Posted On 06 May 2010
Like pain, suffering is an important evil; however, unlike pain, it is optional.
Whereas ‘pain’ denotes bodily discomforts, the topic here is psychological discomforts [See the post “Pain-Its Nature and What To Do about Pain”]. It is not always possible to eliminate pain, but, at least for a sage, it is always possible to eliminate psychological discomfort.
What, exactly, is suffering? What causes it? How can it be eliminated?
Just as pains range from so mild as to be barely noticeable to intense agony, so psychological discomforts range from being barely noticeable in the background to acute distress.
Here are some concrete examples of psychological discomforts: the mild annoyance you feel at having to go to work on Monday mornings, the years of torment and loneliness you felt after your beloved spouse dumped you, the sadness when that glorious sunset diminished into the purples of early evening, the anger you felt when your car was stolen, and the “not again” despair that gripped you when you were fired from a job once again.
All negative emotions such as grief, anger, and fear are examples of psychological distress. [In the chapter “Imbalance about Emotions” in 5 Ways to Diminish Failure Almost Instantly I argue that our emotional systems are dynamic and nonlinear and in How To Survive College Emotionally I analyze emotions and provide detailed guidance on how to deal with them.]
All suffering is caused by attachment and all attachment is egocentric.
Whenever you want reality [see the post “Define Reality”] to be other than it is, there’s a gap between the world and what you desire. Since you are not omnipotent, it is not always possible to change reality to suit yourself. If you stay stuck wanting something different, all you are doing is generating an egocentric attachment that will cause you to suffer.
For example, if on Monday morning you would rather sleep in or go fishing or work on your book, you will experience a mild resentment that you have to go to work. If you want your life to be as it was before your lover dumped you, you are creating your own unhappiness. And so on.
Detachment is the cure for attachment.
Until you let go of what you want, until you free yourself from the powerful grip of egocentric desire, you will remain attached, and, therefore subject to psychological discomfort.
Want to free yourself? Become detached; just let go of all egocentric desire. This breaks the grip of the ego/I. It frees you from your self concept [see the post “Define Understanding”].
It’s important to understand that there is nothing to gain. Believe it or not, you already have everything required for living without any suffering whatsoever! Innately, you already have the ability to live as freely, peacefully and joyfully as a sage. Why, then, aren’t you doing it?
It’s because you are going through life lost in a perpetual cloud of thought. You are imprisoned by your own concepts.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking: how else are you going to solve problems? However, there’s something very important that is wrong with incessantly thinking, namely, loss of freedom!
To live well (wisely, peacefully, freely, excellently) is to live as a sage, a successful philosopher. The difference between sages and us is that, instead of being controlled by their thoughts, they are able to control their thoughts.
Being fully in control means being fully free. The more control you have, the happier you are (which, of course, is why we punish people by diminishing the control they have).
So, freeing yourself from suffering requires mastering your thoughts. How?
The only way is to master the practice of controlling them. My own practice is zazen meditation, but that’s only one among many that can work.
What’s really strange about psychological discomforts is that many people attach to them! Instead of committing themselves to doing what it takes to free themselves, they latch onto them as excuses for living poorly. It’s the victim mentality that prevents living better.
For example, it’s thinking that you can’t live well because your mother was an alcoholic, or because your uncle sexually molested you when you were 10, or because you aren’t good-looking enough, or because your brain won’t work well if you stopped smoking or ingesting alcohol or other drugs. Then you set up your life so that it won’t challenge you. It’s all stupid, foolish, counter-productive, and unnecessary.
Since nobody is perfect, we all have factors that work against living well. So?
Do whatever it takes to work through them-or forever be enslaved. Stop making excuses for yourself and take control of your thoughts-or give up the dream of ever realizing your true nature.