Rejecting the Virtue of Suffering

by David Edwards and Media Lens
April 24, 2004

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Truly, Madly, Deeply ­ Above All Madly

British people are not good at happiness. According to research published in 2002, around one-third of British people suffer from serious depression at any one time. A 25-year-old in 2002 was between three and ten times more likely to suffer a major depression than a 25-year-old in 1950. It seems that young people with the highest living standards since records began are deeply miserable during ‘the best years of their lives’.

We can learn a lot about the root causes of this epidemic by comparing Western and non-Western approaches to mental suffering. Doing so, I believe, reveals a remarkable secret at the heart of Western unhappiness.

A clue is provided in psychologist Mark Tallis’ book, Love Sickness: Love As A Mental Illness. Tallis notes that mental illness is often accepted, even celebrated, as a feature of romantic love:

“Thus, in the well-worn contemporary phrase ­ truly, madly, deeply ­ madness is supposed to be as significant an indicator of love’s authenticity as honesty and depth. We do not want love to be rational. We want it to be audacious, overwhelming, improvident, and unpredictable.” (Tallis, Century, 2004, p.3)

Tallis points out that mental states commonly associated with ‘falling in love’ are remarkably similar to states associated with mental illness:

“In the first euphoric weeks (or even months) of love the symptoms of mania are clearly evident. These include expansive mood, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, a pressure to talk, racing thoughts, distractibility, increased activity (particularly sexual), and a general disregard for the consequences of pleasure-seeking... Only four of the above (including expansive mood) experienced for one week will be sufficient to meet... diagnostic criteria for a manic episode.” (p.57)

Love is “unique among those mental states that we generally assume to be positive”, Tallis suggests, in that, “Although we celebrate love, we also recognise that it can resemble an illness.” (p.59)

Remarkably, we actually celebrate the “madness” of love -­ we like to love “truly, madly, deeply”. The mad, suffering aspect is deemed to be precisely a sign of the authenticity and depth of our love.

In other words, and this is what interests me, we view our suffering in love as natural, virtuous, even glorious.

Hypocrisy Nausea -­ And Other Virtuous Ailments

It seems to me that Tallis is badly mistaken, however, in arguing that love is unique in being perceived as a positive mental state that also resembles an illness. Anger, also, is assumed by many people to be positive, empowering, protecting, and it also is understood to resemble an illness. Peace and human rights campaigners, for example, are fond of describing how their anger is such that they are “sickened and nauseated” by government hypocrisy. A favoured way of communicating intense outrage is to declare that a government statement leaves us feeling “physically sick” and “despairing”.

Levels of anger dragging us to the point of sickness and despair are clearly deemed virtuous - indicative of our passionate commitment.

It seems to me that, no matter how traumatic and unbearable the experience, there is also a part of us that considers the suffering of grief to be in a sense right and good. We feel that our grief and suffering bear witness to the depth of our love ­ to have a balanced, happy mind is deemed a kind of betrayal, almost a sign of indifference.

The possibility I am suggesting, then, is that one of the reasons we in the West suffer so much mental unhappiness is that we often believe suffering is virtuous, a sign of our passion, integrity and compassion.

The idea that our belief in the virtue of suffering might lie at the root of much of our unhappiness was raised in my mind by my encounter with Mahayana Buddhism. According to this highly sophisticated system of thought, happiness, not suffering, is synonymous with virtue. Instead, wherever there is unhappiness, Buddhism argues, we will actually find an excess of self-concern, of selfishness.

This idea struck me as inherently plausible because it seemed to me that one of the most powerful engines driving the unhappy, self-pitying mind was precisely the sense that it was fundamentally right, perhaps even righteous -­ that it was rooted, for example, in a refusal to accept the lies of cynical politicians in the case of anger; that it was rooted in the intensity of passion for a lost loved one, in the case of romantic attachment.

This sense of the rightness, the basic virtuousness, of some forms of unhappiness, sets up a kind of psychological "force field" protecting the unhappy mind ­ we don’t fully want to be free of suffering because we believe it has real merit.

The interesting thing about the Buddhist analysis is that it punctures this righteously miserable bubble, countering the self-pitying mind with a very blunt statement: Suffering is always, ultimately, rooted in an excess of self-concern.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for example, comments:

“Self-cherishing makes us feel depressed whenever our wishes are not fulfilled, we fail in our ambitions, or our life does not turn out the way we planned. If we examine all the times we have been miserable we shall discover that they are characterised by an excessive concern for our own welfare.” (Gyatso, Eight Steps To Happiness, Tharpa, 2000, p.86)

This is like a salutary bucket of cold water in the face of our self-pity: we are not unhappy simply because the world is unjust, not just because terrible things have happened to us, but because we suffer from an excessive concern for our own welfare.

The Art Of Upsetting Yourself

If we are able to perceive the basic truth of this point, it can help us break the closed circle of the self-pitying mind allowing us to emerge from suffering.

When someone insults us, for example, we feel we are right and justified in feeling upset because, after all, the other person has been abusive. We say things like: ‘She upset me.’ But writing some 1,000 years ago, the philosopher Aryadeva makes an interesting point:

“Though hearing harsh words is unpleasant, they are not intrinsically harmful, otherwise the speaker would also be harmed. Thus, when the damage done by anger comes from one’s own preconception that one has been insulted, it is just fantasy to suppose it comes from elsewhere. When one’s own ideas have done the harm, it is unreasonable to be angry with others.” (Aryadeva, Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Gyel-tsap, Snow Lion, 1994, p.159, my emphasis)

Words are clearly not intrinsically harmful -- they need a sensitive target to receive them. Some insults make us laugh or shrug, others make us rage -­ it is the type and extent of our self-concern that determines our vulnerability. There is nothing terribly virtuous about angry hurt caused, in part, by our own self-concern.

American Buddhist writer Alan Wallace tells us to abandon the idea that anger is rooted in righteousness ­- take a closer look and we’re sure to find some self-concern:

“When adversity strikes, trace it to its root, the one culprit. When somebody irritates you, when you become angry or disappointed, find the culprit. The mind does not get disturbed because of other people’s behaviour. Frustration and unhappiness occur because self-centredness makes us unable to bear other people’s behaviour. Self-centredness has us in its power and can make us very unhappy.” (B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion, 2001, p.196)

Wallace adds: “It is my self-centredness, not yours, that gives me grief.” (p.197)

In the case of romantic love, also, we will find that our suffering is ultimately not simply rooted in a noble concern for the object of our affections. What Buddhists call “affectionate love” ­- the desire for the happiness and welfare of others ­- is a peaceful, happy mind. An ancient text describes this kind of “tender regard” using the example of parents’ feelings for their young child:

“When the parents observe the youth in his most desirable years, either at the time of play while he runs and races or at the time he rests, their minds become tender, like a hundred fluffy balls of cotton soaked in the finest clarified butter. The parents’ minds are satisfied and joyous.” (Harvey B. Aronson, Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism, Motilal Barnasidass, 1996, p.70)

In his book, Destructive Emotions, psychologist Daniel Goleman reviews research on changes in the brains of Buddhist monks meditating intensively on compassion. Monitoring by fMRI magnetic imaging machines revealed a “brain shift during compassion [that] seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others' well-being, it seems, creates a greater sense of well-being within oneself." (Goleman, Disturbing Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.12)

These mind states are very different from the painful feelings we so often associate with romantic love. The pain and suffering therein, according to Buddhism, are rooted, not in this kind of affectionate love and compassion, but in attachment to our own happiness -- we see the beloved as a vital source of happiness and feel anxiety, depression and despair at the prospect, or reality, of losing that happiness.

On reflection, we can see that there is nothing particularly virtuous about romantic suffering ultimately rooted in passionate self-concern -- especially as this form of self-concern often leads people to disregard, harm, or even destroy, the object of their ‘love’.

Likewise, I think the positive motivation in activism and dissent lies in compassion for the suffering of others -­ this is what gives people the energy to work tirelessly against overwhelming odds to remove that suffering. But, as with romantic love, this concern for our fellow beings often gets mixed up with essentially self-centred emotions and delusions ­- the desire to vent our personal anger, to punish and wound individuals we deem personally responsible for vast global problems -- which actually work against our positive motivation. As a result, we mistakenly come to associate positive thought and action with painful, destructive and actually self-destructive states of mind. Working for a more compassionate society does not have to be an angry, miserable, despairing task, as Goleman’s observations make clear.

Buddhists claim that even the suffering of self-hatred is actually rooted in an excess of self-concern. We might think, after all, that self-hatred is rooted in painful honesty and integrity in response to flaws in our character -­ surely it represents the exact antithesis of self-concern. Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains:

“Feelings of self-hatred, dissatisfaction, anger and lack of respect directed towards ourselves, despite appearances, actually stem from our attachment to the self and to our happiness.

We hunt for happiness, hoping to find it through someone or something else. We are ignorant of the best and wisest way to cherish ourselves, and our clinging to a distorted idea of the self and to the happiness we desire for that self fills us with expectations regarding what we want to be and have. When we fail to meet these expectations, we feel dissatisfaction and a profound sense of failure.” (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Six Perfections, Snow Lion, 1998, p.34)

And how much of the grief we feel at the suffering or death of a loved one is rooted in affectionate love and compassion, and how much in the perceived loss to our sense of security, our hopes for happiness? Again, from the Buddhist perspective, if we can question the idea that our suffering is virtuous, to be embraced ­ seeing that it is in fact rooted in self-concern ­- we may well feel more able to challenge and break free from it.

Wronged, Exiled, Bereaved ­- And Happy

None of this is at all intended as criticism of people who are suffering mental anguish. In his autobiography, The Life Of Shabkar, the eponymous, highly accomplished Tibetan meditator unashamedly records how he wept profusely at news of the death of his mother and teacher, at the passing away of friends. The current Dalai Lama puts it well:

“At sixteen, I lost my freedom when Tibet was occupied. At twenty-four, I lost my country itself when I came into exile. For forty years now, I have lived as a refugee in a foreign country, albeit the one that is my spiritual home. Throughout this time, I have been trying to serve my fellow refugees and, to the extent possible, the Tibetans who remain in Tibet. Meanwhile our homeland has known immeasurable destruction and suffering. And of course I have lost not only my mother and other close family members but also dear friends. Yet for all this, although I certainly feel sad when I think about these losses, still so far as my basic serenity is concerned, on most days I am calm and contented. Even when difficulties arise, as they must, I am usually not much bothered by them. I have no hesitation in saying that I am happy.” (Dalai Lama, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World - Ethics For a New Millennium, Little Brown, 1999, p.57)

The point is not to blame any of us for experiencing deep and natural feelings of sadness; it is to suggest the possibility of alleviating the depth and extent of that sadness to some extent. Skeptics might well refuse to take the Dalai Lama at his word -­ he could, after all, be simply making it up! But I think investigation of, and particularly experimentation with, the Buddhist approach to problems reveals quite remarkable results. Ultimately, it is claimed, we can maintain an essentially balanced and peaceful mind even when undergoing the fiercest imaginable privations and suffering -- a theme to which we will return in a later Cogitation.

Buddhists suggest that a powerful antidote to suffering rooted in self-concern lies in switching focus to the problems and happiness of others. The contemporary teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche writes:

“Real happiness in life comes when we dedicate our life to other living beings. Benefiting others brings us real peace of mind and satisfaction. It is the best way to enjoy life. We experience so much depression in our life basically because we have not changed our attitude to one of living for others. Switching our goal from finding happiness for ourselves to bringing happiness to others immediately reduces the problems in our life.” (Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Door to Satisfaction, Wisdom Books, 1994, p.111)

To sum up, then, it seems plausible that one of the reasons we Westerners are so prone to mental suffering is that we actually embrace that suffering as in a sense virtuous and even righteous. But suffering is empowered by this belief making it harder to escape its grasp, causing us indeed to resist feelings of happiness, peace and well-being.

When we strip suffering of its moral veneer, we can see it as something to challenge, to question; not something to simply accept and even value. Realizing that the problem often lies in excessive self-concern points us in a profoundly positive direction ­- towards concern for the suffering and happiness of others.

Further Reading:

Transforming Problems, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Wisdom Books, 1993
The Art Of Happiness, The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Buddhism With An Attitude, B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion, 2001

David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: editor@medialens.org. 

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