The Arising of Suffering

Life includes pain—if you slam the door on your finger, you get to experience that directly. We share pain with the other animals. But as human beings, we also live in language. Language gives us a rich world of objects, institutions, actions, and identities. It gives us a past and a future. And it gives us stories about ourselves, others, and our situation. Living in stories gives rise to something uniquely human (so far as we know), which I refer to as suffering.

Suffering results from believing certain kinds of stories or thoughts, mainly those based on strong assessments or judgments, such as:

I must do it perfectly.

I’m not smart enough to get this.

I have nothing to contribute.

Life is hard.

I’ll never get a break.

I made terrible mistakes in my past.

I’m too old to learn something new.

Nothing makes any difference.

The game is rigged in someone else’s favor.

Those kinds of people are bad.

And we can imagine many others. When we believe these kinds of judgments, we suffer. The suffering can take various forms based on the judgment: anxiety, resignation, resentment, and guilt are common suffering moods. For example, believing “I must do it perfectly” gives rise to anxiety. Believing “the game is rigged in someone else’s favor” gives rise to resentment. When we are taken by one of these moods, we stop experiencing life as an opportunity. Everything, even otherwise positive circumstances, shows up inside the negative mood.

What all of these moods share is the belief that our current story—our judgment or perspective—is true or accurate. A story is always an invention in language. Much of the time, we forget this fact and fall into believing that our stories capture the truth. They do not. The truth is beyond capture. Stories capture a perspective—one among many. A story that leaves us suffering is not valuable. There may be some value to distill from it, but that requires getting free of the general belief that it is true and looking more carefully at it. If we can see beyond our story, we can release the mood.

Moreover, as we recognize how our beliefs that our stories are true trap us, we become freer and freer of suffering. Being free of suffering does not mean adopting a Pollyannaish view of the world. To the contrary, it means being able to make clearer assessments of situations without being inhibited by our own suffering. It turns out that our suffering is a tremendous waste of energy. It reduces our effectiveness and our ability to have an impact. We serve others by reducing our own suffering.

In subsequent blogs, I will explore how we can do that.

Can the Present Change the Past?

A friend recommended a very interesting novel that proposed an interesting conception of time travel. The classic paradox of time travel is that someone traveling to the past might alter the conditions that lead to the present (indeed, I would say it is not a matter of “might” but a matter of “would,” given the interconnectedness of all things), thereby potentially canceling out their existence or the conditions that allowed them to time travel. The currently popular alternative is to say that their travel to the past is really the creation of an alternative line of reality—the line of reality from which they came continues without them ever having entered its past, while the line of reality they have created unfolds differently from the original one from the moment of their arrival.

This novel posited a third possibility: we can travel forward or backward, and everything shifts to accommodate the changes created while still maintaining the conditions that allowed for the time travel to take place. The analogy offered was of a piece of string on a table. If pressure is applied to cause a bend in the string at one location, the rest of the string adapts to accommodate the bend, but the string retains its unity. I liked the conception, even if I do not see time travel as a possibility. And it raised a question for me: can the present change the past?

We have no trouble seeing that events in the present affect the future.  Could it be that present events can also affect the past? If we add in observers and meaning-makers, it appears to be plausible. And in the spooky aspects of quantum theory, there are some events at the sub-atomic level that might validate the claim. So how does it happen?

First, as we let go of our belief that our memory records true accounts, the past becomes less solid. A memory is an experience generated in the present by our nervous system, which has been shaped by everything to which it has been exposed before. Therefore, the memory is not a recording, but a new invention, shaped by previous experiences, but some of those may have had nothing to do with what is now being “recalled.” Research has shown, for example, that people incorporate scenes they have seen in movies into their experiences. So, if I appreciate that my memory is erroneous, from the point of view of recording objective facts, then I become open to the “facts” (what I believed to be the facts) of the past changing.

Second, the past is always understood and interpreted in the present. We can change our view of past events—how we understand them and what meaning we give them—even if the known facts have not changed. In terms of our experience, meaning is more important than facts—meaning is how the facts matter to us. Most of us experience this kind of change regularly. Sometimes we see it as a matter of correcting a previous misunderstanding about someone. Other times, we gain a new framework for understanding what has come before. In these cases, the present has reached back and altered the past.

There is a third way in which the present changes the past. Right now, you are reading these words. And now, your past includes that you read those words. Your past has changed. The events of right now become part of our past, thereby altering it.

Who we are includes our past. If our past changes, we change. If I want to change my identity, even to myself, I have to create a different past, which means doing different things now so that my past includes them. If I want to know myself as someone who exercises, I have to exercise in the present to create a past that validates that identity. I change who I am by changing my past, which I can do now.

So, yes, the present can change the past. Without even looking for quantum spookiness, we have found three ways in which it does:

  • The “facts” that we believe to be true can change, especially those based on our memories.
  • Our interpretation of the meaning of past events can change.
  • Our actions in the present are always creating our past, thereby changing it.

What does it mean? The past is less real than it usually appears. We are far less trapped by our past than we often believe. Is 2016 locked in stone as we turn toward a new year? No, not really. Happy New Year, all.

The Three Traps

Getting along with others is a fundamental skill for living together. Misunderstandings can easily arise. Sometimes clear disagreements emerge. Generally, we can resolve these challenges with good listening and a little humility. But sometimes two people get deeply stuck, each becoming trapped in their own narrative about the situation—one that leaves them feeling righteous, separate, and unhappy.

I see three widespread beliefs that trap us, elaborated on below:

  1. Believing our assessments are true
  2. Believing our memories are accurate
  3. Believing people have fixed selves

1. Believing our assessments are true

Assessments or judgments are how we evaluate people and circumstances. They are as they are named: assessments. They are not statements of fact. To arrive to an assessment, we may consider many facts, but the assessment is still a judgment laid over the facts. As such, the assessment is never true, in the sense that an observable or measurable fact is.

There is nothing wrong with making assessments. We need to make assessments about all kinds of situations to move forward in our lives. The problem comes when we make assessments about others, our situation, or our lives, and believe the assessments to be true, like facts. In that moment, we become trapped by the perspective presented by the assessment.

2. Believing our memories are accurate

There is now an abundance of research which demonstrates how unreliable memory is. Memory is not a recording of the past like a video tape that we later replay. Rather, something happens to us at a certain moment which affects and alters our nervous system (creates a memory, if you will). As we continue to live life, we are affected by other events, including stories we hear. When we later “remember” the original event, we generate an experience in the present which is based upon the original changes, but also draws upon other experiences we have had. In our recalling of the event, we cannot separate the new dimensions from the original event.

I used to be amazed to hear my siblings’ account of childhood incidents—they were not how I remembered them. I was delighted when I found photos that supported what I remembered, but even then, I was struck that the scene did not look that close to how I remembered it. Now I just enjoy their accounts, as well as my own, knowing that all of them are at least partially fictional. Once you realize that your memories are not accurate, you cannot help but be humble about them. On the other side, however, if you believe your memories to be true, it is very difficult not to be righteous about them, and consequently trapped by them.

3. Believing people have fixed selves

Common sense teaches us that we have a self and that everyone else does, too. Our selves are a kind of “person object,” having finite and fixed qualities. These qualities are often named, sometimes with adjectives like “smart” or “bad,” and sometimes as more specialized objects like “alcoholic” or “drug addict.” The belief that we have these object-like selves is false.

It makes more sense to say that people are collections of patterns about which we tell stories. The patterns are biological and psychological. Some we inherit genetically; others emerge in our development. When we say someone is skilled, we are talking about positive patterns they have in some field of endeavor. When we say someone is lazy, we are talking about negative patterns in some area. Fortunately, our patterns evolve and change. When they evolve in direction recognized as positive, we say we have learned something.

About these collections of patterns, we tell stories, which generally identify the person as a fixed self. He is a smart person or she is an evil person. (We do the same about ourselves, which is the root of our suffering.) When we believe these stories are true—that there really is a fixed self with these qualities—whether about others or ourselves, we are trapped.

*                                                      *                                                        *

These beliefs are widespread and deeply held. Even with a clear understanding of them, most of us will still get caught from time to time. Nevertheless, awareness of these traps can make resolving conflicts much easier and more satisfying.