The Buddhists connect our suffering with desire. Although there is a connection, the Buddhists make a grave error, and that errors results in their 3rd noble truth: to end our suffering we must end our craving. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water! Desire is what makes life juicy and worth living.
I want to explore how I see the connection between desire and suffering, examining the chain of causality and seeing where the Buddhists err in their assumptions.
Desire or craving is a visceral embodied experience; we can find this within the body as a somatic feeling. For example, imagine that your beloved has been away for a few days and you are missing them terribly. You free an ache in your heart, and a longing in your loins for their warm body next to yours. This is a beautiful experience and one that can and should be savored; it’s certainly not suffering.
However we humans are big brained animals and we have a gargantuan capacity to think abstractly and create hypotheticals. We might for example imagine that our beloved could be injured or killed while traveling; or that their feelings for us might change. The tension between our hypothetical imaginings and real life causes anxiety; this is the suffering that the Buddhists are talking about.
So our present moment craving caused us to imagine hypothetical situations were our cravings were not satisfied, and this created anxiety. The craving did not cause suffering; it was a set of emotions that could be savored for their exquisite beauty. The suffering only came in because we created a set of virtual realities and then attached to the specific virtual reality where our beloved comes back to us unharmed and still in love. We are attaching ourselves to a specific imagined future. Yet life is uncertain; we cannot know that this reality will be the one to manifest.
When we become attached to a specific imagined reality and can accept no other, it causes anxiety and thus unnecessary suffering. This is the part that Buddhism got right. However I question whether attaching to an abstraction in our minds is a craving. Cravings to me are those present moment embodied feelings. If we want to call attaching to an abstraction a craving, then we must discriminate between healthy cravings (embodied cravings) and unhealthy cravings (attachment to our mental constructs).
When we attach to an abstract mental construct, we cause ourselves suffering. This is true whether we are attaching to an imagined future (i.e. our beloved coming back to love us), or are attaching to a present that’s different that what we are experiencing (stuck in line again), or are attaching to the past being different than what actually happened (I wish they would have hired me).
To avoid suffering, instead of giving up craving like the Buddhists would have us do, we should give up our attachment to our mental constructs. Our embodied existence will always create cravings, and our big brains will always create hypotheticals, but we don’t have to get attached to the hypotheticals. Why do we attach to these hypotheticals? It’s the fear of uncertainty. We don’t know what is really going to happen, and we feel very uncomfortable with this uncertainty. Instead of letting the hypotheticals float as possibilities, we grab onto the one we like and cling to it for dear life., even if the most likely possibility is the one we want (i.e. most likely, our beloved will come back and still love us). The other possibilities are still out there, haunting us and causing suffering.
It’s actually quite amazing to me that we prefer to experience this suffering rather than experience immersion in the unknown. Is experiencing uncertainty really worse than the anxiety of our attachment to our abstract imaginings? Apparently, for most of us, the answer is yes.
An example might illuminate this further. Suppose that your mother-in-law is visiting. Her husband stayed home to take care of some things, and your mother-in-law is sitting in the living room complaining about him. You don’t like it when people take on the victim role, and that’s exactly what she is doing. So now you are faced with the choice of how to engage with this reality. What are the possibilities?
I can think of a three basic possibilities for dealing with an unpleasant situation:
1) END IT: You can do something to try to end the situation, telling her to stop or even kicking her out of your house.
2) ACCEPT & SUFFER: You can resign yourself to the situation and suffer, possibly do some things to avoid her (I’m going to a yoga class now . . .), but basically remain stuck. Even if you can escape for a while, you are still suffering from the tension between real life and your preferred virtual reality where she is out of your house. When we accept the situation but turn away, we suffer. We are not engaging with what is, we are disengaging with what is.
3) TURN TOWARD & TRANSFORM: You accept the reality of your current situation and attempt to transform it. Instead of suffering from the tension between what’s happening and your preference for her to be gone, you can turn toward the situation, looking for opportunities to create meaning and happiness within it. For example, you might try creating some emotional intimacy with your mother-in-law in order to try to understand the roots of her complaining. She might be stuck in some way where you have the key to help liberate her. Or you could focus internally on why victimhood causes so much agitation in you.
My dad told me once that his wife (not my mom) used to always make him little desserts. He didn’t really want them, but he felt obligated to eat them because of all the trouble she went though to make them. She felt like she had to make them for him, but did not feel his genuine appreciation, which left her feeling empty and unappreciated; she started to resent making them. Finally one day they talked about it and resolved the situation; this happened only because they turned toward the painful situation, instead of avoiding it. This is turning toward and transforming.
Now of these three possibilities, the second one stands out inauspicious. It’s quite possible that ending a situation would be the most auspicious way to engage with it. Turning toward and transforming could also be the most auspicious, and could result in a more permanent solution and the creation of more intimacy. To accept but turn away is to choose suffering.
We face these kinds of decisions all the time. Should I stay or should I go? Should I accept a bad situation or should I try to transform it? The one bad choice is to stay and suffer, turning away from what is and going into avoidance mode; this choice will create the most suffering. Yoga is the conscious engagement with what is. Not-Yoga is to experience the tension between what is and our abstract virtual realities. Whenever we are experiencing this kind of suffering, it means we are avoiding dealing directly with what is; we are stuck in the helpless trap between our mental abstractions and reality. In that way, the unpleasantness of our suffering points directly toward the solution. Pain is a great motivator.
We should never have to suffer, or at least not for very long. Instead, we can turn toward out situation and engage with it. If it’s a relationship that’s not working, we can either end it, or try to transform it. To go for transformation is the more difficult and time consuming task, but potentially the most rewarding. It may be worth the effort, or it may not. It’s a decision for the heart and mind to make together. I suppose that the “accept and suffer” option does has a useful purpose: it can give us the time to decide whether to end it or transform it. We just have to make sure we don’t stay there suffering forever.
Even though in some situations “ending it” may be the best choice, I believe that cultivating the ability to turn toward and transform situations is absolutely required in order for us to live beautiful, meaningful lives. If we don’t use that option, they we are just saying yes or no to what happens, never taking the opportunity to shape things to our liking. And when we do choose to transform a situation, we usually will still have the “End it” option available if it does not work out. That’s not as true in reverse – if we choose to end things we will rarely have the chance to go back and try to transform the situation later.
Choosing to end a situation or choosing to transform a situation means stepping into the unknown. Perhaps this is why so many of us choose to accept and suffer. It works for a while, but for how long? The suffering will weigh on our soul until we have to act.