Wednesday, July 3, 2019

What is suffering?

This one is so easy even non buddhists know it. Suffering is desire. Right? But what does this actually tell us? To stop desiring? This sounds

  1.     equally as intractable as 'stop suffering'
  2.     doesn't even sound good? if we take this super literally wouldn't buddhism just be some sort of stoicism strategy?
  3.     even worse, at the limit it sounds like we would be totally non functional, maybe we'd have to live at a monastery and be fed by the other monks because we can't even desire to eat or something

This frame on things is highly misleading for most people until you are *well* into the buddhist paradigm, have some practice experience under your belt, and realize that both 'suffering' and 'desire' have very specific meanings with non-obvious implications. Let's try again from a different side of things. Suffering is a strategy for the whole organism to coordinate action. Some sort of common currency in the motivation system, directing us away from harmful things. Suffering exists because it is useful to you as you are currently wired.

The obvious question becomes: is it possible to get all the same benefits by wiring things differently? If so how do we get from here to there? The brain has built a lot on top of this basic foundation, so it's not surprising that it throws an error flag when you contemplate throwing it out wholesale with no preparation or ideas of the consequences. Which relates to people's ideas about buddhism. Even if you intellectually know that buddhism isn't magic, on some level a belief is lurking that you do some mysterious practices and then one day, likely far in the future, you somehow don't suffer. Maybe all at once after a ton of very boring practice.

But buddhism accords with the rationalist agenda. There is no magic moment. You carefully investigate the causes of suffering and figure out how to end their inputs and/or rewire things so that the same inputs no longer lead to the activation of suffering as a motivation program. (Okay, some of the moments feel slightly magical, though they always make sense after you get a bit of distance from them ime.) Back to rewiring. The idea is emphatically *not* to take it on faith that there is some better thing and you better work diligently for it, sight unseen. Instead, you learn to rewire and start with areas of experience that are mostly safe on fail. Once you catch on to the tricks, even the mild versions, you're invited to try them out and see how they go. Notice you are suffering in a moment, apply technique, suffer less. Now check, are you responding better or worse to the situation at hand?

What if there is a literal panther? who am I to second guess hard wired evolutionary responses, maybe panic is good? Maybe so. We do have two different paradigms of effective people in life or death situations, the berserker and the calm collected samurai. Which one wins might very well be a matter of the battlefield at hand. But I strongly suspect the samurai wins more, given random battlefields. And I think even if I practice hard for a very long time, I'd still get adrenaline if I encountered a tiger. I bet I'd put the adrenaline to better use too.

We could go into more exploration of the utility of fear, and I just want to point out that this, right here, is untangling some of the loops of meta-fear. and object level fears often strongly resist being engaged with until meta level fears are disarmed. That's a lot of what Internal Family Systems is about, gaining the trust of protector systems that help protect more vulnerable fearful parts. The difference between buddhism and psychotherapy is that in buddhism you're invited to do more jumping out of the system and recognize that many mind created problems are best dealt with on a level other than more mental chatter and imagery. (namely somatic and/or ways of shaping attention/awareness that tend to dissolve problems rather than 'solve' them. consider, for example, relaxation as an antidote to tension. Did someone teach you to relax? Would a finer mental model of the physiological aspects of relaxation help all that much? Have you ever considered that relaxation is a skill and maybe you get way better at it really fast if you deliberately practice it?)

All of this gets at what people think is supposed to be happening during meditation. Aren't I supposed to feel better? Shouldn't meditation get easier over time like any other skill? It will get easier in the sense that you'll gain some more familiarity with the mental moves in question. But it stays about the same in the sense that your system surfaces whatever it thinks you're ready for, usually slightly before you really think you're ready for it. Meditation can be a lot more like being a garbage ma-ahem-a sanitation technician than it is like being a blissful lotus god. Even once you get tuned into the unlimited free pleasure circuits a bunch of your attention goes to all the ways in which this experience is unstable. In fact each of the words 'unlimited', 'free', and 'pleasure' could have asterisks leading to whole books. And has. They're about as boring as you might suspect.

And this is why you might have heard me talk about why I sometimes think we should just throw out the entire edifice of 'meditation' and start over, because the half that isn't busy telling you to be mindless is telling you about all sorts of experiences you then think you're supposed to be having. And yes, obviously people have weird experiences. And yes, those experiences cluster in such a way that comparing notes winds up being useful. But all of that has to operate on a backbone of paying very close attention to what is happening moment by moment. Not what's supposed to be happening.

And what is it that's actually happening? All you did was sit down in a quiet spot with an intention to pay attention to something simple. And you're failing completely. You're failing about as hard as you imagine it's possible to fail at something this simple. And you're suffering. And all sorts of bullshits about your life are flying around hitting each other and you. Why are you wired like this?



Good, now we can begin at the beginning. Better get used to it because spoilers: you start from the beginning just about every time you sit down to wrestle with whatever the hell this is. Just like every time you warm up in the gym you start with the empty bar. In a scientific experiment we isolate variables so that we can examine them individually. In meditation we dampen all the obvious sources of suffering by creating a controlled environment, and then:

Hello suffering, what exactly are you?


  1. I discovered your blog a few days ago. I am speechless (this is made even stronger by the fact that I am not a native speaker). I realized I have badly trained for 4 or 5 years on mere concentration. I need a teacher. THANKS.