Supporting Change without Suffering

Our country is in its next stage of social evolution toward a greater good. Perhaps not surprisingly, the process can be a source of suffering for people. In the past two weeks, I have had several conversations with people wrestling with their reactions to what is happening. One person was in anguish about how terrible our society is. Another was feeling guilty about not feeling guilty enough. Another was feeling powerless and helpless. Does it help to bring about change by suffering in these ways?

I don’t think so. Indeed, if you examine them carefully, I think you will find all of the various ways people suffer to be extensions of ego, even if well intended. In this piece, I offer some reflections based on my years of non-dualist study and what role suffering has in helping or hurting change.

When we feel guilty, we are locking ourselves into a view that the past could have been different than it was, and that I could have acted differently. I don’t see how that’s possible. Your system acted in the only way it could have in the circumstances in which it found itself. How do we know? Because that is how it acted. All ideas about acting differently and what would have happened are fantasy.

That does not mean we cannot learn from what happened. We can. And if I see that I wronged someone, I can make amends. Learning and making amends do not need to involve suffering. They represent right action, as the Buddhists would say.

The suffering only happens when I add the story that I am a bad person. It is easy to get to that view. Most people I have met in the course of this work have some base negative beliefs or concerns about who they are and being bad is frequently one of them. Guilt, shame, and self-loathing arise quite readily.

What about the argument that if I am not suffering, I am not feeling others’ pain, or not joining them in solidarity? The question is: to what end do I wish to suffer? Is suffering a way to feel better about myself? I think the egoic basis of that effort is readily apparent. Is suffering a way to identify myself more deeply with a certain group, or with “the good people?” Again, what needs that identification? (Hint: it’s a three-letter work starting with e.)

There are lots of stories being offered by the media these days, and many of them inflame suffering. Some narrative tendencies stay awake around:

  • Generalizations: usually presented about groups of people. Generalizations are lazy thinking at best and gross misrepresentations at worst. Reality is nuanced. Generalizations attempt to create a simple story that we can be comfortable with. The problem is that these simple stories are not true.
  • Good guys and bad guys: narratives that have one side as all good and the other as all bad are particularly nasty versions of generalizations. Human beings are complex, and individuals are different from one another. There are police officers who risk their lives to protect black people, and there are black protestors who put their bodies on the line to protect cops. Fear and resentment seek bad guys and enemies, and the media gets more of our attention by playing to these dimensions. Stay awake and seek the common humanity that is deeper than these divisions.
  • Feeling bad is the correct way to feel: it shows solidarity or penance. But by itself, as shared above, feeling bad achieves nothing and gets in the way of productive action. We can be committed to positive change without wallowing in pain or guilt.

We care about helping others and making the world a better place, and that’s wonderful. The question is what best serves that intention: How can we best support that change? It is my experience that our ability to see solutions, to act, and to influence others all lessen when we are suffering. The suffering actively impedes effective action. Free ourselves of our suffering and better action will follow.

I believe that what is happening right now is good for society, and long-term positive change will result. The process will be ugly at times and injustices will happen in the short term (to all sides). What results will not be perfect, but it will be better in significant ways. We can best support the process by staying awake to the ego-based narratives that generate suffering and get in the way of right action.

Three Meditations

This month, I offer three short meditations.

Something and Nothing

Whenever we suffer, something unresolved exists for us. Better to say: the unresolvedness creates a something where there need be nothing.

With nothing, there is peace and engagement. With something, there is unsettledness and preoccupation (“suffering”).

Something arises from a belief to which we are attached. The attachment comes from believing that the belief means something about me. Which presupposes that there is a me—that is the first belief.

Believing in a me, we have created something of ultimate importance, leading to ultimate attachment. It is the foundational trap.

Something unexamined persists: the unexamined me persists.

On examination, something disappears: the examined me disappears.

Every something is an opportunity, an opportunity to examine an unresolvedness. As it resolves, we lose something and regain nothing.

 

Perspective

The perspective of the moment always seems real.

Everything we understand is organized around this perspective of the moment. (What is true now has always been true—even if it wasn’t yesterday.)

What happens when this perspective becomes less important?

Look and see.

 

Suffering

Suffering is a product of our system, not of our circumstances.

It arises from believing certain perspectives to be true. By themselves, the perspectives have no power. Belief gives them power.

Belief is akin to light passing through film in a movie projector—without light, the film moves through the projector, unnoticed by all except the projectionist. But with light, the film fills a screen and sweeps a host of viewers into its story: the drama of life is created.

Beyond the drama, which consumes an enormous amount of energy and attention, life is here and now—enigmatic and sacred—for those who pause to see.

Frame 1 and Frame 2: Liberation and Navigation

There are a pair of distinctions I want to offer, which I call “Frame 1” and “Frame 2.” These are different perspectives for observing life. They present different views of who we are, of causality and responsibility, and of time. I think they can resolve a great deal of confusion and suffering.

To put them simply:

Frame 1 liberates us from suffering.

Frame 2 enables us to navigate life.

The more familiar perspective is Frame 2, which is the frame of (apparent) free will. In it, we see ourselves and others as having agency, as being individuals responsible for our actions. We talk about making choices. We communicate with others as responsible individuals. We make requests. We make promises. We make decisions. We understand that others count on what we say, and that trust is essential. We take past and future as givens: we reflect on the past and make plans for the future.

Frame 1 is much less familiar. In Frame 1, there is no free will. In Frame 1 neither we nor anyone else has agency: we do not act intentionally. Instead, we recognize that people respond to the moment in the only way they could based on their background, perceptions, and understandings of the moment. In Frame 1, it makes sense to talk about people as systems: the systems respond moment to moment in the only way that they can. No one is to blame. And no one gets credit.

Traditions involving enlightenment often discuss life from a Frame 1 perspective. From Frame 1, the only time is now. Nothing can be different than it is. There are no separate individuals. All there is, is the flow of reality. Nothing is, or could be, wrong. All is whole and complete, exactly as it is.

Frame 1 is numbered such because it represents the view of life as an unfolding unity. Oneness. Frame 2 is the perspective of duality—twoness—the duality between subject and object, the duality between self and others.

Which frame is true? Both are. They are different frames for observing life and each has value. In Frame 2, we navigate life. In Frame 1, we achieve liberation.

If we live only in Frame 2, we can easily become trapped in suffering. We can think about events in the past and feel great guilt for things we did. We can feel victimized by others or life. We can feel anxiety or fear about the future. We can compare ourselves to others and feel self-invalidation or envy.

In Frame 1, none of those reactions are possible. We recognize that life could not have happened other than it did, therefore regret or victimhood makes no sense. We recognize that life will happen as it will, therefore fear for what might happen makes no sense. Any comparison to others, as though they or you could have done anything differently, makes no sense. In Frame 1, suffering dissolves.

In Frame 2, we navigate life. We talk about the past. We make plans for the future. We assess our performance against others. These actions are completely sensible in Frame 2. Indeed, we need to operate in Frame 2 if we are going to live with others.

In Frame 2, we learn. Our system is capable of developing new patterns until death. In Frame 2, if we understand ourselves as a system composed of patterns, we can assess the patterns and take action to change them.

If we assess we did something in the past that we regret, there is a healthy Frame 2 response: make amends to whomever we hurt and learn from what we did. The unhealthy Frame 2 response would be to fall into a belief about ourselves as a result of what we did: “I’m really a bad person.” From Frame 1, we know we cannot have done other, so there is no basis for guilt or self-denigration.

In this way, Frame 1 is the frame of forgiveness. No one did anything—the worst criminal act was done without volition. We can forgive everyone, including and especially ourselves, of our transgressions. It is the frame of unconditional love. There is only Being.

Wisdom, in this account, is being able to stay grounded in Frame 1 while participating fully in life through Frame 2. Wisdom is being able to view what we did in the past as an opportunity for learning, while knowing nothing could have been different. Wisdom is engaging fully in making (seemingly) important choices about the future, while knowing that nothing can be other than it will be. Wisdom is appreciating others’ actions, or condemning them, while knowing they could have done no other. Wisdom is being grounded in love and wholeness, while engaging with everyday living however it shows up.

The Opportunity of Suffering

It may sound strange but suffering is an opportunity, especially acute suffering. Acute suffering is suffering that is obviously present for us. We are keenly aware of it. We cannot be unaware of it. It is distinct from chronic suffering which is the suffering that passes as everyday negative moods. Chronic suffering can be difficult to see because we live with it for so long. Acute suffering is unmistakable and that is part of why it is an opportunity. By being aware of it, we can explore it and dissolve the structures creating it. And we usually discover that those same structures underlie our chronic suffering, so we gain even greater freedom than we might have thought possible.

Suffering is distinct from pain. Pain is a product of our bodies. It alerts us to conditions that are damaging to the body. In contrast, suffering is a product of our narratives. It alerts us to narratives or beliefs that are damaging to our well-being. Suffering is always a product of our own narratives or beliefs. Much of the time it appears to be caused by external conditions but that is an illusion. How we interpret the conditions determines whether we suffer or not.

Consider an example: I am suffering because someone did not return my call. I have the belief that the unreturned call means that the other person does not value me. Her valuing me is very important because if she does not value me, I may fall into the narrative that I am unworthy of being valued. My basic worth is at question, all because I did not receive a phone call. Sound crazy? Looked at without any beliefs, it does. But add beliefs to the stories and it is recipe for suffering.

What are the beliefs in the story? There are many. Start with that we have no way of knowing if the basic facts are correct. Did the person receive my call? Did she attempt to return it and fail in the attempt? Is she on a silent retreat? In suffering, we already have beliefs about the answers to these questions.

Let us presume the facts are correct and look at the deeper beliefs. It is a belief that an unreturned call equates to not being valued. But there are many reasons phone calls do not get returned. Even more importantly, what is being valued or not valued? The belief is that “I” am not being valued. But that statement involves two leaps. First, it may make sense to say that some offer I am currently making is not being accepted, but that is very different from believing that “I” am not being valued. And second, more subtly, there is the belief that “I” can be fundamentally valued or not—where is this “I” and how do we measure its value?

A phone call is made and nothing is heard back. By itself, an incomplete dance of coordination meaning little. But on top of a structure of beliefs, it becomes a source of suffering leading back to questions about one’s own worth. All of the suffering in this incident is a product of beliefs. None of it is inherent in the unreturned phone call.

As long as we believe external conditions cause our suffering, we are trapped. For as long as the external conditions persist, we must suffer. Freedom comes from recognizing where suffering arises from, namely the negative beliefs that trap us.

Chronic suffering is the suffering of everyday life. It shows up as moods that are generally present for us. Common ones are fear, guilt, resentment, and resignation. Fear may show up as background anxiety about the future, whether about preparing for a meeting tomorrow or about dealing with retirement plans. Guilt often shows up as a kind of constant self-criticism. Resentment may present itself as envy and simmering anger. Resignation may feel like apathy. Chronic suffering is usually difficult to see because the moods are almost always present. We come to believe that they represent the normal way life feels.

All of these moods are based on beliefs, usually foundational beliefs we acquire early in life. At the deepest level, they are beliefs connected to what we consider ourselves to be. Some common examples include “I am insufficient,” or “I am unlovable.” We do not generally think these thoughts. They were thought long ago and became foundational beliefs upon which many others were built. They form the deep structure for our chronic suffering.

An episode of acute suffering always connects to these underlying beliefs in some manner. Acute suffering breaks the everyday transparency and demands our attention. As such, it represents a remarkable opportunity. By exploring the acute suffering, we have the opportunity to see these underlying beliefs and dissolve them through inquiry.

We do not have to take the opportunity. We can, instead, attempt to escape from the suffering. Turning to activities that we hope will distract us such as shopping or watching sports are mild forms of escape. Turning to alcohol and drugs are stronger forms. Though the escapes may take the edge off the discomfort, they do not produce freedom. Yet even after escaping for a while, the opportunity for freedom is still there.

The key is to turn toward the beliefs, rather than away from them. In turning towards them, we explore them. We look to see just how real or not they are. I strongly endorse Byron Katie’s practice of The Work as a simple, elegant, and highly effective way of conducting an inquiry into our beliefs.* As we explore our beliefs, we reveal the false prison they have produced for us. Starting with a belief related to an immediate breakdown, we can follow it down to some of the deeper beliefs that underlie our chronic suffering, in the process dissolving them and creating freedom for ourselves.

So, welcome that next bout of suffering. Through that portal, lies freedom.

*See my post, “Dissolving Beliefs that Generate Suffering,” for an outline of Katie’s practice.

As Inside, Outside

A few weeks ago, a perspective opened: all our suffering is a projection of our thoughts. There is nothing out there that causes us to suffer. Nothing. All our suffering is created by our way of interpreting what is out there, by how our system—our biological-psychological system—generates our experience. (It is important in this conversation to distinguish pain from suffering—pain is an unavoidable dimension of being alive; suffering is not.)

I am not saying that reality exists only in our experience, but I am saying that our perception and understanding of reality exists only in our experience: there is no reality for us beyond that which we experience. Again, that does not mean that there are not events happening beyond our experience that affect us, but that they do not exist for us until our experience is affected.

Much of the time, we are entranced by the projection of our system—we see events to fear, rivals to best, our past failings, a lack of meaning. These projections give rise to our suffering, showing up in the form of pervasive negative moods (see my entry “Recognizing the Moods of Suffering” for descriptions of the moods). The possibilities we see, and the moves we see available to us, are shaped by these projections, by what we believe to be true.

If we believe we have to compete for everything, when we look at others, they will show up as rivals. If we believe we need to impress others, we will see other people as potential audiences who can grant us approval. The beliefs “in here” generate the experience of “out there.”

But, you might object, there are still people out there—other people do not exist only in our heads. Yes, they do not. But our experience of others does. And our suffering exists in our experience, not outside of it. What we notice, how we interpret what we have noticed, how we respond to our interpretation—these dimensions are all shaped by our orienting beliefs.

Furthermore, if I believe I have to compete with others, I will focus on rival-like behavior in others, ascribe rival-based motives to them, and then respond as a rival. That my way of acting may trigger similar behavior in another builds support for my original belief, making the belief seem even more true than before. The world comes more and more to resemble my beliefs.

What about situations we assess as threatening or unjust? Recognizing these situations is important and our responses should be appropriate. But distinguish between being present to the situation and responding appropriately, from being caught in a crippling narrative about it. Our suffering about the challenges we see in life is not caused by others—it is a product of our own systems.

But what about truly painful situations in life, such as the loss of a loved one? In those cases, most of us will experience the pain of loss, usually in the form of grief, which I see as a healthy period of adjustment. Grief as pain diminishes over time. Grief enshrined in a narrative can become a permanent form of suffering. The challenge is to experience our emotions, including being sensitive to what they may reveal, without falling into narratives that that leave us suffering indefinitely.

If all suffering is a projection of our thoughts, of our beliefs, is the solution to attempt to replace our negative beliefs with positives ones? I think not. If we see the world as full of rivals, attempting to believe that everyone is a friend risks creating an enforced naiveté (I want to see the world a certain way, so I will ignore anything that does not support that view). Furthermore, attempts to impose new beliefs on our experience can lead us to denying our experience. If I decide to believe that there is nothing to suffer about, when I find myself in anguish, I may refuse to acknowledge the experience that is present right now, thereby creating suffering.

I think the real freedom comes from seeing the underlying mechanism: the suffering I experience is a product of my own system, specifically of beliefs the system currently holds. As we dissolve major beliefs (see my entry “Dissolving Beliefs that Generate Suffering”), we also reveal the mechanism, which is liberating. As inside, outside.

The Flow of Reality

I had a dream recently which offered a lovely metaphor and image: reality is like a flowing stream, where everything is the water.

We are flow, not separate objects.

The water is fluidly interconnected with itself—there is no thing separate from the water.

Flow is movement, and flow is interconnected and unified.

The illusion is we are separate, that we are directing affairs, that we deserve credit or blame.

The reality is we are all a part of the continuous flow, which includes everything and everyone (though those words are problematic), in which all are constantly affected by all.

We do not control where the flow goes.

We do not have thoughts independent of the flow.

The flow may lead us to learning, but that is also just part of the flow.

Truly, we can take neither credit nor blame for what happens in the flow.

Among the thoughts that flow in the water, some coalesce into an illusory self.

The first thought believed is that there is a self, separate from the flow.

Other beliefs that adhere to the first thought are that the self has original thoughts, and that it acts independently of the flow.

And so, within the flow—which never ceases to be other than interrelated flow—the belief in separate self-objects arises.

And then the suffering begins.

Dissolving Beliefs that Generate Suffering

In the last two entries, I wrote about some fundamental perspectives that generate suffering. In summary, they were:

  • Life could be other than it is
  • I could have done it better
  • I know what is good or bad for me
  • I am in control
  • Deep down, I really am wretched
  • I am separate

Most of us grew up accepting these perspectives as reality and have lived inside them for decades. They are all related and all come from a common place: I” exist as some thing, separated from the whole, which is trying to make life work. This belief in separation from the whole is the fundamental duality and the basis for suffering. These perspectives are manifestations of that belief in separateness. Seeing their falseness is liberating.

For me, I have found that my perspective has shifted over time, as a process rather than an event. First comes conceptual understanding, with perhaps a peak experience glimpse, and then gradually, a direct kind of insight, in which these formerly taken-for-granted perspectives come to be seen as clearly untrue. I have found some easier to see through than others—not being in control is still challenging at times. Gradually, I have enjoyed ever longer periods of peace and play (the mood of being deeply engaged in life).

Sometimes, however, something happens—some event in my life—which triggers such strong negative emotions that suffering returns. A couple of years ago, I could free myself only through discovering new narratives relative to the suffering, which was usually a painful process itself. Eighteen months ago, I was fortunate to get to know Byron Katie, a woman who had a remarkable “awakening” 30 years ago, which she described in this way:

“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.”

Katie (her preferred name) created a simple, yet powerful practice for questioning our thoughts, which she calls “The Work.” The practice of The Work involves four questions and the invention of a few “turnarounds,” which are inverted versions of the original thought. Katie’s premise is that our suffering result from believing our thoughts. By “thoughts,” she means stories, not distinctions (we do not suffer because we distinguish a door from the wall).

I would add (though she may not) that the stories always involve an assessment of some kind, an assessment which we have come to believe as true or accurate. The original statement may be a fact—”I am turning 50″—that we suffer about, but only because we believe assessments about what it means to turn 50. (Even statements of fact rely on belief, and I agree with Katie that questioning those beliefs opens avenues for insight and freedom, but they are not the primary sources of suffering.)

Katie’s practice requires that we identify a thought about which we are suffering. She usually encourages people to focus on a situation in which we are judging someone else. The thought is then inquired into with four questions and doing turnarounds of the original thought.

The four questions of The Work:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

The questions are not an intellectual exercise, but rather a process of experiencing what is revealed by the questions. The first two questions break our conviction that the assessment we have is true. The second two allow us to see how powerful an effect believing the thought has on us.

We then switch to the stranger aspect of the practice, the turnarounds. This step requires that we create and support with evidence three (or more) opposite and converse versions of the original thought. The sequence I find most people follow:

  • The general opposite (the original thought “she is mean to me” becomes “she is nice to me”).
  • The reversal of roles (“I am mean to her”).
  • The self-directed version (“I am mean to me”).

For each new version, the instruction is to identify three examples that support it. From my background in the philosophy of language, the process is akin to grounding an assessment—we look for facts to support an interpretation of a situation. For many, the “magic” of the process happens during the turnarounds: not only does the power of the original thought dissipate, new insights into structures the thought was obscuring or holding together become apparent.

I was skeptical until I began to do the practice. And then I was surprised and delighted. I discovered that this simple act of inquiry could produce remarkable shifts in mood and perspective. I now think her practice is one of the most important spiritual practices developed in the last couple hundred years.

And the process is not infinite. Indeed, I now think that our fundamental misidentifications and deep moods are held in place by a small number of core beliefs. It may take some work to uncover those, but the possibility of getting free of our suffering moods in a few months is an amazing gift. And when suffering disappears, so much more appears . . .

Perspectives that Generate Suffering (2)

In this piece, I continue with perspectives which generate suffering, specifically beliefs related to an “I.” These are the beliefs that most of us learn to accept as truths about being individuals. From a non-dualist perspective, they are false. When they are believed to be true, we suffer, sometimes acutely but more commonly chronically, like the suffering that comes from having a low-grade fever.

I Am in Control

This belief is so fundamental to our understanding of ourselves that most people will resist any notion that it is false. Almost all of us are raised with the understanding that I am the controller of my actions, my speech, and my thought. It is often the most intimate sense we have of who we are: I am what I do, say, and think.

But consider the possibility that there is no central “I” that controls these things. Consider that each waking moment, our system generates an experience composed of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, et cetera, and our system responds to those experiences in the only way that it can, leading to the next moment of experience. Think you the made the decision? Maybe. And maybe the decision is just the response of your system to experiences immediately preceding the decision. You might object, “But I can decide to do something different right now.” Who decided? Might not that act of deciding be just the next response of the system?

Most of us believe deeply in an “I,” but consider the possibility that the “I” is an illusion. Perhaps there is only awareness and a system built on patterns. The belief that a central controlling “I” exists is a source of false pride (“look what I did”) and great suffering—with that belief come the moods of fear, guilt, resentment, and others. Again, I find this belief to be one of the deepest and most intractable. As it has lessened in my own life, life has become easier.

Deep Down, I Really Am Wretched

This one relates to the belief above. If “I” exists, then it exists as a kind of self-object. An object has characteristics, both positive and negative. Start with the belief that “I” exists and watch how quickly characteristics get added to describe the “I”: smart, dumb, good, bad, pretty, ugly, nice, mean, and so one. Indeed, much of life appears to be about getting a clear definition of the “I,” starting with adopting the definitions offered to us by our culture: I am American, I am Chinese, I am Catholic, I am Muslim. But these big definitions are insufficient, so we seek ever finer distinctions in the effort to figure out who “I” am.

And because we accumulate characteristics, some overtly negative (“dumb”) and some creating the possibility of the negative (“you are smart” creates the possibility of not being smart), we develop a negative conception of “I”—what I call our “Wretched Self.” The belief in our Wretched Self is really a collection of self-directed negative assessments, usually being variations of a few major themes: I am inadequate; I am bad; I am less than; I am nothing. These beliefs are often understood as deep truths about ourselves, and lead to two major reactions: compensation and concealing.

Compensation shows up in the efforts to do things in our life to show to others (and perhaps to prove to ourselves) that we are not what we fear ourselves to be. For instance, someone who believes himself to be dumb might pursue a PhD (though external evidence usually does not change the underlying belief). Concealing is the general stance most of us take toward these negative self-beliefs: we do not want others to know these things about us.

The tragedy is that we belief these terrible things, and live aspects of our life from them; the comedy is that none of them are true. There are no self-objects at the center of our lives, so no characterizations about them can be true. Our systems are built with patterns—patterns of behavior, including of thinking and speech. We can assess our patterns (e.g., “I am not currently effective when presenting to groups”), and take action to improve upon them, but that is very different than believing that these assessments mean something about an underlying self-object. Be free of being someone, and suffering dissolves.

I Am Separate

When we are suffering, we feel very alone. The sense that we are separate from everyone and everything else can get quite strong. Caught up in fear, self-loathing, or apathy, I become more and more alone, more and more separate. The separateness is an illusion. We are connected to others and to the Universe, always. Our bodies are made of star dust; we belong to that which underlies everything; our personalities arise in interaction with others; what we think, others have thought; what we feel, others have felt.

I like the metaphor of a funnel-like shape, reaching down from the heavens. At the top, there is an opening that expands until it joins with everything. But as you go down, the funnel shape progressively gets narrower and narrower, until finally it ends in a point. The more isolated I experience myself, the lower I am in the funnel. Part way down, I still feel connected to others, but the further down I go, the more the others fall away. Finally, at the bottom, I feel completely alone and isolated.

Even at the bottom, however, I am still connected to everything. What has been lost in the experience of that connection. Remembering connection, even when it feels completely missing, begins the process of rising in the funnel. As I regain more and more experience of connection, I continue to rise. Sometimes I rise so high that the sense of being a separate individual disappears completely, at least for a while.

*                                                       *                                                       *

Next piece, I will write about dissolving these kinds of beliefs.

Perspectives that Generate Suffering (1)

Last entry, I wrote about recognizing the primary moods of suffering. In this piece, I want to share some false perspectives which often lead to suffering. In recognizing them as false, we can free ourselves from the suffering they bring. I chose three for this post and will share some more in my next writing.

Life Could Be Other Than It Is

This perspective is a common source of suffering. It implies that we could have something different than we have right now. How? In this moment, we are in a location, with our current circumstances, related to our network of relationships, and living with various commitments. In a moment, it could all change, but right now, it is exactly as it is. And that statement is always true.

We can imagine that life could be different. These imaginings take the form of conversations like: if I had chosen that college, or not taken that job, or married that person, life would be different. Yes, of course it would be different, but we cannot know how it would be different. Those conversations belong to the realm of imagination. They are based on the false premise that we can know how life would have turned out on those alternate paths, which we cannot.

Everything that happens, happens in an inter-related network of happenings: change anything and you change everything, perhaps imperceptibly so, but finishing the second piece of toast at breakfast determines when your car enters the freeway, the traffic you encounter, whom you walk into the building with at work, and so on and on. If you had made any decision differently in your life, life for you and many others would be altered, but we cannot know how. (Indeed, finishing that second piece of toast might have saved you from a car accident—we can just never know.)

Everything that has happened in our life has brought us to this moment. Change anything in the past and this moment would be different. Recognizing this truth is a source of liberation.

I Could Have Done It Better

This perspective is the guilt-heavy version of the one above. Rather than just reflecting on how life could have been better, we focus our thinking on how I could have done it better, leading to moods of guilt, shame, and regret, all of which can transition into self-loathing.

The fallacy in this thinking is that it implies we could have seen or understood more than we did at some moment in the past. We saw and understood what we did at a particular moment, based on the situation around us and our ability to interpret it. From that perception and understanding, we responded as best we could. Afterwards, we can criticize the decision as a mistake, but that is only possible at a later moment. When the decision was made, it fulfilled the old cliché, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” And that is always the case.

I find this understanding easier to grasp when I allow that what I usually consider to be me is a biological-psychological system, which is responding to each moment in the only way that it can. The system learns, so similar (never exact) circumstances in the future may trigger a different response, but that response is also the only one possible in the moment.

When we review the past, there some possible valuable actions: first, we can offer amends where we have hurt others; second, we can learn from our past behavior. These both allow us to move forward in a caring and intelligent way. Dwelling in guilt does not.

Additional freedom comes in recognizing that the same is true for everyone else: they were responding in the only way they could at a particular moment. We do not have to endorse what they did, but we can free ourselves of anger and hatred when we recognize this fact.

We Know What is Good or Bad for Us (but consider the parable of the Chinese farmer)

There is a wonderful parable I have heard from a couple of sources about a Chinese farmer. It usually goes something like this:

There is a poor Chinese farmer, who has one son and one horse. One day the son forgets to close the gate and the horse runs away. The neighbors say, “You are so unlucky.” The farmer says, “Maybe.”

The next day the horse returns with three wild horses, so the farmer now has four horses. The neighbors say, “You are so lucky!” The farmer says, “Maybe.”

The next day the son, while attempt to train one of the wild horses, falls off and breaks his leg. The neighbors say, “You are so unlucky.” The farmer says, “Maybe.”

The next day the Chinese army comes through and drafts all the son to join them a campaign in a bloody war, but they can’t take the farmer’s son because of the broken leg. The neighbors say, “You are so lucky!”

The farmer says, “Maybe.”

The farmer was very wise. He knew that we cannot know how today’s events will affect tomorrow—what may seem wonderful can lead to new challenges, and seemingly terrible events can lead to unexpected blessings. Most of us forget this point and think we can judge the present as clearly bad or clearly good. We are being narrow-focused and naïve in those moments. Life unfolds in all its complexity. Why do we think we are omniscient when it comes to consequences?

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I will share some additional perspectives next post.

Recognizing the Moods of Suffering

Last time, I wrote about how suffering arises for us. I made the distinction between pain, a biological process, and suffering, which requires living in language. “Suffering” is a strong word. Sometimes it is easy to see that we are suffering: something acute has happened and we believe that life will never get better. But much of the time, I think we do not realize we are suffering. It is the background in which we live. It is “just how life feels.” I have found that recognizing suffering for what it is, is a powerful step for getting free of it.

My standard for suffering is anytime I am not experiencing life as an opportunity. Consider that standard: in the course of a day, how often does life not show up as an opportunity for you? If you find yourself saying that is a ridiculous standard, I invite you to consider that you are suffering more than you realize.

I have been playing with a taxonomy of suffering for a while. I have experimented with a variety of distinctions, but I keep coming back to four basic moods of suffering. I call them moods in the sense that the German philosopher Heidegger used the term: a mood opens the world to me in a certain way. The mood I am in colors all aspects of my experience. We can understand ourselves as always being in a mood, so the point is not to be free of our moods: it is to be free of our suffering moods.

My taxonomy identifies four basic moods of suffering: fear, guilt, resentment, and resignation. These are names of large classes, each which would include variations. We can embody more than one of these moods, but I generally find one is dominant for an individual, at least for a period of life. I will give a brief explanation of each class here, including noting some of the variations.

The Moods of Suffering

Fear: a mood in which we look to the future with dread. To be afraid means to be living with the belief that I am likely not up to the challenges ahead. For many, the mood would be more recognizable as anxiety. Another variation would be self-doubt. Fear and its varieties take away the joy of life. Children in a loving environment have little fear. They encounter life in the moods of wonder and play. Everything is something to be discovered and the best way to discover it is to play with it. Fear is the opposite: that which is unknown is potentially threatening and play disappears to be replaced by a sense of dread.

Guilt: this category contains the moods oriented to the past with regret for what one has done or who one believes oneself to be. Shame and self-loathing are variations. These all involve a core belief about one’s own unworthiness. In a mood of guilt, people’s thoughts regularly punish themselves for their past deeds and who they believe they really are.

Resentment: this class of moods involves negative assessments of others, which help define who we consider our self to be. In this mood, we see others as having acted against us or having gained unfair advantage over us. Variations include jealousy and envy. Though the assessments appear directed at another, they are ultimately assessments about our self. In resenting, I make myself a victim. Envy and jealousy position me as incomplete because I lack what another has. Anger is a frequent emotion tied to these moods.

Resignation: This class of moods are based on the belief that I do not matter and cannot affect anything meaningfully. Apathy is a variation: nothing matters. They are the moods of self-negation. A milder, more common version is the mood of overwhelm. They may all appear to be about an outside situation, but at their root, is an assessment about our own inability to affect the outside situation. Often these moods feel like depression.

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A mood creates the space in which we experience life, creating our feelings about situations and even influencing what we believe to be true. In a resentful mood, for example, we are more likely to believe another is intentionally acting against us. Because the mood gives rise to how life shows up, it is very difficult to see. Our suffering comes to be understood as the way life feels and how it is. Suffering becomes our everyday experience.

When I am suffering, the first step is to recognize that I am suffering. The recognition changes my perspective from being blindly immersed in the mood to being aware that I am possessed by a negative mood. The recognition by itself rarely shifts the mood completely, but it does give me compassion for myself and reminds me not to take my thinking too seriously. I have found being aware of these classes of negative moods helpful for recognizing my own suffering.

My next pieces will focus on both the wonderful moods in which we can live, and how to transition from these to those.