Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is caused solely by the mind. One of the greatest causes of our own suffering, our own lack of peace, contentment, and happiness, is the complexity that we allow to rule our lives. Complexity impedes our ability to look deeply at any one thing, to be mindful of what life presents, here, now.

In my life, complexity prevails in excessive responsiblities or, rather, what I interpret to be responsibilities. I'm not speaking of true responsibilities such as cleaning, laundry, or grocery shopping. Nor am I speaking of such enjoyable "responsibilities" as spending time with family, friends, and my fiance. I have many interests, many things I enjoy doing: I train very regularly for volleyball; I play volleyball; I am starting my Ph.D. studies in electrical engineering on Monday (gasp!); I write on this blog; I write offline in hopes of publication; I enjoy a number of strategy games; I am designing a campaign around one of those games; I read on a lot of topics; I enjoy one or two television shows; I raise bonsai trees. I'll stop here, but there's more.

The number of interests I have does not necessarily engender complexity. Complexity arises because I take many of these interests too seriously, and I want to improve my skill level in them. But to do so requires time. For example, I need to weight train at least 2-3 times per week and perform aerobic conditioning at least 3 times per week for volleyball; any less, and there's really no point because I'm not reaping any benefit from it. So life becomes complex for me because I see these activities as responsibilities—I need to train 3-5 days per week; I need to write every day; I need to work on this campaign if I want to have it ready to play by the end of September—and responsibilities weigh on our minds. My attachment to these interests, the need to accomplish "X" by "Y" date (a self-imposed deadline with no true consequences for missing it), causes me to suffer.

1-Minute Contemplation: How does complexity arise in your life? What can you do to simplify? Can you eliminate? Can you re-frame (i.e. learn to see "responsibilities" as interests)? What benefits might come from simplifying?


Angela said...

I think point of view is important here, and I feel that your post trivializes the term 'suffering' as based on my own interpretation. I don't believe that having too much to do because one has many interests can be coined as 'suffering.' Yes, I think it can present complexity as you mentioned, as the issue forces one to define their priorities and how they wish to use their time. However, if those are the only issues of complexity that one has, they should consider themselves lucky and realize that life's problems and issues can potentially be so much greater! I guess the bottom line for me is choosing to see a situation for what it really is, not what weinterpret it to be, and putting the situation in perspective with the big picture.

Mike said...

Suffering is term that encompasses many things. However, it also has a fairly strict definition according to Buddhism (see the link I provided above). The purpose of this post is to discuss one small aspect of suffering, one way that complexity can lead towards it.

Suffering, in short, comes from one's response to phenomena (mental, emotional, and physical). Having many many things to do is not suffering; but the way our mind interprets "the fact that we have many things to do" can cause suffering. Suffering can be as extreme as one's reaction to the 9/11 tragedy. Suffering can, just as well, be as small as feeling a minor bit of aversion to a co-worker or someone you see on the street. Both reflect personal suffering, and both are thus important avenues for one's spiritual practice.

"The bottom line for me is choosing to see a situation for what it really is, not what weinterpret it to be..." That is exactly the point of this post. Complexity comes in many forms, only one of which I described here. But no matter the source of the complexity, it usually results in the inability to see a situation, in the here and now, for what it really is. Simplicity is the solution to that problem. In my case, simplicity can mean reducing the number of things I do. However, simplicity can also means that I change the way I interpret some of my interests, thus simplifying my views.

"putting the situation in perspective with the big picture." As I noted above, suffering takes many forms. But does that mean that the minor aversion I described is any less important than the huge tragedy of 9/11? I argue that in some ways, the "lesser" suffering is more important! Why? Because while the suffering that can result from one's response to tragedy can be severe, it comes rarely. If one practices such that one reduces the suffering that occurs in small, everyday situations, that will have a much greater impact on one's outlook and approach to life because then one is constantly practicing. Life never leaves us at a loss for something to which to devote our mindfulness. Learning to reduce suffering in normal situations teaches you the tools by which you can reduce suffering in situations involving more extreme suffering.

The everyday is our path, our practice. This is what allows us to see a situation for what it really is. Suffering is seeing a situation for what it really is not.