“The mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” — John Milton
Understanding why we cause ourselves to suffer is the first step in learning to let go and be free of our attachments. Anthony Robbins, in his book, Unlimited Power, says that everything we do in life comes from our need to avoid pain and our desire to gain pleasure. We will do far more to avoid pain then we will to gain pleasure. Pain is the great motivator. And yet if pleasure and happiness is what we all are looking for why do we cause ourselves so much suffering?
Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron in her book The Places That Scare You describes how we suffer due to three misunderstandings:
1. We expect that which is always changing to be predictable. Even though we can see that life is constantly shifting, we continue to live our lives thinking that nothing will change. We demand a sense of security in our lives and so we attach to the illusion of permanence in an impermanent world.
2. We go about our lives thinking we are separate from everything with a fixed ego identity. Life is all about me, myself, and I. Whether we are building ourselves up to be something special or knocking ourselves down with self-criticism, the center of our universe is the irrefutable ego-driven self.
3. We look for happiness in situations that cause suffering. We take many actions that provide a temporary relief from our afflicted emotions, but then they turn around and whack us upside the head. For example, alcohol and drugs dull the reality of your life, but then shift you right back into an even greater pain. Shopaholics have the distraction of buying things to fill the emptiness, but then are faced with the bills to pay.
Food, drink, drugs, adventure, sex, and entertainment can be a whole lot of fun, but in the end they can cause pain and suffering. Buddhist teachings tell us that these distractions keep us from bypassing the controlling ego and finding our true Self. Nonetheless, they are as much a part of the path toward liberation as restraint, compassion, moral conduct, and kindness. Every step you take is your path—all the difficulties as well as those moments of happiness. Our petty tyrants and challenging situations are the lessons we meet on our spiritual journey, in order to learn compassion and loving-kindness. When life becomes difficult, we have to do something to ease the discomfort.
We are constantly trying to stabilize ourselves on a ship that is being tossed around in a storm at sea. Rather than go with the flow, we try to make life predictable, which feels safe. I remember seeing a cartoon that summed up for me how unpredictable life can be. It was a picture of the corner of a brick building. Coming from the right is a peanut vendor, with his tray of peanuts hanging from his neck as he calls out, “Peanuts for sale.” To the left, pressed up against the side of the building, lying in wait, is an elephant.
You never know what is waiting around the corner, but you can be sure that it will be something you didn’t expect or plan for.