The Dalai Lama and the suffering of change, conditioning, and suffering [65]

In Cultural Commentaryby Dr. Keith Witt

363px-Dalai_Lama_1430_Luca_Galuzzi_2007cropThe Dalai Lama gave a lecture at UCSB in 2009, and it was quite the occasion. He had a cold, but talked joyfully in heavily accented English to 5,000 attentive participants including me, Becky, and a bunch of our friends. His energy was typically wise, childlike, innocent, and beautiful. With this guy you always seem to feel a transmission of pure spirit. The first part of the day was a slide show of his extraordinary life from random peasant kid, to the chosen incarnation of the Dalai Lama, to aspiring young scientist in a secluded mountaintop monastery, to refugee from fascist invaders, to spokesperson for Tibetan freedom and world peace. When he finally made it onto the stage, a little under the weather from his cold, but opening fully to all of us in the hall, he taught about suffering and liberation. His Holiness said there are three kinds of suffering:
  • The suffering of change—pain in random movement through life dealing with one situation after another. The suffering of suffering—where we agonize over having to deal with pain–you know, “Why me Lord?!”. The suffering of conditioning—bad habits experiencing ourselves and the world with distress rather than joy and gratitude.
The suffering of change comes with being alive. The suffering of change is unavoidable. If you get a headache, your head hurts. If the guy in the next car honks and flips you off, you’re instantly angry (though how long you stay angry is a matter of choice and conditioning). If your wife gets the flu, you worry about her health. The suffering of change reflects a central tenet of Buddhism, “Life is suffering,”—though I prefer the more accurate and relaxed translation, “Life is like a squeaky oxcart wheel.” The suffering of suffering and the suffering of conditioning involve choice. In contrast to the suffering of change, the suffering of suffering and the suffering of conditioning are much more optional. The suffering of suffering can vary wildly. I don’t have to agonize over the dented car or Becky or me catching the flu. I can accept the hits, deal with them, and move on to enjoying my day. Paradoxically, as I choose to fully accept inevitable discomfort, I am much less injured by inevitable discomfort. The suffering of conditioning is immensely influenced by how we habitually process distress:
  • We don’t have to indulge habits of anxiety and worrying about the future.
  • We don’t have to suffer guilt and shame regretting the past.
  • We don’t have to inflame our anger feeding ourselves hostile stories.
  • We don’t have to surrender to sadness and yearning what has been lost or might be lost.
Instead, we can cultivate new habits of acceptance, presence, and gratitude for the present moment, and move on to whatever adventures life brings. Transforming the suffering of suffering and the suffering of conditioning involves embracing the suffering of change. Shit happens, and luck research tells us that the optimal way to deal with setbacks is to turn lemons into lemonade–to create some good from stinky situations by accepting them and turning them into opportunities for growth and love. We’re happiest when we gratefully receive the many blessings each day delivers. Change is suffering. Almost all change is stressful. Hans Selye, the father of stress research, defined stress as any change, either positive or negative–change apparently shocks our nervous systems with newness that might involve threat. Of course, often the shock of newness is temporary—like diving into cold water—and when met with resolved acceptance can reduce pain and speed growth. You get a letter from the IRS saying you owe an extra $5,000 on your taxes, and it feels horrible. “Oh no! Where am I going to get $5,000? Why me? I can’t stand this!” But you call up whoever helps you with taxes and start dealing with the situation. Before you know it, this is just another aspect of your life that is moving forward, like maintaining your car, paying bills, and visiting Aunt Evelyn’s next month even though she always criticizes your outfit and talks incessantly about people you don’t know. Understand and accept. Deeper understanding relaxes and soothes us. Understanding, accepting, and delighting in deeper truths all ameliorate suffering of change moments. Why? Because insight releases the pleasure chemical dopamine into our brains–evolution favors new knowledge. The coolest part of this is that progressive new knowledge guides us towards the ultimate insight of unity with everything–into enlightenment, Samadhi, and stable second tier consciousness. Default brains. Neuroscience has demonstrated how our brains have default settings– states brains activate when there’s nothing else to do. You’re cooking breakfast and thinking about whether you look fat in your red dress. Worrying about looking fat is a default setting of your brain! We can change default settings from habitual worry or anger to habitual gratitude and joy just by practicing gratitude and joy states regularly enough that our brains eventually turn them into new–much more fun–default settings. Most prayers, meditations, yogas. and spiritual practices help train our body/mind default settings towards more acceptance and equanimity. Such repetitive practices result in brains growing and mylinating stable neural networks supporting positive new habits. We can increase happiness. Since human live in the past/present/future simultaneously, we can increase happiness by practicing loving memories and positive anticipations reaching for the highest good. Everybody is right about positive thinking! Unconscious and conscious memories (called implicit and explicit memories) are driven by positive or negative mindsets. For instance, pessimistic mindsets where we feel powerless and expect bad things screw us up, while optimistic growth mindsets where we feel we make a difference and expect good things make us more happy. We can decide to change bad habits of unpleasant feelings and stories to good habits of “I’m a good soul, doing my best to do right and live a full life.” Much of psychotherapy involves such habit changing activities Since the Dalai Lama’s talk, I’ve paid lots of attention to the suffering of change, the suffering of suffering, and the suffering of conditioning . It’s clear we can dramatically reduce all suffering in our lives, and radically increase compassion and happiness. (see blogs #35, #36, #37, #42, #45). Thank you, Dalai Lama!