The one reason why we suffer, and how to go beyond it.

If you can breathe right now, you have known suffering. There is no one alive today, who has not dealt with it. Whether, physical or psychological, it’s the common experience of all human beings. The simplest definition of suffering is, not getting, what we want out of life. Anytime, something happens, which we did not intend to happen, there is suffering.

We find ourselves out of a job, in the middle of a difficult relationship, a breakup, or a health crisis. Some of us realize marriage is not what we thought it would be, or that raising three kids is a monumental task. Some of us struggle to find the right partner, or feel like we are stuck with the wrong one. Sometimes, our work becomes an unbearable routine, and quitting isn’t always an option. We all have hobbies and skills we have nurtured, but it’s not that easy to make a living off them.

This naturally creates stress, and our reaction is to escape from it into all kinds of pleasures; drinking, smoking, sex you name it. After a while, even that loses its appeal, we find ourselves right in the middle of where we started. We are back to square one, to suffering. Our life is like a pendulum that swings between states of momentary pleasure and stress, never finding the right balance.

This is what the Buddhists call ‘Dukkha’. It includes not only the intense suffering that comes with separation, failure or death, but also ordinary suffering, such as dissatisfaction, boredom, frustration, anger, fear, anxiety or depression. Every negative emotion or feeling is ultimately, Dukkha. It’s a background resistance or a feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction, that cannot be put into words, but can surely be felt.

The four types.

There are four types of people in this world, depending on how they deal with suffering. Deniers, Fighters, Avoiders and Transcenders.

Deniers: They simply deny that they are suffering. For them, accepting their suffering is weakness. They believe that the weak are always preyed upon by the strong, so they pretend to be strong. They are caught in the idea, that vulnerability is dangerous. We sometimes perceive them as being emotionless or cold, even though on the inside they are anything but.

Fighters: They have accepted the fact of suffering. They have been hurt once, but they decide they won’t be hurt a second time, they won’t be a victim. They decide to stand their ground and fight against any future possibility of suffering. They create a shield around them, and shut everyone out. We sometimes perceive them as being selfish or aggressive, even though, in reality they are just afraid of being hurt again.

Avoiders: Some people simply avoid facing their suffering. They distract themselves through excessively browsing the internet, binge-watching television shows or playing video games. They are always connected to their cell phones, but rarely to themselves. We perceive them as being distracted and stressed out, because they are! This is how most of us spend our days.

Transcenders: People who are willing to look within, and face whatever demons may lie there, belong in this category. They have had enough of suffering. They believe that most of their suffering may be unnecessary, self created and even stupid. If they could just change they way they respond to challenges, may be, they could eliminate 90% of their suffering.

Transcenders are reflective in nature. When they suffer, the first place they look for a cause, is in their own actions, not others’. They see no value in blaming the world for their suffering. They often have a few things in common with Deniers, Fighters or Avoiders, but their main focus is always on trying to understand and improve themselves. For better or for worse, they are ready to take responsibility for their lives. If you are still reading this blog, you fall in this category.

Why do we suffer?

We suffer because we get attached to things. We get attached to an outcome, or the way we want to get there. We get attached to people. We get attached to our work, our opinions or ideas. We get attached to things that give us pleasure or entertainment. We get attached to our wealth or status, our goals and ambitions, and sometimes, to suffering itself!

We all have a misconception that attachments are unavoidable. If we love our wife or husband, we cannot NOT be attached to them. Attachment is a part of being in love. That is not entirely true. Let’s examine it.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is a condition in which either our happiness or psychological security depends on something.  

For instance, If someone calls us stupid, it hurts our feelings. Why? Because we see ourselves as being intelligent. We are attached to the idea, that ‘I am intelligent or wise’. We may be intelligent in reality, or not, but that’s not why we are hurt. We are hurt, because we are attached to an idea of seeing ourselves as being intelligent, and someone challenges it. We are invested in that idea, we think it’s unquestionably true, and someone questions it.

Our attachments are closely associated with our identity. The more things we are attached to, the more that tells us, who we are, and what we want.  The more attached we are to our ideas, the more they define our self-image, our Ego. If someone disturbs our attachments, they disturb our ego, the core of our existence. So, when someone calls us stupid, our ego is hurt. It reacts by insulting them back, or by receding into a shell. A short definition of Ego is :

Ego = Attachment to ( Ideas + Memories + Emotions + Feelings + Sensations)

Ideas can be positive, as well as negative. For instance, “I am NOT smart”, “ I am unlucky”, “ I can’t do this”,or  “I am ugly”. These ideas condition our minds. Attachments are like ropes we use to hang on to imaginary cliffs. We think that hanging on to something, whether positive or negative, gives us security. In reality, there are no cliffs, and the ropes are unnecessary. We just get entangled in them. In essence..

What you are attached to, also imprisons you.

When we are not attached, we are essentially, free. Our opinions, ideas, beliefs, change based on the evidence available. There is nothing personal or painful about that change. If someone tells us that we are wrong, we say, “Okay, no big deal. What matters to me is what is right, so I will just go with that. Easy.” We don’t interpret it as an insult, but as a matter of fact statement.

This is easier said than done, but unless it is tried, it can never be done.

Attachments to people are no different. They lead to controlling behavior which poisons our relationships. Controlling another person, whether it is your child, husband, wife or friend, is not only wrong, but also impossible. If you think you are attached to someone, ask yourself, what about their behavior bothers you? You will realize, your concern is rarely with their happiness.

It’s always about how their behavior affects you. If you love someone, and their behavior is causing you suffering, remember, the reason is always your attachment to an idea, of how they should behave, which is inside your mind! You created that idea, and then got attached to it, while reality may be totally different. What is real, is how they are acting right now. If you believe it’s wrong, then you should have a conversation with them, but under no circumstances are you required to suffer, and neither are they.

Your attachments to people, are not about them at all, but about your idealization of their behavior.

Besides, the more freedom you give a person, they more they feel comfortable around you. If you accept other people for who they are, instead of judging, they in turn, accept you as you are. Freedom, does not exist because of true love, but true love exists because of freedom.

When your love towards someone is without attachment, their imperfections, become their perfections.

Find wonder in people’s personalities, be curious to know them, instead of passing a judgement. Let go of all attachment to your judgments. They are useless as it is, and you know it.

Becoming aware of your attachments, and slowly letting go of them opens new doorways. But how to be free of attachments? It seems like a such an impossible task.

How to be free from attachments.

The good news is, you don’t have to do a thing to be free from attachments. In your attempt to be free, the first thing you might do, is see yourself as the one who is detached’, and guess what that is? Just another attachment. You are seeing yourself as someone, and getting attached to that idea. Instead, don’t try to be free of attachments. Yes, you read it right.

Just find out what they are. Finding out what you are attached to, and the very discovery makes them go away. Like a cobweb in the dark corner of a room, once you find them, you see their existence as unnecessary, and brush them out with minimal effort.

To find out what you are attached to, ask yourself these questions.

  1. What accomplishments am I most proud of, about myself?
  2. What failures of my life, were the most difficult to handle?
  3. What or who do I want my friends and family to see me as?
  4. What do I expect  from my husband, wife, son,daughter, brother, sister or parents?
  5. What gives me the greatest pleasure?
  6. What are are my biggest fears?

You may notice, that the answers to the above questions, also get you closer to the root cause of your suffering.

But what about my goals?

Becoming free from attachments, does not mean, that you forget about your goals. It does not mean, you forget about your accomplishments. It does not mean, you stop giving importance to the people in your lives. It also does not mean, that you become an aimless, detached yogi and go and live in a forest. All it means is this, you can have all those things, but not depend on them to make you feel happy or secure. It means that your identity is no longer attached to them. Instead of chasing your dreams with a desperation, you enjoy pursuing them, effortlessly and peacefully.

Even if you fail, you don’t suffer. If you no longer suffer psychologically, you are always in a peaceful and a non-negative state of mind, and can begin again. If you succeed, you don’t get attached to that either. Not being attached to happiness, spares you the burden of being successful again.

Just as attachments are self-created, so is the suffering that they bring. Free yourself from one, and you may be free of the other.

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Image courtesy of Andrew Neel

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