Suffering: From Ignorance to Awareness

‘Our life is what our thoughts make it’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

To find happiness, we have to deal with the suffering we experience. I used to suffer badly with anger and loneliness. Angry, I would get so angry. I was alone and hurting. I looked out at the world with a glare, feeling as if to say ‘come at me bro’, so I’ll have an excuse to go full-on Hulk. That’s how angry I would get.

I saw the world as my enemy, bitterness, frustration, loneliness, rage all rolled together. (A disdain for the world not to different than Scrooge) The thing is when you see the world like that, you treat other people badly. You see slights where they are none, or only minor. You become pessimistic, inward-facing, hurting and afraid. The upshot is that people will avoid you, and the world remains scary.

Worse still a part of me wanted to be angry because at least it felt better than fear.

Yet I didn’t see it. I look back now and wonder ‘How did I not see it?!!’

My biggest problem was that I didn’t know what was going on. I was only periodically aware of my suffering . Most of the time I distracted myself as a way to deal with the feelings, rather than confront the problem head-on.

At one point it became so intense and frequent I could no longer ignore it and that was my first step down the road that would help me find what I was looking for.

It shows that ignorance of ourselves is the basis of our suffering and it’s the biggest obstacle we face when dealing with it.

We are unaware of our suffering, unaware of why we suffer and also don’t know how to deal with it. 

We suffer because we don’t know how things work, ourselves work, and the cosmos at large. Knowledge is the basis of our suffering and our contentment because it’s all about knowing the rules of the game, that is the rules of existence. If you don’t know the rules then you can’t expect to play the game well.

With the knowledge, I can see not only my suffering but the causes of that suffering.

All journeys then are movements from a place of ignorance to a place of knowledge and my path, dealing with my anxiety and fear is no exception.

I started out like a lot of people do by reading books, self-help mostly. I kept it up over the years and from a wide number of topics. from the sciences to the humanities. Fiction and non-fiction.

The more I read the more I learned and the answers came slowly, carefully and haphazardly.

To know what’s important and what’s not. To know what matters and what doesn’t, what’s the truth and what’s not.

As the Buddhist point out:

  • we suffer
  • there are causes to our suffering
  • there are ways to reduce our suffering
  • With a nutshell summary of what to to

This is the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. It’s why ignorance is the basis of our suffering.

It just goes to show how powerful our minds are at creating the reality we face, and why Buddhism focus is on the mind.

Practice not just study

‘Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development’

Jim Rohn

One big lesson is that knowledge is not just about the study but also practice. I learned some good advice but didn’t put into practice, why, I forget.

Year after year my life didn’t seem to be getting any better, and I was no happier though was learning a lot. That was a big lesson, theory has to be used in practice, ‘talking the talk’ was only part of the ‘knowledge’, I had to ‘walk the walk’.

Another big piece of insight was the slowly dawning realisation that my meaning and purpose are not, nor do they have to be, tied to a cosmic meaning or purpose.  I didn’t need to know why we exist to live a happy life.

This realisation hit me but I took more reading an study to fully understand what it was I had discovered. But it shows that understanding can come in sudden insight and/or slowly over time.

I look back and see that my growth is tied to my understanding, my knowledge and wisdom 

I gradually wore down fears and that gave me the drive to grow and expand a bit more because the fears that held me back were one of my own making. 

The Importance of your Mental Real Estate

‘Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox’

The Dhammapada Verse 1. 

I hope the above has outlined a major point, the most powerful force in your world is the mind you have and what goes on in it.

We tend to think that the most powerful forces in the world are those of technology or maybe governments, the rich classes because of their wealth. Or perhaps religions, the media because of the ideas they spread around.

But I question that all this because we know of their existence, we fight for them and against them. We study them, fear them, use them and need them because they are not the most powerful. They may be overlooked but never forgotten.

No, the forces that we should worry about more are the influences that we don’t see, the ones we can’t easily detect.

They can have power over us that governments, and the media try to influence but can’t always succeed. Different factions like culture, government, religions are competing for your attention so that you can adopt their ideas. 

The mind is the ‘real estate’ you need to attend and protect above all else.  What you think and how you feel, (mostly feelings) decides what it is that you do. Most of it doesn’t even reach the level of conscious awareness, we just as upon instinct or impulse. But it shows that most of the time we react with habitual reliability.

How we react is a more fascinating subject since it involves our assumptions, knowledge, experiences, ideas, influences that have shaped ever since we were born.

It’s the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world.

The ‘paradigm’, worldview or Mental Wallpaper, whatever you choose to call it.

Mental wallpaper

It’s a complex set of assumptions, perceptions and habits that influence, perhaps define our behaviour. 

The thing is we’re all far too busy with our jobs, going through the motions to have time to contemplate what we are doing or thinking. We’re caught in a web of ideas, feelings, expectations, rules, and we suffer because we can’t see them. 

Most of our behaviour is habitual and automatic which is why we fail to see the Mental Wallpaper that causes us to act in ways that create suffering.

Looking back at my younger self is see the how the cycle fed upon itself. The fear merely begets more fear and loneliness. So the cycle of hurt and pain continues. This is what the Buddhist means by Samsara, the cycle of suffering. You are creating your suffering and you can’t see it.

Seeing that paradigm, the wallpapering of our mind should be our highest priority. Which is why Buddhism is such a big advocate knowledge about ourselves.

Rabbit or Duck?- The Gestalt Shift

It’s like shifting your focus from through glass to looking at what’s on the glass. A Gestalt Shift, from or perhaps a ‘Paradigm Shift’ in science. Seeing the same information in a different way. This is a Gestalt Shift, for example seeing a rabbit then a duck in a drawing. (See aside)

I like to think that philosophy in general, is an attempt to try and see this wallpaper/paradigm. A way to perceive something normally beyond our vision. Rationality, reason, critical thinking and therapy are ways bring the subconscious patterns into the light where they can be examined. 

For my part, I learned a great deal when I read up on cognitive Biases and logical fallacies, and just examining my thought and behaviour patterns. I learned from Buddhism, Taoism how different they think from Westerners. Western philosophy like Existentialism also helped me see ho society creates our minds.

I also learned from my therapist, where I was going wrong, my tendencies and habits. Literature too provided insight as stories, art, mirror our existence. It’s why we like them, we see something of ourselves in the struggle, the mistakes, the hurt, the joy, hopes and dreams of the people we read about.

A more recent instructive practice has been my painting. In many ways art, and being an artist holds many of the lessons I write here.

Through study and practice, we can free ourselves from the powerful grip of the unseen. The unspoken assumptions, false beliefs and more. Becoming less caught in prisons of our own making. This is the path of Awakening.

My call to action is not so much a request for you to sign-up for my newsletter, though I do want you to.

It’s more of a plea to take these forces seriously. My growth as a person and in life only took place when I started to address the causes of my suffering and unhappiness and that had to be my own mind. How we perceive ourselves and the world guides our actions, and how we take part in our lives.

Give it attention required. Awareness and knowledge are important because we based our actions on what we know, what we believe, who we feel we are. It’s why your mind is the most powerful force in your life. Its the source of both insight and truth, but also falsehood and deception. 

Without awareness and knowledge we would be forever making bad decisions and wrong steps. It’s how clarity and growth go together. To be aware of is a necessary part of living well. It’s why we need to guard this piece of real estate more than any other. What drives us to do what we do, say what we say, and why so much of it ends up hurting ourselves.

It‘s a never-ending endeavour, to live a better life is to live with the awareness, and knowledge as the basis.

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