Personal Suffering

This section is written from the point of view of someone who lives in relative freedom from physical suffering, that is, a person who has enough to eat, adequate shelter, and reasonable health. I believe it will probably be beneficial for anyone, but if you lack the basic essentials of life, it's hard to concentrate on other things.

Suggested Reading

  • "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Venerable Henepola Gunaratana
  • "The Art of Happiness" by The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler
  • "The Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Problem of Suffering

When we suffer, we have a problem to solve. To solve this problem on a permanent basis, we need effective techniques. Usually, people solve such problems in a hit or miss fashion. For perosnal suffering, we might buy something, distract ourselves with some activity, take drugs, etc. but none of these is a permanent solution.

Effective problem solving starts with determining possible causes and then attempting solutions. So to eliminate your own suffering, you first need to determine what causes it. Generally we believe that our suffering is caused by other people and random events. Most of us think that if only we had a different family, a better boss, lots of money, then we'd really be happy.

Unfortunately, most of the things that we identify as possible causes of our suffering are not the causes – and they are actually beyond our control. We can't control the weather. We can't control what other people are going to do or say. Most of us have a limited amount of control over how much money we have.

The Cause of Suffering

Personal suffering is caused by our thoughts – the ideas we have about the way things should be versus the way they actually are. When you consider what really makes you unhappy, you find that it's not so much what you have or don't have, it's what you expect to have. To eliminate your suffering, you have to recognize that your expectations do not determine what actually happens. Reality somehow always turns out to be different from what we expect.

The funny thing is that if you try to directly control your thoughts, you won't succeed – It's one thing to understand that we cause our own suffering and quite another to know what to do about it. That is, you can't just tell yourself to stop expecting something, and you can't just tell yourself to stop worrying. We all develop habits and the connection between what happens and our reactions to what happens is almost automatic.

The Solution to Suffering

Instead of trying to control your thoughts, you can learn to watch yourself and see how you react to various events. The act of watching contributes to changing how we feel. We can learn to watch ourselves by practicing meditation. Viapassana meditation is particularly good for this. In Viapassana meditation (at least in the exercises that I've been taught), we are taught to note the most prominent thing in our awareness. It might be a sound, a sight, or even just a thought. Then instead of following the sound, for instance, we just listen to it without thinking about it.

What usually happens when we hear a sound is something like this – Oh that's a black bird; black birds are a nuisance; my aunt tried to catch a blackbird once; I thought that was rather cruel... See? Our thoughts run away, we get lost, and don't notice ourselves or our surroundings.

Eventually, watching ourselves enables us to stop before we react. When a thought of anger arises, for instance, if we can recognize it we can then do something about it. If we can't recognize it then we are like robots and will merely react to the situation that prompted our anger.

Of course, this sounds pretty easy. All you have to do is pay attention to yourself and then you'll change. In fact, while this is a simple idea, it's hard to do, and it takes practice. A weekend session with a teacher will give you exposure, but regular practice is needed to keep up your ability to concentrate. It's worth the effort, though, and even a few minutes a day – maybe 15 minutes – will yield some benefit.

Ending your own personal suffering is like so many other things – you have to accept the responsibility for it yourself. Once you've accepted that responsibility, though, there is a great deal of freedom because then you can do something about it. And one of the most effective means of ending your suffering is to learn to watch yourself.