Suffering is fairly constant for many people. It can come when we wake, linger all day, and hover through the evening, too. For some, there is no escape at night, either.
We become convinced that suffering is because of our particular stories: one person might think: ‘I am getting divorced, so I am unhappy’; another might think: ‘I am losing my job, so I am unhappy’. These stories are easy to understand. But there are others which are harder to understand. Some people think: ‘I feel that the world is meaningless, so I am unhappy’; others think: ‘I fear food, or social interaction, or the world outside my front door, so I am unhappy’. Whatever your story is, it feels like the only story in the world. It is the one closest to you, after all.
But, sooner or later, you might perceive that everyone has a story – a tale they tell themselves when they wake up. It is not just you… suffering has its potential place in every human heart. If you listen to all the stories, you will notice that, where unhappiness is involved, there are a few common factors.
This article focuses on three.
Humans can enjoy things. This isn’t a problem in itself, but we then try to grab hold of the experience for ourselves, and fail to let it go. We get overattracted to food and drugs, other people, and material possessions.
We then become like moths attracted to a light. We know it burns us, but we continue with our basic response. At that point, our self-mastery is gone, and we repeat self-defeating and slavish behaviours, chasing security, but only achieving insecurity.
Humans can also have their enjoyment removed by things. Again, this isn’t a problem in itself. But when we experience loss, and want to blame a particular thing or person, then we try to push it away. This causes all sorts of problems in our lives. Some people become repelled by food, some become somewhat allergic to certain people, and some develop a strong dislike for certain things or environments.
We then become like cornered animals. We know we are hurting our enemies (and our friends sometimes), but we continue the battle because, in those delusional moments, we believe that our hatred and irritation is the quickest way of achieving equilibrium. But the world doesn’t cooperate, and we become miserably separate, wanting safety, but only achieving enmity and aloneness.
Humans can also turn their backs on things. Those people and things that we are not attracted to or repelled by, we simply ignore. Put simply, we can become very uncaring about that which does not directly affect our life. This is evident in the way our news focuses on local issues, and spends less time dwelling on worldwide issues, however much our help might be needed. In the same way, we talk and gossip about things close to our hearts, and ignore the rest.
This indifference causes ignorance. Sooner or later, though, we are surprised by a result. Perhaps the earth becomes polluted. Or perhaps refugees arrive at our borders. Maybe we walk along the street, and see homeless people who are ill and suffering. It surprises us because, until it hits us in the face, we are indifferent to life.
If we’re not chasing what we’re attracted to, or running away from what we are repelled by, or ignoring what we don’t care about… what is left for us to do?
Well, it’s true that you can spend your life chasing what you like, avoiding what you don’t like, and dismissing people and things that seem irrelevant to you. It’s the basis for many modern economies, and you will find a lot of support. The entertainment industry will offer you pleasures and attractions. The justice system and health industry will help you fight your pains and repulsions. The media will help you focus on these things and ignore the rest.
But eventually you may come to feel there must be more to life.
The strange thing about awareness, is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns of attraction, repulsion and indifference. The latter are very basic animal instincts; but awareness is slightly more advanced.
It is based on a completely different direction of behaviour. Imagine four points to a compass: North, South, East and West. Attraction and repulsion are the East and West of your life – they seem instinctive and hard to avoid. Indifference is like your South. Left alone together, these three will take up your time, and drag you slowly southwards, until you fall off the bottom of the world.
Awareness is the ability to attend to someone or something without grabbing, pushing, or ignoring. If you can learn it, then you can become strangely immune to suffering. This is because simple awareness is the only mental state that does not make you a victim of your environment. There is nothing to do but see. That’s why it’s called enlightenment.
Suffering is a very common thing, and is often caused by three things:
Attraction – Trying to grab what you want (this causes slavish, repetitive behaviours)
Repulsion – Trying to eject what you don’t want (this causes irritation and loneliness)
Indifference – Ignoring what you don’t care about (this causes shock when life bites back)
You may find that your suffering falls away, and the world becomes a brighter place.