Why do we suffer? Although whole libraries of texts have been devoted to the issue, in reality it is not that complicated. We suffer because we want what we don’t have, and don’t want what we do have. We like one part of our experience of life, and want more of it. We don’t like another part of our life experience, and so strive to avoid it.
We want more food, more sex, more power and prestige, more love and admiration, more health and longevity, more knowledge and cleverness, and we especially want whatever others have. Terms such as “greed and envy” are often used to describe the craving and sense of present dissatisfaction that is behind all of our suffering – wanting what we don’t have.
On the other hand there is fear, hatred, and aversion, or not wanting what we already have, such as pain, sickness, loneliness, poverty, despair, impotence, old age, and death. These two — craving and aversion — alternate in a vicious cycle, which in turn serves to create and then reinforce the sense of an independent and enduring self who suffers from perpetual desire, sense of lack, fearfulness, and stress.
The projection of this person — “me” — into all that we think and do is the basis for the fundamental ignorance that keeps us returning again and again to the same low level realms of conflict and strife in which most of us currently find ourselves as incarnated humans. That repetitive activity is called ignorance because we don’t realize that the “person” who seems to be in charge and ruling our lives is, in fact, just a collection of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and impulses, all dependently arising based on various causes and conditions, with no inherent existence apart from them.
In other words, although the “me” which observes events, experiences, and phenomena appears to be different from the observed “me”, in reality it is no different from the “me” consisting of all the observed thoughts, perceptions, memory associations, and emotions arising in the mind.
It is only when we begin to recognize this case of mistaken identity that we can begin to appreciate that there is a background of spacious awareness and native happiness, utterly distinct from and untainted by that whole trap of chronic suffering and dissatisfaction. This fundamental awareness does not change, whereas the person who seems to be in control changes all the time. Our concepts, opinions, emotions, judgments and preferences continuously change, but even so we typically identify with them as who and what we are. We think all this is “me”, but actually it’s just something that arises and dissolves within that space of awareness, like a breeze in the vastness of sky.
Once we are able to stably bring our attention to rest in basic awareness itself (through a discipline of silence), rather than granting attention to whatever objects and experiences might momentarily dance and flicker across the screen, then craving and aversion have less and less power to distract and define us. Our sense of identity is released from the small cramped cage of the self-fixation. This is how ignorance is dispelled, because the story of “me” is seen through and recognized as a dreamy fiction, empty of independent existence, and thus is more and more replaced by the natural happiness arising from the recognition of our true nature.
I say “more and more”, because the afflictions that constitute our suffering are usually not vanquished in one stroke (by the direct, non-conceptual perception of the emptiness of the self-image, for example). The mind is so complex and the deluding vexations can be so sophisticated and powerful that one single realization alone cannot eliminate all negative states completely. Bringing one’s life into alignment with true realization takes a lot of devoted work, and the effort will encounter many obstacles in the form of “speed traps” and “sting operations” along the way, which is why genuine compassion and forgiveness is so necessary.
“Letting go” is not as easy as it sounds. After all, attaching and clinging to the separate self-sense and all of its elaborations is almost hard-wired into us by our conditioning, and the last thing the self-absorbed mind wants is to be dethroned from its power position and made to face its own essential emptiness. The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing is one thing, but the prospect of selflessness is even more daunting for most of us.
However, if we were to set aside our fears and borrowed notions about what true selflessness entails, we would begin to discover what love is – unconditional love. Indeed, it is only in the recognition and embodiment of true love that we will at last be able to let go of all the suffering which we have imposed on our own innocence through cumulative ignorance, and awaken to the boundless, joyous reality that awaits us once our hearts are liberated from the prison of ceaseless wanting.