The oft-quoted, “Happiness comes from within,” makes for some great refrigerator art, but what does it actually mean, and how does one actually experience it?
In this article, I will delve into some core Buddhist teachings. While you read, I invite you to pay particular attention to any personal connections that arise. So perhaps these Buddhist teachings can mean more than cliched quotes on a dorm-room picture frame.
LIFE IS SUFFERING, REALLY?
Buddhism is often mistakenly pegged as a dull, pessimistic religion, as if the ideal practitioner is some lifeless being who has lost all desire.
I feel a big reason for this is that many get stuck on the translation of the Buddha’s first noble truth : Life is suffering.
Clearly, that’s not an uplifting axiom, but I feel a better way to read it is, Life INCLUDES suffering.
To understand this further, we need to know what suffering means. The translation of the Pali word, “dukkha,” as “suffering” is also commonly misunderstood.
Personally, I often use the word, struggle. Other translations include unsatisfactoriness, discomfort, difficulty, unease, and so on.
Really, dukkha is pointing to any experience we would rather not have, the experience of wanting right now to be different than it is. So, it can really be any undesired experience, from a cold room…to disappointment with the weather…to heartbreak…to learning of a cancer diagnosis. So, perhaps life isn’t itself suffering, but that life INCLUDES suffering, along with its many other layers of dissatisfaction, discomfort, struggle, and anguish.
WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF SUFFERING?
Another common misunderstanding includes the Buddha’s second noble truth: Desire is the cause of suffering.
Perhaps on the surface it makes sense: Desire is the cause of suffering? Of course, I can never be let down or be denied something if there is nothing to want in the first place.
However, sit doing nothing for any period of time and you should learn very quickly: we cannot rid ourselves of desire. I am hungry…I desire a meal. I am tense…I desire a beer. I am horny…I desire sexual pleasure. There is nothing inherently wrong with these desires. The issue arises when the desire morphs into something stronger, into a kind of clinging or craving.
Take for instance the following example.
The thought pattern, I am lonely, and I won’t be happy until I meet someone, is a form of craving. It is longing for a particular outcome that goes beyond simply wanting. However, experiencing loneliness AND wanting a partner is not an absolute formula for suffering.
The relentless conviction that a romantic partner IS what will finally make me happy is an example of hedonic pleasure because we are relying on the “getting of something” to make us happy.
Although, the law of impermanence (Anicca) reminds us that nothing lasts, and so this mindset always leads to disappointment. Such fulfilled desire will only temporarily satisfy, inevitably producing another desire awaiting to be satisfied.
Therein lies the cause of suffering: demanding that this moment be different than it is; the demand that I cannot be happy in this moment until something changes, until something is added or subtracted from my present moment experience! The cause of suffering is – as a wise meditation master once wrote – wanting their to be another now. In other words, clinging to an experience other than the present one.
THE 3 POISONS IN BUDDHISM MAKE YOU UNHAPPY
Mindfulness teaches us that we are whole the way we are, that nothing necessarily has to change “out there” to experience contentment right now. But it seems we are perpetually wanting another now, always trying to feel better.
This experience of dukkha is the result of getting caught in one of three habitual responses: greed, hatred, or delusion, or what Buddhism calls, “the three poisons.”
When we cannot handle an experience or choose not to accept an experience, one or more if these are likely present.
Becoming caught in passion, anger, or ignorance (another traditional translation of the three poisons) reinforces the fixed ego, thus limiting a kind of open-mindedness and flexibility we can possess from moment-to-moment.
Buddhist psychologist, John Welwood, translates the 3 poisons into present progressive verb forms: grasping, rejecting, and desensitizing. I quite like these as they emphasize the present moment as an action, as flowing movement that arises and passes, something that is happening as opposed to something that just is. A bit more cut and dry, here’s a further look into the 3 poisons.
1. MAYBE YOU’RE UNHAPPY BECAUSE OF GREED/PASSION/GRASPING
Two ways of thinking about this is wanting an experience to be different, or clinging to an experience with hopes of prolonging it. A sense of ease is likely not present if we are so tightly fixed, so tightly grasping for things to be different. But it is this longing that takes us out of the moment, which attention to the present moment seems to be closely linked to happiness, as it has shown with results from experience sampling as a way to most accurately investigate real-time emotion.
If our impulse is to buy something new as soon as we get paid. Perhaps we can stop and think…What’s really happening here? Am I not content enough in this moment right now that I have to act on a habitual pattern just so I can buy some new wireless headphones because my old ones have a stain on them?
2.MAYBE YOU’RE UNHAPPY BECAUSE OF
On the other side of the coin from grasping, we have rejecting, or actively trying to avoid or withdraw from experience. And so a similar chase for trying to control our experience ensues. Rejecting, or avoidance, is often a way to hide from or ignore parts of our life. Whether it is suppressing a feeling of sadness by distracting ourselves with social media or it is the desire to get off the phone with a talkative family member, this avoidance does not give us an opportunity to learn from our experience. Yes, many experiences should be avoided for the sake of safety or to prevent triggering past traumatic events. But my guess is that most of us are avoiding experiences that we actually can handle, yet simply choose not to.
If our habitual pattern is to sneak out the backdoor after work because co-workers will try to drag us to happy hour, we can instead pause and become curious. Maybe I don’t have to go to happy hour, but I don’t have to go out the backdoor. Even socializing for a few minutes after work can feel uplifting in itself. This kind of mindful pause, at the least, turns the knob to a door of other possibilities, including the possibility that we don’t always have to do what we’ve always done.
3.MAYBE YOU’RE UNHAPPY BECAUSE OF IGNORANCE/DELUSION/DESENSITIZING
This one might seem a little less straightforward, but essentially it states that we are not seeing things clearly, and so we are ignorant to what is actually happening. How many times have you been angry only to feel better once you received a bit more information about what was going on?
Another aspect to this poison is not just not knowing, but thinking we know more than we actually do.
We might be ignorant of particular details in the moment, or we may think that we know everything about what’s happening in this moment (including thinking we can sum up everything there is to know about a person). Either way it our NOT KNOWING we are seeing unclearly that gives rise to suffering.
Consider the following example: I’m so sure that my friend, Mike, hates me. I see it just in the way he looks at me and how he doesn’t use emojis or exclamation points in his text messages. Again, this is thinking we know more than we actually do. There is a kind of liberation when we can wholeheartedly state that we don’t know. This could reveal more opportunities to then engage in a thoughtful dialogue with Mike about the relationship between his emotions and his banal texting style.
MINDFULNESS “RE-SENSITIZES” US TO OUR LIFE
Ethan Nichtern in his book The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path wrote this about the 3 poisons.
“If we can familiarize ourselves with how these defensive strategies feel, we discover a doorway to our deep-seeded patterns of confusion. The important thing…is to get to the level of awareness, through meditation and reflection, where we can actually begin to feel these reactions as they arise, and slowly over time develop the wisdom to know what to do when they come about.”
Mindfulness meditation allows us to “re-sensitize” to our experience, thus opening us up to genuine curiosity, often a prerequisite for compassion. This reconnects us to the colors, textures, and “all the feels” of the moment so we can really see what’s happening, not our projected thoughts of what we think is happening.
So, there you have it! My humble, caffeine-driven snapshot of the first two of the Buddha’s four noble truths, and the three poisons.
Of course, I feel the knowledge of these concepts are important, but it is best to experience them for yourself, and see if it aligns or goes against these ancient teachings. Also, please bear in mind that the key to developing the ability to notice any of the three poisons arising in awareness is through the practice of meditation. This practice should at least make it easier to notice them. I suppose they are called poisons for a reason, as it is our unawareness of them that can eventually lead to our demise. (dun Dun DUN!!!)
R.J. is a former elementary school teacher turned mindfulness coach. He works 1:1 with school teachers wanting to learn mindfulness meditation to relieve stress and anxiety. He is based in Seattle, WA, but also meets with clients via video chat. If you’d like to get started building your own meditation practice, visit R.J. at Mindful Moments