The Unlikely Source of Suffering: Thinking We Can Get Away From It
The mind suffers. It’s part of being human. For thousands of years, people have tried to escape this condition. It’s 2016 and we’re still trying.
This suffering is inevitable. Denying it is like trying to remove Donald Trump – once I mention him - from your thoughts. He moves into your mental space. He might even try to fire you. My apologies.
Nevertheless, man has built edifices – religion, philosophy, entertainment, and assorted offshoots – in an effort to wall off psychological pain. Religion is perhaps the original escape from mental strife. Some faiths promise an afterlife far better than the daily grind. Others speak of an efflorescence of light at the moment of death. But the various stories don’t line up. They can’t all be right.
As our culture becomes more secular, we find new ways to escape. Technology is always within our grasp when melancholy strikes. We feel a bit lonely and soon we’re scrolling through our Facebook feed. A pang of boredom scarcely has time to register before we’re pinging Pinterest, Twitter, or Gmail.
These spaces are designed to be habit forming. In a few clicks, we can reap powerful social rewards. For example – when we get a “like” on Facebook, we feel accepted by the tribe, and a shot of dopamine is released. Before long, we come to rely on these activities as therapy.
Instead of facing our problems in the present, we opt for the quick fix. We mask the symptoms while the disease remains untouched. With the requisite internet connection, we think we can keep our darker sides at bay – if we can simply distract ourselves for long enough. This is a dangerous misconception to maintain.
“The understanding we have of things leads to the way we think about things,” begins meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “The way we think about things lead to the actions which we do. Actions have powerful effects. But very often we don’t reflect, we don’t investigate, our basic underlying assumptions. […] Is what we believe really true?”
Let’s reflect for a moment. We think that mental suffering can be relieved through a variety of escapes – religion, technology, and all the rest. But is this healthy for the mind? Or does this thinking lead to more problems?
When we feel sad or lonely, this belief leads to certain thoughts. Maybe I should watch a movie and cheer up. The thought leads to action – we fire up YouTube. Then we are rewarded with a temporary burst of brain chemicals. The habit is reinforced.
As a result, we now need electronic stimulation to break out of a bad mood. And it’s easy to come by. With our smartphones always within reach, our lives become one distraction after another. We never face our actual problems. The feelings of unease – the moods we work so hard to tamp down - become ever harder to quell without an onslaught of digitized media.
Yet I can see the positive side of technology. My writing career, for one, depends on it. The social media outlets I’ve been ranting about – Twitter, Facebook, and others - are vital for spreading my work. But I’m not just click bait, I hope. I feel like I’m one of the good guys here.
Journalistic ethics aside, sometimes I need a break. Last summer, in fact, I unplugged for a week in the Adirondacks. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it gave me a chance to see how my mind operates offline. I stopped trying to avoid my “real world” experience. My mind settled down. It’s ironic, right? The mind suffers most when it tries to escape suffering.
I’m aware this is a slippery concept. The more we try and distract ourselves from suffering, the more we suffer. The escaping is the problem, not the emotions.
“The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts. “But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by this inner effort to get away from it.”
We suffer because we try to escape our inner pain. Each time we push it away, it comes back twice as strong. Understanding the source of the suffering - and giving our brains the chance to adapt to real emotion - is the first step toward a more tranquil mind.
We can end the cycle. Not after we check Facebook, but right now.
Goldstein, Joseph. “Understanding Comes First.” Dharma Talk. Dec 2 1990.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Pantheon, 1951. Print.