Some Musings on Self-Inflicted Suffering

The basis of all willing…is need, lack, and hence pain, and by its very nature and origin it is therefore destined to pain. If, on the other hand, it lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom come over it; in other words, its being and its existence itself become an intolerable burden for it. Hence its life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents. This has been expressed very quaintly by the saying that, after man had placed all pains and torments in hell, there was nothing left for heaven but boredom. —Arthur Schopenhauer, from The World as Will and Representation

     I have occasionally stressed, here and elsewhere, the fundamental notion of Buddhist philosophy, namely that, ultimately, all unhappiness is self-inflicted. Even if we disregard the metaphysical assumptions of karma and rebirth—which explain a child being born into an abusive family, for example, or a person being born into a war-torn and famine-afflicted dictatorship—the fact remains that outward circumstance and even physical pain are not guarantees of suffering. Pain and suffering are not the same thing, let alone lack of political rights, poverty, mean language, discomfort, or inconvenience. Pain is not the same as suffering, because it is the desire for the pain to stop, the craving for things to be otherwise, that is the real unhappiness. Physical pain, like hunger or the urge to pee, is just a sensation—though one that we tend to have aversion for. As my dear old macho father used to say, “A little pain never hurt anyone.”

     This central teaching of Buddhist Dharma is completely contrary to the western superficial attitude that if we just fix all social injustices and make everyone be nice to each other, plus give everyone free healthcare and maybe some free money, then we will all be happy. The fact is that even then we wouldn’t be happy. Unhappiness comes from within, not from without.

     Long ago I formulated what I call the Principle of Subjective Equilibrium, in which I observed that, if we could somehow eliminate all the things that we consider bad in this world, then all that would happen is that we would raise the bar and call the lower half of what we called “good” the new bad—if, that is, we didn’t just cook up some entirely new badnesses to replace the old ones. The Principle of Subjective equilibrium implies that good and bad have to exist in balance, being dualistic value judgements imposed by our own subjective mind, and not something objective. Without bad there is no good.

     So the only real way to abolish all badness would be to abolish all goodness as well, subjectively that is. That is pretty much what a Buddhist monk is supposed to do: one avoids pain and suffering by avoiding pleasure and base happiness also. One avoids the stormy seas of up and down by cultivating a flat calm, or as close to a flat calm as is possible here in Samsara. But this kind of bland vanilla-type life would be intolerable to most people. They need their unhappiness.

     Quite a lot of people identify with their unhappiness and frustration and unresolved “issues.” This is fairly obvious in some complicated female types spending much of their lives “processing” events in their distant past. Their unhappiness and their wrangling with it becomes part of their life story, their identity—and to abolish that would be almost a kind of suicide, the elimination of who they are. So many of these nice ladies spend good money going to healing retreats and grief management seminars, which, like the proverbial fat lady struggling on her diet, just reinforces much of the issue by emphasizing its existence. Another fairly obvious example of needed suffering is the person whose main field of interest is their own health issues, a subject which they share with anyone who will listen, ostensibly yearning for health but identifying as a person with health problems.

     I am not picking on females in particular here, although I do suppose that women identify with their feelings more than men do. But even we men require our pet peeves and irritations. I have been in bad moods before (generally as a monk) in which I would actually go out looking for something to bother me. “What’s that sound? It better not be So-and-So cutting wood near my cave again…” and off I’d go to confront the person and get worked up. Or something along those lines. But the important thing here is that the bad mood came first, and the reasons for it had to be found to conveniently justify it and feed it. Probably most activists operate this way also.

     I have long been of the opinion that if all the eco-communists (Greenies) and radical feminists and social justice activists and animal rights activists, et al. (or white nationalists for that matter), were to get exactly what they’ve been striving and yowling for, then they’d probably grin and celebrate and slap each others’ backs for a little while…until the sheer boredom of having things the way they wanted started to creep up on them, and their habitual desire to be dissatisfied and angry about something started to creep up on them likewise…and then they’d have to come up with some new crusade to keep them occupied and happily miserable. Some folks just can’t be happy unless they’re upset about something. Such is human nature.

     Also I may as well add that some people require strife in order to feel more alive. They are like a hand that can’t feel its own existence unless it is grappling something or striking against something. The resistance of something against which they are striving gives them sufficient stimulation to feel their own existence sufficiently to feel more or less fully alive. This, however, is a matter of insensitivity and a crude and superficial sense of identity. But we are human, and at a relatively crude level of existence, or so say Buddhist cosmological texts.

     In many respects unhappiness is like personal pride; I have met many proud people, like smug, self-important ones, bless their hearts, and it was apparent to me that the pride came first, and the justification of the pride came after. If a proud person isn’t born into a prestigious family, or isn’t rich, or isn’t much to look at, then he may be proud because of the large number of beers he can drink without puking, or the number of innocent girls he has seduced, or the size of his feet. Suffering can be like this too, as is the case with so-called First World Problems. If you can’t be unhappy because you don’t have any food, you can at least be unhappy because your steak is slightly overdone, or you toast is a bit chewy, or you didn’t get your favorite kind of cheese.

     The Burmese scholar monk Ledi Sayadaw wrote in one of his fascinatingly surreal treatises on Dhamma that, according to orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition, at the end of a world cycle the entire physical universe is destroyed, usually by fire, at which point all the conscious beings in said universe are required to be reborn into a very high heaven realm. Many renunciant meditators dedicate their lives to attaining rebirth in a heaven realm like this one…but the ants, soldiers, politicians, ghosts, housewives, actors, demons, and so on who are reborn there are BORED STIFF. They can hardly stand it. And thus when the next physical universe appears in accordance with the cyclical nature of time and all the rest, these beings bail out of this high heaven realm and dive straight into the mess that they were forced to escape. A gambling addict, for example, prefers a smoke-filled casino with flashing lights and scantily clad cocktail waitresses to a high heaven. And in general, so do we: we prefer where we are to someplace without problems, because we identify with our problems and are used to them, and without them we’d be bored to tears.

     Bearing all this in mind, I am very skeptical of any calls for utopian reforms of society. With or without them we’ll still be dissatisfied. The wiser way of going about life in this world is to adopt a certain amount of inward austerity just for starters, and accept that life entails a fair amount of unhappiness, that chronic dissatisfaction is part of the deal of worldly life. Also, and ultimately more importantly, we should cultivate mindful detachment. If we’re in a bad mood, for example, we can simply acknowledge that we are in a bad mood, possibly for no obvious reason, and then we can take suitable measures, like conscientiously not taking out our bad mood on those around us. We can see petty irritations as just that, petty irritations, and acknowledge that they are foolish and not to be taken very seriously. Seriously, all the irritation in the world won’t make it stop raining, or cause your favorite team not to have lost the championship game the day before. It may be inevitable, arising through force of habit/karma, but by watching it and not identifying with it at least one has some more or less effective way of not wallowing in it.

     Anyway, lately I’ve been finding myself running out of things to bash, like narrow-minded scriptural fundamentalism (big deal in Burma but not in the west, at least not in Buddhist circles), scientism (a big deal with some boomer western Buddhists, though that paradigm seems to be fading out even in the west), “social justice” (I’ve bashed it plenty already, from many directions, and don’t like to repeat myself too much), and so on. About the best thing to bash that I can think of is the pervasive leftist propaganda in most movies recently…so I may write about that someday…but for now I’m falling back on good old Buddhist moralizing. Enjoy. Or not, because enjoyment is just one side of the samsaric coin. Oh what the hell, be happy.


He wasn't really comfortable in Heaven anyway


  1. If you would follow your own words - you would close your blog right now and find your fulfilment in operating the forklift at the metal shop you work.

    1. I fail to see the logic in that.

    2. "This central teaching of Buddhist Dharma is completely contrary to the western superficial attitude that if we just fix all social injustices and make everyone be nice to each other, plus give everyone free healthcare and maybe some free money, then we will all be happy. The fact is that even then we wouldn’t be happy. Unhappiness comes from within, not from without." It is so hard to get people to even consider that idea, never mind to accept it. I find that many - ? most - ? nearly all - people are so bound by thought processes and the idea of wisdom through words that they cannot accept the idea that there is something beyond this, something deeper, and that is what is needed to come out os suffering. Fortunately, I came to the point just before I met Goenka that there must be something beyond the Western mind, the rational thinking mind; so I was open to something different when I began Vipassana. That openness is critical but uncommon.

    3. Outsider, good post. Also, I seem to be able to Reply to Pannobhasa (I think that's what's happening), but when I try to start a new post, I get flicked to my personal details page (which I didn't know existed).


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