The root of suffering is an unmet expectation. We hoped that life would be a certain way. Yet, life turned out to be exactly the opposite of what we had anticipated. This in itself is often not the issue. However, when all anticipation of attaining our expectations recede quickly into the background, hope evaporates. This lays the foundation for sustained sadness which eventually turns into depression.
The irony is that no human being wants to suffer, and yet, we all do. Suffering is an inevitable part of life. As long as there exists expectations and hope, suffering is guaranteed. Many so called spiritual people recommend giving up all expectations. Some of the new age folk recommend to live life moment to moment. Both these approaches are flawed for the simple reason that they do not address the fact that we humans are emotive and imaginative creatures. Humans need to imagine, create and express. Animals do not have this problem of expectations. They live in the moment and as long as their basic needs are met, they are content. Human life begins once basic needs are met. The human mind references the past and imagines the future. This is a valuable aspect of who we are. The path of the renunciate and the new age movement does not and indeed cannot address the core human need which is to actively engage one’s mind and express it fully. This includes building up a vivid expectation of the future and reminiscing the past.
And yet, expectations bring misery. Therefore the quintessential question becomes this – How can we have expectations and yet not suffer? Is this even possible?
The short answer is yes. To be able to do this, we need to understand suffering. Usually, when we suffer, our mind remains focused on the external object, event, thing that did or did not happen the way we expected it to. The mind spawns thoughts on how bad the other person is, or how unfortunate we are, or how worthless we are to have failed. These thoughts are externally focused. In order to break this chain of thoughts about the external, we need to ask ourselves: Why is this bothering me so much? Why am I suffering so much?
Often, when we suffer, we do not even recognize it. Many of us immediately engage in blame – blame others or blame oneself. Blame is the mind’s way to avoid pain. But, this attempt to escape from pain, perpetuates it ad infinitum. Therefore, when you start blaming the situation, pull yourself back and bring your attention to the fact that you are suffering. This is how we can turn our suffering inwards. At this stage, we need to eschew thoughts about the ‘other’ and stay focussed on the fact that we are sad. Always select sadness over anger or irritation or blame. Some of us brush these feelings under the carpet and move on. This too is harmful in the long run. Notice if there is an uncomfortable squirmish feeling in you. If yes, then the emotive part of you has registered this as an unpleasant event. Bring this to your attention. And acknowledge the fact that this has hurt you, it has pained you.
This turning inward severs the link between the external object and the mind. However, this is just the first step towards understanding and resolving the pain. The second step is to go deeper and ask yourself Who is it that suffers? This is a slightly harder thing to do. The answer appears to be obvious – It is I who suffers. But the trick here is to understand what or who this I really is. Who is this I that suffers? Is it your left arm? Or the eye brows? Is it a thought that suffers? Is it an emotion that suffers? When we sit silently and ask ourselves this question, the first response of the mind is confusion. We simply cannot understand this question. This is good. This shows that we are reaching a realm that the mind cannot touch.
When we investigate this I who is suffering, we realize that we simply cannot find this I. And this is the miraculous thing. The entire drama of blame, regret, self-pity, tears is on behalf of an ‘I’ that we cannot locate. And yet, the suffering appears so real, so intimate, so close to us. This fictitious I is the ego, that we are all born with. We associate the I with a story in the head and a feeling in the body. But in reality, there is no I that suffers. The I simply cannot be found.
It is only then, that the suffering ceases to bother us so much. The old patterns of suffering may continue to persist, but its impact on our well-being remains minimized. Think of it like a small headache. We feel it, we recognize it, but we carry on with our daily activities without being hampered in any great way. When we realize that no suffering can really touch us, we begin to have the courage to build expectations – to make grand plans and be okay if they fail (see my previous post of Courage: The Act of Dreaming Knowing It Might Fail). Since there is nobody in us who suffers, we do not mind taking risks. We begin to see life as a game which we play to the best of our abilities. Failure and success have their place in the game, but the joy of playing supersedes the result. This can only come when we understand from the depth of our being that nothing in me suffers – I have nothing to lose – nothing to gain.
This understanding is the beginning of the end of suffering.