Aug 23, 2021

The Three Kinds of Suffering and the Way To Soften the Suffering

According to Buddhist tradition there are three kinds of suffering. Suffering is an uniquely human experience.  Animals that have a central nervous system can experience pain in their physical body, but only humans can experience suffering.  Only humans can experience suffering because we have the possibility of imagining and creating with words and ideas a world that is different from the one that exists.  And, when we attempt to force the imaginary world into the current world, the outcome is suffering.

The first kind of human suffering is the suffering of painful experiences. This is the most common type of human suffering and includes physical, mental, and emotional discomforts. For example, when we are physically sick, or injure our bodies; when we experience an uncomfortable emotion, such as rage or fear; when we are in a physically uncomfortable environmental such as intense heat or intense cold, or not having water or food; or when we get caught in some addiction and feel trapped by it. Because we have a physical body and a human mind, the inevitable consequence is that we will suffer painful experiences.

The suffering of change is the second kind of suffering.  Whenever we find a moment in our lives that is sublimely pleasant, we want to hold onto it, we never want it to go away, we want to make this perfect moment permanent. Suffering comes when we realize that all experiences and all things in the physical world are transitory. When we try to hold on to youth, we encounter the impossibility of that effort. When we wish for love to remain unchanging, we are sorely disappointed. Whenever we try to create certainty in this uncertain world, we encounter the suffering of change.

The suffering of conditionality is the third type of suffering.  "Everything in this world comes into being through a combination of conditions. In order to take care of ourselves in this life, we need to make continuous effort to sustain the conditions. Without this application of energy, things fall apart." (Insight Meditation, Salzberg and Goldstein 2001) What this means is that we must continually put effort and energy to hold things together. If we stop our efforts, things break down, they cease to work. If we do not remove the weeds from our garden, the weeds will invade and choke out our plants. If we do not maintain our house, it will deteriorate and fall apart. If we do not take care of this physical body with appropriate nutrition, exercise, rest, and mindful decisions, our body can deteriorate, sicken, and die.

As human beings, we fight against these three aspects of the objective world (the world as it is).  We wish that pain would not be felt in the body and we fight against physical illness and our body's limitations, we resist when things go from how we want them to how we don't want them.  We resist all kinds of changes in our environment.  Existence requires continuous efforts to sustain what is-- and we do not like to accept that truth.  We want to work hard to attain something and then we want to rest and coast, we want to "arrive."

These three types of suffering unite all of us. We all experience them. It matters not whether one is rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, brilliant or not – – we all suffer in the same three-ways.

But it need not be so intense. Through mindfulness practice (being aware of the mind) the suffering habits can be altered. By noticing how and when the mind becomes trapped into any of the three types of suffering, we can learn how to redirect it, so that our minds are more congruent with the world as it is.  The drawback is that this, too, takes effort and focus.  However, make a fair comparison between the two options: 1) the three kinds of suffering are endless and intense, they never end, no matter what condition exists in your life; 2) mindfulness training gives you the option of attaining a mind in synchronicity with the laws of the world we live in.  When our minds are in synch with the world as it really is, we decrease, soften, and shorten the duration of our suffering.  (Only very serious meditators could realistically aim to stop suffering completely, but it takes a lifetime of work.)  Both of the above options take effort, but the option of mindfulness training offers the way to reduce the suffering and have times in our life of profound inner peace.  Which option do you choose?

Apr 20, 2020

Our Modern Skulls House A Stone Age Mind

The phrase above appears in Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. It is one of the Five Principles of Evolutionary Psychology they identify.

They argue that natural selection is the process that designed our brain and that natural selection takes a long time to design a circuit of any complexity. The time we are talking about is beyond our comprehension and it is measured in hundreds of thousands of years. Cosmides and Tooby  posit that the environment that humans and human minds evolved was very different from our modern environment. Our ancestors lived most of their evolutionary history in hunter – gatherer societies, which means that our ancestors lived in small, nomadic bands of a few dozen individuals who all got their food each day by gathering plants or by hunting animals. Cosmides and Tooby write that our ancestors were on "a camping trip that lasted their entire lifetime."

This way of living lasted for the last 10 million years, with agriculture and the end of a nomadic lifestyle only appearing on earth about 10,000 years ago. And, only in the last 5000 years when the human population moved to farming rather than hunting and gathering. What they concluded is that natural selection being such a slow process, there haven't been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well adapted to our current industrial life. They conclude, that our modern skulls house a stone age mind the circuits that were created in the first 10 million years were designed to solve the problems of that environment, not to solve the day-to-day problems of our modern lifestyle. The stone age mind can solve some problems extremely well, but does poorly with others. It has been estimated that most hunter gatherer groups were no larger than 150 people, with the majority being much smaller. Imagine the stone age mind, having learned to adapt to a small group of 50 - to-150 individuals, living in the city with thousands upon thousands of people that he or she would have to interact with.

The information processing systems that evolved in the first 3 million years of  hominin evolution solved adaptive problems of that environment, of the ancestral environments in which the human line evolved. Therefore, evolutionary psychology is  "relentlessly past oriented."


Conclusion: The cognitive mechanisms that currently exist because they solved problems efficiently in the past will not necessarily generate adaptive behavior in the present.

Jun 9, 2019

Avoiding "Dirty Pain"


                          

Troubling emotions and unpleasant memories are part of the human experience. We do not control the fact that they come up, unbidden and most unwelcome, but they come up to our awareness nevertheless.
          
The effort we put into NOT having these emotions, thoughts, sensations, and memories is called “dirty pain.”  Clean pain is the natural and automatic result of living life. When we try to deny, suppress, or “get rid of” normal life pain, we get caught up in a battle that causes even more distress.

Anxiety, depression, and fear all occur naturally in the human experience. But when we decide we do not want to have those negative feelings—thinking that they need to be gone before we can enjoy life-- and begin taking action to get rid of them, then we create the "dirty pain" that becomes more intense in direct proportion to our desire to get rid of them. The bad memory, the fear, the depressive thoughts are all transient, but when we engage them in a fierce battle they settle in for a good fight.

For many years I thought that I could control everything that went on in my mind. Of course, I failed miserably in trying to run my mind through logic alone. All these messy emotions kept coming up!  I wondered if there were some flaw in my personality that prevented me from suppressing specific emotions and memories.
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Current research into the minute workings of the human brain gives strong evidence that to be human means that we must accept and co-exist with an ongoing reactive set of  distress signals—which we do not control. These distress and alarm signals are part of the  primal mammalian survival mechanism; a system exquisitely attuned to the slightest deviation from our personal sense of comfort and safety. This is the system that tells us to run when we see a charging bear, but it is also the same system that sends alarms when we are late to work and the person in front of us is driving at the speed limit. Always on the lookout for what is "NOT right," the alarm goes off constantly in daily life.

Is there no escape? No, if the question is "are we able to escape from who we are" but yes, if it asks how may we work more effectively with who we are.The solution is to work with, accept, notice, observe-- all in a non-judgmental way what is  actually occurring inside of us. Often, when we tune in and ask: "What is actually happening to me right here, right now?"  The answer is...Nothing is actually happening to me right here, right now."  But our internal struggle, the "dirty pain" we have created, makes it seems as if we are in a life and death struggle.

Next time you are in intense emotional distress, check in with yourself and ask: "What is actually happening to me me right here, right now?" You may be pleasantly surprised by the answer.




 Reference:  Learning ACT Therapy Luoma, Hayes, and Walser

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