The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: suffering

Avoiding Added Emotional Suffering (Buddha’s Second Arrow)

When I say in this post to imagine something stop and imagine it, or you won’t get the necessary effect.

First, imagine falling. You catch yourself on your hands, you’re not seriously injured, but your hands are abraded and you’ve wrenched a muscle in you back.

Next. Imagine that you fell unavoidably: there was a small bit of ice, but you were walking carefully and there’s nothing you could have done.

Third: imagine that you were careless. There was an obvious piece of ice, you weren’t paying attention, and you knew there could be ice. Feel this.

Fourth: imagine that you feel on a walkway that someone should have cleared (it’s usually the law in places with a lot of snow and ice.) You were careful, but still fell. Feel this.

Fifth: imagine you feel because someone deliberately tripped you. Feel this.

If you’re a normal person and you took the time to actually feel, these felt different. Either number three (carelessness) or number five (someone tripping you), feels worst: you’re angry at yourself or someone else.

But even with the first one: it just happened and no one is responsible, you may be upset: it’s not just the pain you’re feeling, but your upset.

This anger, upset, hatred, sadness, etc… is what Buddha called the second arrow.

There is pain and nauseau and itching and so on. They feel bad. But unless you’ve got drugs or advanced meditative skills, they just happen, and there’s not much you can do about them.

Everything else is added by your emotional reaction. That’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s the stuff that’s (relatively) easier to control or choose.

Different people have different ways of doing this, but the first concept is simple enough “adding a negative emotion doesn’t help the situation, and it makes me feel worse.”

As someone who spent a lot of time beating themselves up for mistakes or not living up to my ideal self, I eventually realized that not only did it make me feel bad, it didn’t drive long term changes in behaviour. It had no benefit.

As for getting angry at other people, my experience, as someone who spent years and years not just angry, but enraged (long term readers will know I speak the truth), is that it didn’t help the situation, and it made me miserable (and eventually had negative health effects.)

As Mark Twain said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

This doesn’t mean you have to forgive them, though sometimes that brings relief. It doesn’t mean you can’t take the person who didn’t clear the sidewalk to task, even to the police or court. You don’t need to be angry or to hate to act.

Which leads to a point I’ve made before: a lot of our emotions happen because we believe we ought to feel them. We ought to be sad, or angry or hate or love or be sympathetic. (Forcing yourself to feel positive emotions rarely works well, though learning to bring love or happiness or relaxation up is useful.)

If you think you should have an emotion, you probably will and if you don’t, you’ll feel bad because you aren’t being the person you think you should be. So kill the idea that you must feel certain emotions in certain circumstances.

You do this, in my experience, by carefully examining the question “does this emotion help and is it worth it?” Examine it now, and examine it next time you get upset.

If the answer to either question is “no”, stop believing you should have the emotion.

This is as true for simple things like dropping a plate on the floor. It’s done, and being upset makes the situation worse. Sometimes a display of remorse is necessary socially, but in my experience a rueful laugh and apology works fine with anyone who isn’t an asshole.

The second arrow is the low lying fruit. And remember, people who deliberately fuck with you usually want an emotional reaction from  you. They like it when you get angry or upset.

So don’t. If you need to hit them or otherwise retaliate to make a point, do. But don’t bother with the anger or upset: you’re just giving them what they want. They love your anger, especially if you don’t do anything: your powerless rage makes them feel strong and in control.

Give your enemies nothing but hell. Never let them see you sweat. And as for the internal censor who think you should be upset and miserable, dump that guy.

And when you forget or fail, that’s when you forgive–yourself. Just try and remember next time.


Are We Doomed to Live In Hell?

I was in my 20s when I learned that the human body is capable of experiencing far more pain than pleasure, for far longer periods. I spent three months in the hospital, days screaming, weeks in pain, throwing up multiple times a day, crippled, and unable to move.

Recovery took years, and for months at a time I was in pain, near-crippled. The simplest movement would often occasion agonizing pain.

Earth isn’t hell, precisely. That’s a misunderstanding.

It is the human body, the vehicle through which we experience Earth, which makes this world Hell.

This isn’t to say pleasure and happiness and all the good stuff isn’t real, it surely is, but it is a pale shadow of the suffering that the human body can impose upon its resident consciousness.

People will say things like, “Pain exists to let you know there’s a problem,” but that’s a very partial explanation, so partial it’s wrong; you can experience pain so severe it is crippling, rendering it impossible to do anything to reduce the pain or address the underlying problem. If pain were strictly utilitarian, it would cut out far below, “Scream until you’re hoarse and don’t move at all.”

The human condition is, thus, biased towards evil. We have much more capacity to suffer than we do to experience pleasure and the pain we can experience is far greater than any possible justification.

There are those who take advantage of this. Civilization was built on it: The cruelties that various kings and governments have imposed, the tortures, are legendary. Civilization “domesticated” humans, but what is meant by that is similar to what we mean when we say we broke a horse. A small group of humans banded together, formed strong ties to each other, and then used unimaginable cruelty to force everyone else to do what they said, or else.

And they meant the “or else.”

(Christopher Columbus, having dogs chew the intestines of still-alive natives who didn’t bring him enough gold is the sort of thing we’re talking about. Or the Tudor habit of burning people’s intestines while they were still alive, and watching. Or various Chinese routine judicial punishment tortures.)

The human body has much more ability to experience hell than heaven, and some humans have taken advantage of that to rule in Hell, over the rest of us, using the most fiendish evil imaginable. If there is somewhat less of this today than thousands or hundreds of years ago it is only because, like a wild horse who now “willingly” carries a human on its back, we, too, have been domesticated; broken.

Our entire society, though more subtle than, “burn their intestines while they’re alive,” is based on nothing more or less than the fear of dying in poverty or homeless if one doesn’t do whatever various bosses (masters) tell us to do. This is, in the first world, nowhere more true than the heart of our modern civilization, the United States, with its record-setting incarceration rates and routine police theft, violence, and brutality — even as homeless people’s tents are destroyed.

This is, however, a choice. Oh, we (probably) don’t choose to live in human bodies. But how we treat each other, and what we tolerate from our elites, well, that’s a choice. The human body can experience good, and even a lot of it, if we organized our society around that instead of using terror to break entire civilizations.

The human body means that Hell is easier to experience here than Heaven is.

But both are our within our grasp, we have simply chosen the easy path.

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The Subtle Art of Letting Go of Suffering

Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

As regular readers know, I’ve been meditating fairly seriously for years. (Primer on concentration meditation.)

About a week ago, I found I was able to dismiss a minor pain. It was a long term pain, due to a slightly rotated hip. I expanded my awareness, then put my attention on the pain, and thought “I don’t need to feel this” in a dispassionate way. The pain went away.

(Recently I had a more serious pain, and was unable to dismiss it, so, yeah, the method’s not reliable yet.)

But I got to thinking about what makes suffering go away–whether it’s physical pain, emotional, or an ugly thought, or whatever.

There’s a lot of talk in self-help and spiritual circles about surrender and acceptance and all that, and it usually makes me nauseous. Bad situations are bad situations.

But the core problem with these words are the connotations: They suggest that you become a potato and just accept the status quo, whatever it is.

That isn’t necessary. What does seem to be necessary is letting your brain know, “This isn’t important.”

When you try to push something away emotionally, your brain interprets that as, “This is still important, I should keep bringing it up.”

So if you’re in physical pain, and it bothers you emotionally that you are, the brain keeps shoving the pain into consciousness.

If you’re sad, or angry, and in addition to the primary sadness or anger, you are also upset that you’re sad or angry. Thus, the brain interprets that as, “This is still important, I should keep harping on this till it’s resolved!”

This can get meta, fast, when you’re dealing with emotions. Don’t get angry that you’re angry, and so on.

When you just let whatever is coming up, come up, without adding anything to it (either pushing it away or pulling it towards you) the brain gets the message “This doesn’t matter,” and brings it up less often, and less intensely over time.

You can push this along by “diving in” to whatever it is. Moving your attention directly into the sensation, whether it’s pain, anger, sadness, or anything else. If, at the same time, you can keep your awareness “wide,” including as much of the rest of your body and world as possible, it also makes whatever it is seem small–just a small part of awareness, and not the whole of the world.

Then, just add a hint of intentionality: “This isn’t important/this doesn’t matter.”

And see what happens.

Doing this requires equanimity: an ability to not be upset that you’re upset, an ability to look at anything without getting into a spiral of resistance.

This is hard because we believe the world ought to be a certain way, and we get offended when it isn’t. But the world is as it is, and we need to see it as it is.

Again, this doesn’t mean being a potato: You can have preferences. But if you push hard emotionally, you’re telling your mind that the problem is not resolved. And it will keeping bringing it up until you don’t care (Which may be never).

This is best practiced like any type of exercise: Start small. If your mother whipped you with a wet noodle and you’ve a lifelong terror of noodles that keeps you out of the pasta aisle, then stay out of the pasta aisle and start with something else, something small.

Equanimity is a mental muscle, and it needs to be built up. Especially if you’ve never used it, trying to start with your greatest fear or the personality trait you hate most is just setting yourself up for failure, like expecting to be able to do pullups if you’ve never been to the gym, or run a five-minute mile if you’ve never run.

Look at what is, as it is, without pushing or pulling it. Have a reasoned preference for it to go away. Repeat over time. See what happens.

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