Did you ever wonder: why is suffering such an integral aspect of human existence? Where is this suffering coming from? What is triggering it? And can we do anything about it?
The Endless Cycle of The Mind
We could come up with endless examples of what our mind tells us as reasons for why we suffer. Mostly there is something in our life, or in ourselves, that does not seem perfect. Something that holds us back from feeling we are deeply fulfilled right at this moment. If this one thing changed, then everything would be okay. If this one phase or this one challenge was over, then we could finally arrive and be content.
Though, looking back on our lives, did we ever keep this sense of fulfillment long after we fixed our problems? Or did our minds just come up with another issue to resolve, another imaginary point to get to, where we finally might find the contentment we seek?
If we are honest with ourselves, we might feel that we somehow never fully arrive, are never fully content with where or who we are. Instead, our mind will always find something that needs to be changed. Continuously telling itself that afterwards, it might finally rest. But then, as soon as we are there, it starts chasing again. Rejecting what is. Striving towards something that is not present right now. Always tricking itself and repeatedly coming up with new problems to solve, no matter how many previous goals we have already achieved.
Since we all have different lives, different psyches, and different problems, we also might experience this dynamic in very different ways. Yet, this investigation is not about the details of how exactly it could play out in all its various forms, but about pointing towards a fundamental mechanism of the mind that can be present in every situation.
Can you identify this vicious cycle within yourself?
The True Source of Our Suffering
If we want to get to the bottom of this inquiry, a radical shift of perspective is necessary. What if the real reason for our suffering is not our life circumstance or individual predisposition, but only our mind that never fully accepts them?
Can you see how we always resist the present moment to a certain degree, while subconsciously hoping that it somehow might be better in the future? But then, we still find something else to reject. Another problem to fix.
Some might wonder how the mind can be the only one at fault here when there are indeed all these painful aspects in life, which seem so severe and significant. However, the paradigm shift is to see that even when there is a painful situation, it is not the situation in itself, but our internal resistance against it, that makes us suffer. So, for example – when we have self-doubts about our looks, it is not our looks that create the suffering, but our own negative thoughts about it. The dynamic in play might be obvious with this example, which does not involve any actual bodily pain, yet the same also applies to every other situation.
To fully understand this point, it is essential to consider: are pain and suffering the same, or is there a difference between the two? And if so, is it possible to have one without the other?
The Difference Between Pain and Suffering
Pain is an inevitable experience. A sensation in the body. A signal sent to tell us there is something we need to take care of.
It could be that we slip, fall, and hurt ourselves. Or it could be a chronic back pain or headache. Or a pain that arises in moments when nothing even happened to us on a physical level. For example, we get lost in negative thoughts and emotionally react to them – a sensation that is purely triggered by our minds.
Suffering, on the other hand, is only created when we resist this pain. We might react to it, get lost in a negative thought spiral, and victimize ourselves. We just want it to stop and start to worry about the future, wonder how long it will last. Instead of accepting this unavoidable experience, we reject it and unnecessarily make it even harder for ourselves.
Since we cannot change our bodily sensations, the only way to deal with painful circumstances is to focus solely on the suffering created by our own internal resistance that we can indeed have an impact on.
Yet, it is not about dismissing pain as an integral aspect of life or to deny the challenges we all have to face, but about re-evaluating our relationship to them. Re-evaluating how our thoughts play a part in the way we experience that.
The Nature of Thought
To get a better understanding of the relationship between thoughts and suffering, we should ask ourselves more fundamental questions first: What are thoughts? What is their purpose? Where are they coming from and who is creating them? Are they always true? Can we control them? Are they necessary, or could we also function without thinking all the time?
It can be mind-blowing to realize that our thoughts are continually accompanying us. We are almost nonstop thinking about something. However, we still know little about their nature. Even from a scientific standpoint, it is difficult to fully apprehend their essence, as it is for other intangible, first-person experiences, like dreams.
Although we cannot rationally or scientifically grasp what thoughts are, they still have inherent characteristics and dynamics that we can observe within ourselves.
One of those characteristics is their magnetic nature. As soon as we think about something, the constant stream of newly produced thoughts grabs our attention and pulls us in like a vortex. It can be challenging to create enough distance from the stories our mind creates in order to examine them more closely, without any bias. Usually, we are too caught up in our imaginary worlds to investigate their true nature. That is one of the main reasons for our lack of more profound self-awareness.
Another typical dynamic of the mind is that it mostly holds all thoughts as true, as our reality. Our self-created projections and interpretations merge with our actual perception, making them indistinguishable from one another. As if the mind was putting an invisible filter on our experience, without us noticing it. This is one of the fundamental causes of why we often perceive our life through the lens of negativity and thus create suffering for ourselves. One example of this dynamic could be that when we have a rough day, we sometimes project bad intentions onto other people’s behavior, without even being aware of it at this moment. Although in the end, we might find out that this was purely our own interpretation and had nothing to do with their actual motive.
Most thoughts also claim to be necessary. Although, if we look closely and are honest with ourselves, we might discover that the majority of them add little value to our lives, but instead are often useless or even destructive. Going back and forth between unnecessary worries, anxious anticipations, imaginary worlds, and repetitive judgments about the past or the future. Only creating even more problems instead of any real solution, any actual growth, or any genuine fulfillment in our life.
These are only a few examples that barely scratch the surface of the depth of this topic. Yet, they can already show us why it is so essential to not just blindly go with whatever our mind is telling us, but to question ourselves, and to seriously consider that there is more to discover.
The Relationship Between Thoughts and Emotions
Sometimes it might also seem as if we suffer, although we do not have any specific thoughts. We just feel bad. So we might think that at this moment, our emotions are the trigger for our suffering, and not our thoughts. But is it true?
The relationship between thoughts, emotions, and suffering is deeply complex due to the many unconscious dynamics that happen in the background. It requires an in-depth inquiry to fully understand how they interact with each other.
Because of the complexity of this topic, I will elaborate on this relationship and emotions themselves in more detail in a separate blog post. For now, it is enough to consider the possibility that emotions might also be closely connected to, or even triggered by, our thoughts. This does not mean that both have to happen at the same moment. The thoughts you had in the past can also influence the emotions you will have in the future. So although we might have nothing on our minds while we feel bad, our emotions are still not necessarily the actual source of our suffering but could instead also be caused by previous or unconscious thoughts. This would show again what the root of the problem really is.
Experience Without Thoughts
After investigating the consequences of an unconscious relationship with our mind, it can be eye-opening to also examine the other end of the spectrum. So how would it be to experience a moment with no thoughts?
Everyone knows this feeling when we are awestruck by the beauty of the moment – while seeing a magnificent sunset with our partner, while watching the stars in the sky during a warm summer night, or while dancing to our favorite song at a party. This moment when suddenly everything feels perfect as it is. When we merge with whatever we see, hear, or do. For a moment, we forget about all our problems. And instead of being lost in thoughts, worrying about the past or the future, we are fully present, here and now. Experiencing genuine joy.
It is this state we often try to artificially induce – for example, through alcohol or other drugs. Through listening to music or watching a movie. Or any other activity that temporarily reduces the number of thoughts we have.
This is the perfect reference experience for how we can feel when our mind is quiet. When we stop resisting and accept whatever arises. When we get out of our thoughts and into our bodies, our senses, our awareness of what is actually happening around us.
This is where the magic of life happens.
The Next Step
The approach presented in this blog post is not about antagonizing thoughts or about completely getting rid of them forever. But about realizing how most of the time, we waste our potential through unconsciously following and believing every single imaginary story that comes up. Instead of using the mind as a powerful tool that is serving us rather than ruling over us.
Though, in all the moments in which we are not able to go beyond this self-created suffering, it is important to remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This approach is not meant to create more judgements and thus even more suffering, but only to reveal an opportunity for improvement – something that gives hope and that rebuilds the trust we have in our own potential.
In the end, there is still one question that remains: do we even have the ability to affect these dynamics of the mind and influence what we think – or is it outside of our control?
But that is a topic for another time. This investigation only aims to raise awareness of the possibility that it might indeed be our thoughts that are the primary source of suffering. Instead of the circumstances or individual predispositions that we usually blame. Because this awareness is the basis for a more in-depth exploration in the future.
And now, I invite you to validate that for yourself. Go deeper into this inquiry and develop your own understanding. Do not only believe me but ask yourself all the questions I raised and find out what is right for you.
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