a sage.
In this post I’d like just to emphasize that there is a serious problem about suffering and to stimulate you to wonder “What causes suffering?”
The Bible is the most influential book of western civilization and, not surprisingly, there is a story about the origin of suffering in its opening book. I write ‘not surprisingly’ because this is the book that spawned the three monotheistic religions and, if not to alleviate suffering, what is the purpose of religion?
Answer quickly to yourself: is it good to understand the difference between good and evil?
Presumably, it is. How could we be moral and lead good lives without understanding the difference between good and evil?
Yet the Biblical story of The Fall tells us that that understanding is the beginning of human suffering. Once we learn the categories of good and evil, we are able to judge whether or not some person or event falls under them.
Once the first woman and man ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge “the eyes of both were opened” [Genesis iii 7]. Once they understood, they became ashamed and the God YHWH punished them.
What is the price we pay for understanding good and evil?
Every child experiences it, and every adult lives with it.
We lose innocence. We can question ourselves and ask if we are worthy. We can question the past and ask whether or not some event was good. We can think of ideals that make the present moment wanting. We can imagine the future and begin to worry about what will happen-especially understanding that we will die and that there’s nothing to be done to prevent that dreadful event.
In short, we begin to suffer.
J, who was the author of The Fall in Genesis, used earlier Mesopotamian traditions (probably including the tale of Adapa as well as the Epic of Gilgamesh) in the story. The themes of loss of innocence, sexual awareness, wisdom, and nature’s paradise probably stretch back to the beginnings of human language and symbolic activity.
This is just what we should expect. After all, where could the suffering mind come from other than our own minds? Of course suffering comes from ourselves!
This is really, really good news.
It opens the possibility that we can transcend our own understanding, that we can get out of life within the fog of our own thoughts, that we can get out of our own heads. Since we made it, why can’t we unmake it or make it better?
If that idea doesn’t excite you, you are intellectually dead.