Why do We Suffer?
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Hey everyone! This week, I am going to discuss something that is a little dark, but I feel like it is important that we acknowledge it. So, why exactly do we feel sad, hopeless, or insignificant? Is it something we can control or is suffering inevitable?
Well, in the most honest terms possible, I would say we have to admit that we will always suffer to one degree or another. It may sound cynical, but it is actually paramount to our mental health that we admit this. What do you think would happen if we didn't, if we instead went through life always expecting everything to be ponies and rainbows? Well, we'd be disappointed a lot, for one thing.
Now, this isn't to suggest that optimism is bad. In fact, optimism is good for the very fact that it is based upon hope, and hope is arguably the most effective antidepressant one can take. However, hope is only as good as the spirit with which one carries it. Our faith, the spirit of our optimism, may be battered by the humbling winds of life's many storms if we are not carful to curb our expectations.
This brings me to the central concept surrounding human suffering, a concept referred to by Buddhists as "grasping." Put simply, grasping is expectation, desire, lust, regret, or the plethora of other hoops through which our mind forces us jump in order to reconcile our perceived meaning in life. When we grasp as these emotions, we are holding onto something impermanent, which inevitably leads to suffering. Sometimes grasping is a more direct emotion, like mourning the loss of a loved one, longing for a love that could be, or wishing for material possessions. Other times, the relationship between our perceived outcomes and their immediate effects on our happiness are not as cleanly detected. For example, when I go to work and I am super busy and have no time for my mind to stray, I am often oddly happier then on days when I am slower, and one reason why, I have found, is that my mind wanders to my writing and my fantasies. While it may initially make me happy to dream of these things, when I am pulled back into my duty, I am starkly reminded that I am, indeed, not free. My fantasies seem innocent and well intentioned, but they are grasping when I allow my desire for that perceived freedom to inflict cynicism upon me during work hours.
Ok, if we make ourselves aware of our own grasping, how can we control it?
It is not a matter of changing our thoughts or actions, but it is a matter of how we react to them. This sounds odd, but it simply requires introspection. For example, when I start to feel cynical, I can choose two paths; one path is the one where I continue to desire freedom from my pain (in my previous example that would be my 9-5 job), or I can choose to look at what makes this moment worth it and focus on that (my 9-5 provides me with a means to care for my loved ones and many people are less fortunate than me and don't have jobs). Then, when I do things that make me happy, the same applies. Instead of feeling that "this is what I deserve," an example of inevitable future grasping, I can choose to say "this is what I earned." I am entitled to nothing, but I appreciate everything.
So, to summarize, we do not control what happens, or what we subconsciously think, we only control how we perceive. Don't let your perceptions cast shade upon your optimism.
I'll leave you with a Buddhist quote that quite eloquently encompasses these ideas: "There is no path to happiness, happiness is the path."
Until next time,