I start these emails the same way every time, but I do hope you are doing well. I was wondering, have you ever heard the term avidya?
It means ignorance in Sanskrit. In Buddhist traditions it is believed that ignorance is the root of all suffering. That is; to suffer is simply to not know better.
"All evils are caused by a lack of knowledge."
We tend to go through our lives under some level of stress, neurosis and suffering — but is it justified? What if it was all based on an illusion?
We have already gone through many ups and downs but whatever seemed to be happening at the time, we are here today. What if in the very moment of stress we remembered that it would all be over?
Everything for better and worse that has arisen has also passed away, as is the nature of all things. Many forms of the suffering and stress we encounter in our day-to-day lives are at their bottom a refusal to connect with the transience of all experience.
But what is suffering? Is it in the head, the heart, in the thoughts? And who or what is it that is suffering?
I believe that suffering isn't a quality of any experience in of itself but rather our resistance to experience. To simply allow the mind to remain still and allow whatever thoughts, feelings or sensations to arise and dissolve on their own is freedom from suffering.
There is this continum of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts and emotions flowing from moment to the next. This is conscious experience. What most people call life.
All phenomena we experience including our suffering itself arise and then dissolve in this condition. Whatever is bound to fade away, what use is there to cling to it? Whatever is already going to dissipate, what use is there to push it away?
Three techniques to cut through suffering
For the past year now I have been doing online courses in meditation through the website Tergar. These involve reading through a lot of materials, reading and listening to teachings and the daily practice of meditation. My teacher Mingyur Rinpoche is a remarkable being, who has lived his life as a monk and even wandered the himalayas as a homeless yogi. I have written about him in an earlier email.
In a video lesson I was watching earlier in the year, he gave special instructions on three ways to work with any suffering that arises. I wil share them with you here.
1. Transforming suffering into compassion
You are not the only one suffering at any given time. If you dwell carefully on your suffering you can realise that in the scheme of things it isn't that bad. Think carefully about the reasons why you are experiencing suffering and you might even realise that they are common, that there are likely many others like you in the same situation.
The silver lining to personal pain is that you know what others are going through. You have the basis for compassion.
Suffering is a resistance to what is. A rejection of what is happening right now. A wish to feel better.
To transform this suffering into compassion:
- Connect with your wish to feel better
- Reflect on how there are many others in a similar situation also suffering
- Expand your wish to include all of them, wish that all going through what you are also find their relief
Simply cultivate compassion by extending your own wish for happiness to others.
Some find it helps to repeat a mantra in their minds:
"May all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free."
By channeling your attention this way, it is possible to realise that negative experiences themselves can become the seeds of compassion.
Techniques that develop the quality are often referred to as metta, which means loving-kindness in Pali.
2. Transforming suffering into emptiness
Rather than developing compassion, another use for suffering is to develop insight into the nature of one's mind. To learn about the suffering and even consciousness itself.
Shunyata (Sanskrit for emptiness) is said to be the nature of all phenomena. It is like a rainbow which appears bright and vivid but when approached isn't found anywhere at all. It is possible to see this quality in one's very thoughts and emotions.
To use this technique, gently settle your mind onto the feeling of suffering in the body. Is it in the head? Is it in the chest? Where is it?
Wherever it is, simply rest your attention there.
As you rest there inquire into what exactly they are.
Use questions such as the following as support:
- What is suffering?
- Why exactly is what I am feeling suffering? Why do I label it this way?
- What precisely is bad about this?
- Who or what is it even that is suffering? What is this "I" that is being harmed by this feeling?
Through this technique, the very analytical mind that is prone to negativity can be turned on its head. That which you are now questioning is the very negative emotions themselves.
Rather than pushing them away, it can be a very powerful practice to experience them and learn about what they are.
Techniques that develop insight into the mind, in to what you are and what life is like fall under the banner of vipassana or insight meditation.
3. Transforming suffering into awareness
The common instruction for what has been spread in the West as mindfulness meditation is as follows.
- Rest your attention on the breath
- When you notice you are distracted, gently return your attention to the breath
The goal of this practice — known as Shamata in Sanskrit — is to cultivate a quality known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply the knowing of what is present in the current experience. In other words it is not being distracted.
However we don't have to use the breath.
It is possible to use any object to channel our attention. Sounds, the sensations in our body or an object in our visual field.
In fact, even the very experiences we label as suffering themselves can be used in this way. To transform suffering into awareness is to simply know it is there.
Let me repeat the three steps from above.
- Rest your attention on the what it is you are calling suffering
- When you notice you are distracted, gently return your attention to it
With clear attention it is possible to have the "badness" of the suffering dissolve and what remains is simply a pattern of sensations in the body.
Depending on how you are feeling you may even wish to alternate between these three techniques. I have found them invaluable.
The very negative emotions themselves can be used as fuel for meditation.
It's wonderful to be able to write these letters to all of you. I am grateful that you are interested in hearing what I have to say.
As a thank you for your support, I would like to provide you with the link to a website I am working on with a friend (even though it isn't quite finished).
Isn't it amazing we could get a domain name like that?
I will write short pieces on happiness, spirituality and meditation here. It will eventually be a hub for everything we know about being happy in this world.
Thank you for reading all the way to the end.