When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.


What is your experience?

I’ve been thinking about acceptance lately and trying to write about the what it means to accept or reject our experience.

But I got stuck, and, as often happens when I’m stuck, I checked the meaning and etymology of the key term: experience.

I was using ‘experience’ to mean the sum total of one’s impressions. But the origin of the word makes it closer to ‘experiment’, with the implication of knowledge gained from a test or trial.

One of my untested theories is that the etymology of words can have unconscious implications. We don’t need to know what ‘experience’ really means to be influenced by its etymology. And even though the use of words changes over time, the real meaning is never truly erased.

Maybe it’s just me, but the moment I thought about it I realised that the ‘ex’ prefix meant ‘experience’ was coming out of somewhere. Intuitively it doesn’t have the ring of an all-encompassing state of affairs, does it?

So what do we call the sum total of our impressions, if not ‘experience’?

We could call it ‘reality’ but that somewhat begs the question. Reality means the quality of being real, from res meaning matter or thing.

But we don’t really know if these things are real, or if our impressions are things, do we?

Even if we call them impressions, we’re still assuming there’s something external making an imprint on our minds.

Other words like thought, think, ken, know, cognise, consciousness, and so on are all quite basic. They point to the everyday experience of people having mental states that represent to themselves the world around them.

The language is not really built for skeptical introspection. So we have to talk around it, pointing out that we do not know on the basis of thoughts and impressions what the true nature of reality is – the external world that presumably leaves these imprints on our minds (assuming that we have minds).

That’s why nondualists end up simply positing “consciousness” undergoing endless forms.

One source I’ve been reading lately asserts that there are three things: formless consciousness, the discriminating power, and the distinguishing forms that arise through this discriminating power.

At the same time, these three things are not separate. They may be different functions of the same thing, or in Buddhist terms: form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Why this power would bother to create forms that resemble the author sitting at his desk mired in the illusion of a biographical existence while pondering his own unreality is a bit of a mystery.

Regardless, that’s the nondualist answer. You are not really you, just a collection of passing forms. Consciousness alone is unchanging and real, and capable of knowing itself.