“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
~ Haruki Murakami
To some degree or another everyone suffers. You spend weeks agonizing over whether you passed the university test you just wrote. You anxiously wonder how your boss and peers will react to that presentation you will give at work. You spend sleepless nights feeling dissatisfied in your relationship with your romantic partner. You stress about whether you’re meeting the needs of your children, parents, family, friends, etc.
There are countless examples of the causes of our suffering. But, while you might assume that these are all inevitable human experiences, they’re not.
In Buddhism, dukkha is the Pali word that is often translated into English as “suffering”. In fact, dukkha has a much richer meaning, referring to states of mind ranging from feeling unsettled, to annoyance, aggravation, sorrow, and anguish.
I was surprised to learn that Buddhism is based on the premise that the causes of dukkha, of suffering, are the cravings and desires we have, and our attachment to their outcomes.
You can think of dukkha, perhaps, as the space between how the world is and how you would like the world to be. The greater the space between reality and your desire, and the greater your attachment to the outcome, the greater your suffering.
I used to agonize over my university test results because I had created a vision of my future self that would have been disrupted had I failed the exam. I had invested a lot of thought into that future self: I had imagined him passing all his courses, graduating at a specific moment in time, promptly finding a job, being recognized as brilliant, getting raise after raise, etc., etc.
Do you see the humour in this? The cause of my suffering was the potential disruption of a non-existent future self.
I had spent so much time thinking about and imagining my future life that I had grown attached to it. In some weird sense, it was me, and failing an exam would have taken away a future that I felt belonged to me.
What I failed to realize, though, is that no amount of craving or desiring for that future state would have actually brought it about.
In retrospect, I was denying the inherent uncertainty and ungovernability of life.
I don’t think us humans are very good at dealing with either of those things. We want to feel like we’re in control, especially of outcomes we crave and desire. Yet, if we look for only a moment, we will see how little control we have over them.
There are some truths we need to hear repeatedly, and some of them are painfully (and banally) obvious. This is one of them: our desire for reality to be a certain way doesn’t make it that way. No outcome has ever been caused by a desire; outcomes are always caused by an action taken in a world filled with uncertainty.
There is no guarantee that our actions are enough to bring about desired states, because the outcomes we desire inevitably depend on factors outside ourselves.
Yet, when we desire a future state or outcome, we become attached to the idea of it. We hold on to it. We cling to it. Even though we know it may not come to pass.
This is why we suffer when our desires are frustrated: we have invested so much time and energy imagining our future selves attaining that outcome that part of our mind is convinced it’s already been achieved. So, when it’s snatched away from us by the cold, indifferent hand of reality, it feels like it’s being stolen from us, which causes suffering.
And, here’s the kicker: even when reality does align with our desires, we still don’t escape suffering.
How did it feel when you passed your exam? How did it feel when your presentation at the office went well? How did it feel when you were able to have a tough, but productive conversation with your partner? How did it feel when you were proud of an action of your daughter or son?
It felt great, right? So, what’s the problem?
The problem, if we think about it for just a moment, is obvious: the fulfillment of our desires does not bring lasting happiness. We know this from the countless desires that we’ve had fulfilled. Even desires that are worth pursuing don’t cause us to be happy indefinitely.
Eventually, what we have attained becomes the new norm and then it’s no longer good enough. We have all felt this. These feelings never last.
Before we know it, we’re back on the Hamster Wheel of Suffering longing for another desire or outcome.
So, what, you say, are we not supposed to have desires?
I’m sure you could write a mile-long list of desires you would call “good”, like the desire to have a successful career or for your loved ones to be healthy.
The point to consider here is not whether desires are “good” or “bad”, it’s that they tend to cause suffering. You can create desires out of the best intentions, but that doesn’t remove the suffering from them. Regardless of the type of desire you have, there will exist a gap between reality and that desire, and it’s in that gap where you will suffer.
This is the endless loop of suffering that we’re all caught in. Once we gain temporary happiness by fulfilling a desire we just dive right back into the suffering as if this is the only way to live.
Thankfully, it’s not.
The question, then, is, what can we do differently?
Here’s a step-by-step process to help you live with less suffering and more happiness.
Step #1: Remind yourself regularly that desires tend to cause suffering. This is an unusual way of looking at the world, and it will take time to convince your brain of this truth. However, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to plan for the future; it just means we need to be aware that too much attention paid to our desires and future outcomes is… well, undesirable.
Step #2: Bring your attention to the present moment with focus and intention. This is a really tough one. We spend vast quantities of our lives with neither focus nor intention, utterly lost in the stories we tell ourselves. A great way of breaking out of this habit is with meditation. It helps us recognize when we’re lost in the fantasies of non-existent selves and re-focus our attention on things that matter.
Step #3: Speaking of which, with your newfound focus on the present, decide how you want to spend your time. What matters to you? What gives your life meaning? These can be big, scary questions that will take time to contemplate and explore. But, these questions can also be simple and straight-forward: the relationships in your life matter to you (e.g., partner, children, parents, friends); your hobbies matter to you (e.g., sports, reading, music); your career matters to you. Give yourself to these things when they are right in front of you; stop allowing the incessant buzzing of your smartphone to take you away from the things you care about.
This step is about shifting your mind away from imagined future states (fantasies) and toward the actions you need to perform to achieve those future states. While goals and desires can help set us on worthwhile paths, focusing too much attention on outcomes is not only detrimental to getting us to those outcomes (it distracts us from doing the actual work), it will also cause suffering (because outcomes are largely outside our control).
Step #4: Watch as your life fills with meaning, purpose, and happiness.
When we pull our minds out of our fantasies and into the present moment, we open up a space in our minds for deciding what actions bring about our fulfilment and happiness. When we perform those actions on a regular basis, we feel fulfilled and happy regularly.
And, by doing those actions regularly we improve at them at a stunning pace, because getting good at anything simply requires that we put in the effort (see 10,000-Hour Rule). So, we get better and better at the things we love and that provide us with fulfillment, which gives us more motivation to do them. And these actions taken together create a self-reinforcing system of happiness.
If that doesn’t sound like a beautiful way to live, I don’t know what would.