The human mind has a bias towards the avoidance of immediate suffering. Behaviourally, we tend to prefer this to finding happiness in the long term, or discovering joy in the medium term. It would no doubt be better for us if we were more disciplined and far-sighted. But we seem addicted to short term pain alleviation, and in this regard we play life selfishly.
SELF-DEFEATING WAYS TO ESCAPE SUFFERING
The trouble is, our techniques to avoid suffering tend to build up problems for the future. Thus:
We alleviate boredom, hunger and loneliness by over-eating, burdening our bodies with obstructive fat
We alleviate conflict by avoiding other people, burdening ourselves with loneliness and isolation
We alleviate the fear of rejection by playing life safe and sticking to familiar scenarios, burdening ourselves with overwhelmingly repetitive habits
ESCAPING SUFFERING THROUGH COMPASSION AND ACCEPTANCE
A closer analysis of why we suffer seems to reveal a better way of tackling the cycle. There are two main principles which seem disproportionately powerful:
We suffer when we overvalue ourselves. In contrast, we become happier when we prioritise others.
We suffer when we are narrow-minded. In contrast, we become happier when we appreciate different perspectives.
In the long term, a shift towards compassion and acceptance is immensely protective. In particular:
Anger and frustration can’t get a hold on us. Anger is grounded in lack of compassion, and non-acceptance. Therefore it tends to die when we become more compassionate and accepting.
Fear and anxiety also find it difficult to hurt us. Fear is caused by overvaluing the self. It tends to disappear when we value others instead, because we do not have to waste energy being too self-protective.
If we can successfully avoid suffering, and find happiness, then eventually the icing on the cake can be a discovery of moments of joy. This is different from the brief pleasure of attachment. The temporary joy of a drug high, for example, leads in future to a disturbing cycle of addiction.
Healthy joy is a different thing. One has the feeling of escaping one’s own private world, and entering into a celebration of kindness, happiness and understanding.
It can be found sometimes in merely watching others at play. Sometimes in a piece of art, perhaps a book or a film. Sometimes in a celebration of collective happiness. And sometimes in the wise discovery of a new part of the universe one has not understood before.
Just for one day, see if you can set in motion a chain reaction in yourself caused by compassion and acceptance.
Whenever you feel disturbed, try to turn your focus to other people, and to seeing different perspectives
When you find yourself afraid or angry, try to value others with compassion and a broad mind
When you want joy, seek out beings at play, appreciate their creative works, join their celebrations, and learn new information
Some of our ways of avoiding suffering are self-destructive in the long run. These include over-consumption, antisocial behaviour, and obsessive-compulsive habits.
A good way of escaping suffering is to prioritise others, and to see others’ points of view. This makes us happier in the long term, because we are making our world more compassionate and accepting.
We can even experience moments of joy through creative play, joint celebration, and intellectual discovery.
In short, a selfish, narrow mental approach causes suffering. A caring, flexible mental approach brings happiness.