The cause of sufferingI found myself entangled in an immense amount of suffering the other day. The cause, on a surface glance, was the current political climate, all the people around me, and ways I had fallen short of my own expectations. The true cause, upon deeper reflection, were actually my thoughts and judgments about these situations — judgments against other people, against life, against myself. They were coming fast and hard and were often perceptive, witty, and convincing. I felt justified, wronged, hurt, and better then in regards to what or who I was judging and also shameful and guilty about the ways I was judging myself.

I have found that it is only when I believe these thoughts of judgment that I suffer. Our mind has this tricky thing referred to as the ego, not the ego as commonly discussed in psychology but the ego as referred to in spiritual circles. It is the “thinker” within our brain, the monkey mind that labels and judges and, when left unexamined, creates almost all the suffering that we experience. The ego is what creates a separation from our true selves, the part of us that is simply love and peace. This separation makes us believe in “not enough” resources, in us vs. them, in loss that we must protect against at all costs. The ego makes us feel better or less than other people. It convinces us that fear is real, not love. In religious circles, this may be referred to as “the devil” or “the adversary,” and if this is truth, my experience is that it resides right between my two ears.

Between my own two ears is probably the worst place it could be and also the best. When all my suffering is something that resides inside of my own head, that means I can do something about it. Here’s a truth I have discovered as I’ve walked my path: Life is life, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about that. Life will do what life does, which includes a large dose of highly challenging situations. It is when we believe that circumstances should be anything other than this that we create suffering.

I have also learned that this existence is all about choice, and the biggest choice we may ever make is choosing whether to believe in fear or love. We cannot serve two masters, and when we choose to believe in fear, we are choosing to believe in ego, and in my experience, that always inevitably leads to suffering.

So what can we do? This is where a meditation practice may come in handy. And when I say that, I do not mean go sit on a cushion and attempt to attain peace, although this process can be done while sitting. What I suggest instead is to start bringing gentle awareness to your thoughts as you go about your daily life. Become aware of how your thoughts are tied to your emotions and also your breathing. Bring awareness into what emotions you feel after thinking certain thoughts, how it makes you feel inside your body, and how your breathing may constrict in response to this. This process becomes a constant mediation of awareness and presence. As Socrates stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would take that a step further and claim that the unexamined mind, which can create Hell on earth, is that which makes life not worth living.

Begin taking a fearless and thorough inventory of your thoughts that contain judgment or fear. Putting your thoughts on paper alone can be immensely liberating. It takes away the power of the ego by getting the thoughts outside of us, physically and energetically. It can also be immensely liberating to burn these thoughts in a safe manner to really let them go. Once we put our fears or judgments on paper, we get to see the ego creating separation and suffering, and we are suddenly opening up the doorway to make a choice. As Louise Hay states, “It is only a thought, and a thought can be changed.” We suddenly have the opportunity to choose to view reality from a perspective of love vs. the perspective of fear.

What would happen to this world if we went around making friends not only with our thoughts but also with life itself? Instead of creating an enemy — be it an opposing political party, a person who bothers you, or even through judgment towards yourself — you can build a bridge instead of creating walls. When we believe our thoughts that create separation, we are the ones building walls within our minds that make peace an impossibility and create even more suffering.

Another practice I like to try out is asking myself, “If I made the choice not to believe this thought, how would I feel?” Picture yourself when you are believing those judgmental or fear-based thoughts. How do you react? How do you treat the other person, situation, or yourself? Is it kind? Is it loving? Are you in acceptance, or are you resisting and closed off?

Even something as simple as the rain or snow offers us an opportunity to practice. Recently, I was up in Washington where they had the worst continuous snow storm in decades. Everyone was running around saying, “I hate the snow! The snow is so horrible!” The snow made things more inconvenient — this was indeed the reality — but like I mentioned earlier, life is life. So I chose to not believe the thought “the snow is horrible.” And while I still had to work harder because of the snow, I wasn’t angry at it. I wasn’t resisting reality. In fact, I found myself looking at it more often with a sense of awe and beauty. Acceptance does not mean not taking action, it simply means that I choose peace while I take the necessary action. This is a very simple and profound example of how choosing not to believe the judgment and accept reality created an added sense of awe, appreciation, and beauty to my experience while still engaging in the needed action steps.

I often ask myself how I can make a difference in this world. I have now come to the conclusion that I change the world by first changing myself. As Mahatma Gandhi has said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wish the world to be peaceful and loving, which means I must be that change first within myself. And when I choose to listen to the voice of love instead of the voice of ego and suffering, I am practicing what I desire.

When I choose peace and love instead of judgment and fear, I find myself taking more inspired action. I run into random people, and we have the most profound conversations. My body is no longer tense and in physical pain, giving me more energy to serve. When I do serve or take action, it is not to “fight what is wrong” but instead is a positive action step in creating what I want. By making the choice to become aware of the causes of my own suffering, I am suddenly free to make a choice based on love. And when all my choices are based in love, everything I do ends up benefiting all of humanity, and I am finally making the difference I always knew I was meant to make.

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