Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

The Root of all Suffering…and its Cure

According to Buddhist philosophy all human suffering stems from one, all-encompassing source; a suffering ‘master-key’ referred to as Duhkha (pronounced doo-ka).

Although the translation I’m going to give here would probably make a Buddhist cringe (or more likely, to feel acceptance), ‘Duhkha’ to a Western mindset would translate, in the broadest sense of the word, to ‘dissatisfaction’.

To the Buddhist mindset, Duhkha represents a subtle, but all-pervading undercurrent of dissatisfaction that permeates every fibre of human existence; and one which leads to all our anger, hate, despair, jealously, anxiety, fear, frustration and so forth.

Now, before I continue, let me first say that I’m not a Buddhist, and quite frankly I don’t profess to fully appreciate the depth of meaning that Duhkha actually encompasses.

But the basic philosophy, which you don’t need to be a Buddhist to appreciate, is that the driving force behind Duhkha (this feeling that life isn’t quite ‘right’) is simply desire: – Duhkha is born out of wanting something, wanting anything to be other than the way things are.

And ‘anything’ literally means anything. Whenever we expect or want any aspect of ourselves, other people, our environment, our lives or any part of reality to be different to how we find it, we are opening ourselves up to Duhkha; and consequently we will experience pain and suffering.

Simply put, it is the very act of wanting or craving that leads to suffering. It’s as if we suffer because of the misalignment between expectation and reality.

Addiction

I used to be a heavy smoker and from my perspective, the best analogy for Duhkha is the pain of a drug induced craving.

As you’ll know if you’ve ever been addicted to nicotine (or any other highly addictive substance for that matter) it’s not really smoking the cigarette that provides the pleasure; instead it’s the release from the pent up craving – the release from the drug-induced suffering – that drives the habit.

It’s like scratching an itch or taking off a pair of tight shoes; the act itself isn’t the source of pleasure or contentment, instead it’s the relief from suffering that performing the act provides.

Duhkha likewise, is not the itch, it’s the resistance to, and the craving to be free of the itch; neither is Duhkha the uncomfortable footwear; it’s the desire for your feet to be free from the discomfort.

The Antidote: Acceptance

I’m hoping that as you’re reading this a little light bulb has flickered into existence in your head and that you’ve instinctively sensed a grain of underlying ‘truth’ in this Buddhist explanation of suffering; because if you have, then another related Buddhist notion will start to make perfect, pretty profound sense: – that ‘acceptance’ is an effective antidote to suffering.

Stop skim reading now and ask yourself this question: -

If the root cause of our suffering is indeed the desire for things to be different – that is, if the problem is our resistance to reality – then what better antidote to suffering could there possibly be than to stop resisting reality; to accept the way things are?

It’s a concept that I’ve contemplated many times throughout my life; and one that has personally provided respite at some very challenging times.

To give you a personal example, I found that it was through accepting, rather than fighting, extremes of negative emotion that I was able to escape the all-consuming clutches of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In fact to this day, ‘acceptance’ of an emotion, or a circumstance or event, forms one of my key coping strategies in life. If I ever feel anxious, stressed, insecure or angry, I’ll simply accept the way I feel – and rather magically, I’ll start to feel better.

It’s when I default back to the self-destructive human inclination of resisting what I dislike and to that end, stop accepting life as it is – when I start thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t fair…things shouldn’t be like this’ – that I start to go off the emotional rails.

For me at least, ‘acceptance’ takes the sting out of my emotions…and for that matter, any problems that arise.

Simply altering my perspective to, ‘This is the way things are at the moment…resisting reality by getting angry, frustrated, upset or bitter about it is just an exercise in futility’ therefore lifts a tremendous weight from my shoulders.

So maybe you’re thinking those saffron robe wearing Buddhists with their perpetual Mona Lisa like smiles that seem to reflect a deeper insight into life, really are onto something here?

Maybe that deeper insight (and the reason for the subtle Mona Lisa like smiles) is that like criminals to Sylvester Stallone, they know that desire is the disease, acceptance is the cure…something they preach of course, without mirrored shades, stubble, a matchstick in mouth, black leather driving gloves and an Uzi.

Am I Advocating Apathy?

If you’re really thinking about this deeply, or conversely you’re cynically looking for a flaw in the argument :-), there are a couple of stumbling blocks to the whole concept of Duhkha as well as with its antidote – acceptance – that you may have legitimately noticed.

The most glaringly obvious problem is that the philosophy seems to suggest that the answer to a life free from suffering is to not want anything – in other words, to be totally apathetic and indifferent to what happens to you, and to basically have no expectations in any shape or form.

The second, very subtle problem (which I’d be really impressed if you’ve picked up on) is that by adopting an attitude of acceptance as a strategy for reducing suffering, you are, by default craving something else: to be free of suffering. In other words, you’re falling covertly back into the wanting trap.

In fact, now that I’ve polluted your mind with that particular conundrum it may seem, superficially at least, that attempting to employ ‘acceptance’ as a solution to suffering is as futile as a cat trying to catch its own tail; a dizzyingly vicious circle, where the solution to the problem is also the cause; one where you want to be free of suffering, but by wanting to be free of suffering you’re perpetuating the cause.

But are these really stumbling blocks?

Non-Apathetic Acceptance

We have this assumption that without the desire to change or improve something in our lives – ourselves, our circumstances, the world or whatever – we’ll have no motivation to do anything; that we’ll just amble through life with a passive, ‘Oh well…I guess that’s just the way it is’ kind of mentality.

So let me first put that worry to rest, because indeed I’d wholeheartedly agree that to do so would be a pretty lame and defeatist attitude to adopt – one that really wouldn’t get you very far at all in life.

But in reality that’s a distortion of what’s meant by ‘acceptance’.

Ask yourself this: Does ‘acceptance’ have to mean that you always just roll over and play dead? Or alternatively, could it be construed to mean that you still pursue your visions and your dreams, but you just don’t struggle against the reality of the present?

As you can see, the second definition doesn’t involve apathy or indifference at all – in fact it’s very much proactive. It’s merely proactivity without the nasty bit…the painful emotional struggle against how things are right now.

The fact is, whenever we ‘desire’ things to be different, it’s not desire that’s the real nemesis (in my non Buddhist book at least). Instead, the real problem is our resistance to how things are in the present; it is born out of our incessant need to compare reality against our expectations. The attitude we almost universally adopt is, ‘This isn’t how things should be’ – which not surprisingly, is an attitude that invariably leads to frustration, to anger, to despair, or in fact, to whatever negative emotion you care to mention.

Whenever you find a ‘fault’ in your life which results in you thinking, ‘Things shouldn’t be like this!’ then you’re going to feel bad…I’d challenge anyone who would argue otherwise.

It’s like when you feel ill; it’s the fact that you don’t want to feel ill as well as the emotional suffering that arises from the ‘unfairness’  of feeling ill that causes the greatest sense of suffering. The actual physical pain can be minuscule in comparison to that emotional pain.

Letting Go of the Struggle

But if you can let go of the struggle, the injustice, and the resistance to a situation, then a great deal of the mental anguish (or even physical pain) just evaporates into thin air – simply because you’re no longer grating the gears of reality. There’s no longer that disharmony between expectation and the reality of the moment.

Try it yourself the next time you feel upset or frustrated by something – just let go of the feeling that things should be different. It works with everything – disappointments, failures, injustices, uncertainties, the sometimes heavy burden of future wishes, goals and expectations…even bank charges.

That’s a personal joke…I used to get so wound up if I saw an extortionate unauthorised overdraft fee / penalty on my account that the veins would bulge out of the side of my temples. Now, if the bank unilaterally steals money from my account I obviously don’t like it, but I accept the situation for what it is, and get on peacefully with the rest of my day.

My philosophy is that there’s no point allowing the bank to steal my sanity as well as my money – even if they have just made life that little bit more difficult. I just calmly accept the present situation and promise to myself that I’ll sue them at a later date.

So again, as you can deduce from my calm, but proactive acceptance of the exploitative practices of some financial institutions, I’m not talking about apathy here, I’m simply talking about letting go of the Duhkha that arises from wishing that your life or the world is in any way different from the way that it is.

There’s no suggestion here that you shouldn’t search for solutions to your problems or give up on your aspirations of a better life; simply that you shouldn’t confuse proactivity with resistance to reality.

The two are distinct entities; one positive, one negative.

In fact, the positive motivation to act is in no way dependant on feeling that negative discord – that ‘dissatisfaction’ – between how life is and how you’d like it to be. You’ll probably find the opposite; that you can achieve a great deal more through enthusiasm and inspiration alone.

To that end, the mental conflict emanating from the expectation / reality divide just holds you back like a jammed brake on a wheel.

Don’t ‘Want’ To Feel Better

Remember before when I mentioned the ultimate paradox of using acceptance as an antidote to dissatisfaction?

The paradox is that if you’re trying to accept a situation simply to in an attempt to reduce the suffering of that situation, then you are in fact, falling back into the trap of wanting things to be different; and therefore, you are in fact exacerbating your suffering, particularly if the strategy doesn’t pay off.

To give you a simple example, say you have a headache and you decide that you are going to ‘accept’ the presence of that headache in order to reduce your suffering. What happens if your efforts to accept the presence of the headache don’t pay off… a couple of hours later you’re still desperately trying to cling onto the philosophy that, ‘Oh well, that’s just the way it is’ but it’s not helping…in fact the headache has got worse.

How would you feel then? Would you feel frustrated and annoyed that despite your best efforts the headache hadn’t gone away?

Probably…and that’s the problem when you use acceptance as a strategy – it often back fires when you’ve got that ulterior motive. The second you don’t think the strategy is working, you fall back into Duhkha ‘dissatisfaction’ mode – and correspondingly your suffering increases.

You’ve simply tried to ‘trick’ yourself into believing something that you don’t really believe…and that unfortunately, doesn’t work.

My advice therefore, is to see ‘acceptance’ not so such as a strategy to counteract suffering, but more as a general philosophy towards life – one that enables you to deal with life’s ups and downs with more grace, control and composure.

As with any life philosophy, it might not always work to your advantage in each and every scenario – you might still be left with the headache, but like a casino’s ‘house advantage’, the slight overall advantage you’ll derive through a general attitude of acceptance will stack up over time to produce overwhelming rewards in terms of your general peace of mind and your ability to cope with life’s challenges.

Don’t Stick Your Hand in the Fire

Another, slightly more abstract way of looking at it is to think of ‘desire’ as a negative act that invariably leads to suffering; just as using your hand to roast marshmallows over a campfire would be an obvious negative act that would inevitably leads to suffering.

Just as it would be abnormal to stick your hand in a fire, so too could you therefore consider it abnormal to create unnecessary suffering by dwelling on the discord between reality and desire.

Deciding not to stick your hand in the fire isn’t a strategy that most people would consciously adopt to avoid suffering, they simply wouldn’t do through common sense; therefore, saving themselves from suffering by default. Likewise, using ‘acceptance’ doesn’t have to be seen as a counteractive strategy against suffering, it’s just the logical, common sense opposite to keeping your hand out of the ‘desire’ fire.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth