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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Desire and Suffering

In most Buddhist teachings that I have been exposed to, suffering is said to be caused by desire. This is a universal human condition, and one that can be broken, according to the teachings. Thinking of human suffering being caused by desire is a concept that, to me, at once seemed intuitively true and incomprehensible. On the one hand, it is easy to see that the kind of desire that begets mindless consumerism and even addicitve behaviors like overeating, alcoholism, and sex addiction could be the source of suffering. On the other hand, what about the suffering caused by things like physical pain or illness? What about suffering caused by abuse at the hands of another person? These things don't seem as obvious to me, but Buddhism teaches that all suffering is caused at its root by desire.

There is one view that says suffering that we don't obviously cause our selves is caused by desire in others who inflict the harm on us. I think the point of the teaching is not this, though, but rather that we can choose not to desire that things did not happen this way, choose not to see ourselves as something separate from the world and therefore when illness, abuse, harm etc happen to our "selves" this is just a construct of our minds. This is a very esotaric concept, not one that I am at all versed in or experienced in, and one which I think is a rather advanced human condition.

What I CAN see is how my own desire causes suffering for me. First there is the endless desire for things, which always begets more desire for things. I get an idea in my head that I need a new pair of jeans, for example. I think about it for a while, decide exactly what to look for, and where to get it. I finally go and get the pair of jeans. You would think that my desire would thus be sated. But no, soon I am finding myself desiring some other thing. There isn't relief from this desire, only repeating of the cycle.

This happens to us with food, too. We decide: I want some ice cream. We obsess about it for a while, think about which flavor and brand we want, when and how to get it. We get the ice cream, and we eat it. And soon we are finding ourselves not fulfilled by having this desire met, but rather, right back in the throes of a new food craving. Sugar totally does this, for reasons that science has at least partially explained with insulin levels and other hormones. But anything that can be craved can cause this same reaction, with or without fluctuating levels of insulin.

Other kinds of desire can cause or perpetuate suffering. I am learning recently that one kind of desire is the desire for a different reality. Wishing that something was not true so much causes us to become stuck in the bitterness and anger and resentment that goes along with that desire. It can even cause denial of reality, which creates another kind of suffering.

I often find that I desire to be seen a certain way: as the winner of the argument, the "better" person, the morally or intellectually superior one. My desire to not have my flaws seen is, of course, useless: not only am I creating my own suffering by holding onto that supposed superiority, but my flaws are seen in sharper relief as someone who thinks she is better than the other person, and I create suffering for the person I am trying to seem better than.

Samsara is a state that is referred to in many different religions. Often it is described as the cycle of suffering and reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation itself isn't really what I used to think it was, literally being born again as yourself but in another form. If you're "good", you are reborn as a more evolved being; if you are "bad" you are reborn as something lesser and further away from nirvana, like an insect. I guess first you have to sign off on the idea that there is a hierarchy of beings that are certain distances away from nirvana. Then you have to accept that we have a bank of good and bad karma and the end of our lives is an accounting of what your balance adds up to. I don't think this is really the essence of samsara. It seems to me that it is more like the effect of desire and longing and suffering in the world. These things are self-perpetuating and affect the entire web of existance. I don't know how to reduce suffering in human existance, but I do find that being mindful of my own desires and how they are harmful to myself and those that I affect helps me.

If you are thinking that this is some radical new direction that my blog is taking, please take heart. These aren't radical new thoughts for me, only new blogging topics that seem more relevent to my life these days. It's not becoming a spiritual or religious or Buddhist blog. (Although if it did that would be fine; it's my blog after all.) I'm just feeling a little more contemplative today than usual. It is so much better than some of the mental spaces I've been in so far this year. I hope it is interesting or helpful to someone.

1 comment:

Diz said...

I think it's good to contemplate the "bigger picture". I find it interesting that you desire to see yourself a certain way, but in reading your blogs, I see you as opposite. You put yourself nakedly into your blog and we see the flaws. You have no problems pointing them out. That is the beauty that compels me to read it. That you give so much of yourself and are always trying to better yourself. We can't help but learn to be better ourselves.