Free Therapy # 67: Why We Suffer

“Yes, the answer lies within
So why not take a look now?”

Cat Stevens


Photo by comedy_nose

I was about 16 or 17 when I awakened to the fact I was sleeping. And by sleeping, I mean a kind of spiritual snooze. I realized I didn’t know why I existed or why this world existed. I was confused about love and hate and God and religion but mostly I wanted to understand suffering. Why do we suffer? We all want to be happy but so few of us are and even when we are happy, it never lasts. Sadness returns. Boredom. Despair.

Around that time I acquired Be Here Now by Ram Dass and I began to understand. We suffer because we identify with these temporary physical bodies and a mind that thinks it’s us and we get attached to stuff that doesn’t last. We are always wanting something and no matter what we get or how much we get, it isn’t enough to keep us happy, content and fulfilled. Not for long.

Ram Dass uses the example of an ice cream cone. It is good. It is tasty. We like it. But the enjoyment is temporary. The pleasure we get is transient. He asks if we will ever get “an eternal ice cream cone? Or is it always going to melt? You gotta keep eating it. Yet it melts & melts. That’s the problem. You gotta keep eating it cuz it will melt & then it’s gone & you know that taste in your mouth when you finish & you want a glass of water? Right? Then you have a glass of water & there’s that bloaty feeling.”

All the pleasures of the world are transient and so we pursue the next thing that will make us briefly happy. And so it goes. Is there another way? In his book Falling into Grace, Adyashanti suggests there is. He says we first need to understand that our thinking minds, the apparatus we use to solve our problems, is itself our primary problem.

As a child, Adyashanti studied the adults around him. He tried to figure them out. Why are they in pain? Why do they get into conflict? Why do they suffer so much? He wanted to understand them because they seemed so peculiar and mysterious to him. One day, he had an epiphany. He finally understood. He thought, “Oh my gosh! Adults believe what they think! That’s why they suffer! That’s why they get into conflict. That’s why they behave strangely, in ways that I don’t understand, because they actually believe the thoughts in their head.”

Not only did Adyashanti conclude that believing our own thoughts leads to suffering; he also grasped that it’s not logical or rational. It is a little crazy. In fact, he decided that it’s “insane to believe the thoughts in your head.”

He wrote, “…one of the primary reasons we suffer is because we believe what we think…the thoughts in our heads come uninvited into our consciousness, swirl around and we attach to them. We identify with them and grab hold of them.”

In my practice I see this all the time. My anxious clients cannot let go of the very “truth” that keeps them filled with anxiety. They are afraid of something and their minds lie to them and tell them to avoid what they fear and they will feel better. Of course, this strategy fails. The more they avoid, the more anxious they become in the long run. The more anxious they become, the more they avoid. And meanwhile, they just keep listening to their own lying minds that keep giving them bad advice and betray them day after day.

The problem is language, the words our minds use to represent reality. Steven Hayes, one of the authors of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy explains that as humans evolved from thinking like primitive animals, they became increasingly more self-conscious and self-aware. Like Adam and Eve, for the first time we developed a concept of self-hood to which we could apply qualities of right, wrong, good and bad.

Hayes writes, “As we learned to turn inward, our verbal and cognitive abilities (our ‘minds’) began to warn us with alarms about past and future psychological states rather than only alarms about external threats.”

In a sense, Hayes explains, through this process, we developed “allergies” to what our minds identified as undesirable internal conditions. He writes, “Human suffering predominantly involves the misapplication of otherwise positive psychological processes of problem solving to normal instances of psychological pain. In other words, our suffering represents a kind of allergic reaction to our own inner world.”

Or to put it another way, life gives us its share of natural, inevitable pain. And then our minds get involved and provide us with futile methods of avoiding this pain which ultimately fail and instead cause us to suffer even more.

Adyashanti writes, “The capacity to think and utilize language has a shadow side that if left unattended and used in an unwise way, can cause us to suffer and experience unnecessary conflict with one another.”

He writes, “…the very thing that has evolved to help us survive has also become a form of imprisonment for us. We’ve become trapped in a world of dreams, a world in which we live primarily in our minds.

“When we see the world through our thoughts, we stop experiencing life as it really is and others as they really are.”

Adyashanti challenges us to grasp the “root of human suffering: When we believe what we think, when we take our thinking to be reality, we will suffer.  It’s not obvious until you look at it, but when we believe our thoughts, in that instant, we begin to live in the world of dreams, where the mind conceptualizes an entire world that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in the mind itself.  At that moment, we begin to experience a sense of isolation, where we no longer feel connected to each other in a very rich and human way, but we find ourselves receding more and more into the world of our minds, into the world of our own creation.”

Hayes essentially agrees with this notion when he writes, “Suffering occurs when people so strongly believe the literal contents of their mind that they become fused with their cognitions. In this fused state, the person cannot distinguish awareness from cognitive narratives since each thought and its referents are so tightly bound together.”

In a sense, we create rules of living in our minds that we hope and believe will lead us to feel happy and successful and enjoy deep, meaningful relationships with others. The more we follow these rules, however, the more we fail. The problem, again, is in the mind and its inability to grasp that in its desperate efforts to control reality, it sabotages our ability to be present. We are so busy thinking about “reality,” we lose touch with what is really happening with us and others in the moment. If we are unwilling to step out of our minds, we cannot connect with what is real and true, here and now.

In effect, we have transformed ourselves and others from being vibrant, living and interesting persons into sterile, conceptualized ideas. And when we interact with one another as if these mental abstractions were real, we deaden and degrade ourselves and one another.

Adyashanti writes, “What are you, really, when you look beyond all images and all ideas about yourself, when you look absolutely directly, right here and right now, when you stand completely within yourself and look underneath the mind, underneath the ideas, underneath the images?”

Beneath all the noise of our minds is an endless silence and beyond all our conceptualizations of self and other is an eternal, boundless being of which we are all connected in a seamless, vast and infinite whole. What if we could experience this on a daily basis? What if we could speak and act from that space? I wonder if we are ready to find out.

Douglas Craig

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for more than 35 years. He believes in magic and is a Warriors fan..

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