Robert Lee Camp
Eckhart Tolle teaches us that most of us live what can be called a ‘story-based’ life. We live almost exclusively in our minds, which are always focused on the past and the future. As he puts it, we look in our past to find out who we are, and we look to our future for whatever fulfillment our life might bring us. To us, our life is the story of our past and future, a story that we desperately hope will have a happy ending someday.
Most of our efforts in life are to have a better story. For example, if we have certain accomplishments in our past, we can talk about them now and feel a sense of accomplishment, or better yet, superiority to others. The ego thrives on feeling superior and it is through our stories that we get to express that the most. So, most of us just keep trying to add new chapters to our story that will allow us to feel better about ourselves, or repeating stories from our past that somehow elevate our personal standing in the present.
But our stories extend well beyond just our past and future. Hidden within each of us are points of view, beliefs, preferences, likes and dislikes, and a host of other mental structures that are also part of our huge bank of stories. And it is important to realize that we really think we are these stories. We have become nearly completely identified with them. As you will see from this article, it is in all these stories that we find suffering on a more or less constant basic.
Suffering is psychological pain, at least in the context of this article. There is physical suffering for sure, but 99% of suffering in this world today is psychological. It has no physical component. Even those with physical ailments that are painful suffer more because of their psychological relationship to their condition. Let’s be even more specific. If you are upset at, or are resisting anything that is happening in your world right now, you are suffering. Even very small things like traffic conditions, the weather, your favorite team losing a game or your food being overcooked can cause suffering.
Bigger events like the loss of a loved one or the loss of something or someone very valuable to you can cause immense suffering, sometimes lasting for years. I lost a relationship when I was in my early thirties that I suffered over for seven years. No one is immune to this kind of suffering. All of us are having it on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, suffering is the norm today. It is so normal that most of it goes unnoticed. It is only the big ones that get much attention these days. But indeed it is constant in most of our lives. And it is common these days to have someone commit suicide, and often people who knew them are shocked. They never saw the immense suffering they were enduring. Many people keep their suffering to themselves. Only immense suffering causes suicide.
But even people whose lives are working out well are suffering. Even when you are getting what you want, there is always the fear of losing what you have, which is also very painful suffering, or the anticipation of getting something you wanted for so long. Not being able to sleep the night before Christmas, thinking about opening your presents, is suffering too. So, even supposed good things can bring suffering. All identity with mental constructs creates suffering, that is its basic and fundamental nature. When you are stuck in your head, you are suffering.
No one really talks about suffering or its real cause. It seems we just take it as a fact of life and just learn to live with it. No one seems to have any solutions, other than avoiding things that make us feel bad, and doing things that make us feel good. Slowly but surely, we create a compartmentalized life where we have walled off the so-called bad stuff and did what we can to increase the good stuff.
We come up with strategies, belief systems, points of view, automatic responses, witty sayings and other mental devices to help us avoid suffering. We strive with our minds to understand how the universe works and strive to gain the knowledge that will give us an edge-up on suffering avoidance, or better yet, elimination.
But, it turns out, no one is really ending suffering in their lives. And as we get older, we bear the look of someone who is carrying a tremendous burden, the burden of so much suffering. As a society we age quicker, looking older and tired at younger and younger ages. We might say that suffering is a disease that all of us share, a disease that kills us before our time and makes our time here miserable.
So, where does suffering lie? Where does it exist? Is there anything we really can do that will eliminate it from our lives? What does it take to reduce or eliminate it from our lives? It’s a daunting task to examine and dismantle our suffering. It takes a lot of self-honesty and the willingness to admit just how bad it really is. You can’t really get that far if you can’t be honest with yourself. And one other requirement is the willingness to feel the pain and suffering you are enduring on a daily basis.
Suffering is essentially our resistance to what is. That is the simplest definition of it. Something is happening in our life that we do not want and resist against. From this one could say that suffering is the difference between what is and what we want it to be, or think it should be. And that is true. But let’s take the second half of that equation, the ‘ what we want it to be, or think it should be’ part.
Herein lies the deeper truth about suffering. Suffering is all caused by a mental position that is in conflict with reality. Many spiritual teachers call these mental positions ‘stories.’ It is our stories about life and about our lives that cause us the most suffering. Think about it for a minute. Take any mental position you may have, about anything.
Perhaps it is something that you learned the hard way and now you know how it really works. And you have a little slogan that you tell yourself whenever you encounter a similar situation, one that states your preference and your stand in regards to the situation at hand. This is your position on the matter, your story. And perhaps, in your own mind, this position that you cherish so much has really helped you in the past.
Maybe you think it prevented you, or those you love, from losing money, or losing love or getting hurt or sick. So now, you truly believe in this position. As a matter of fact you believe in it so much that if someone states a position that contradicts yours, you get angry and defensive. This is suffering. Any position that we hold, and especially those we hold dearly, are going to cause us suffering.
Why? Because no position is right all the time. There are countless other mental points of view about any specific subject or situation that are just as valid as ours, when looked at a different way. There is no one true position, belief or idea that is always true. Any position can be assailed by other positions that are equally valid. But we are going to fight against others, maybe even kill other people, just to defend the one we have acquired.
Suffering does not occur by anything that happens to us. We tend to think that certain events in our life have caused us suffering. But this is simply not true. What is true is that our suffering comes from the ‘meaning’ we apply to the events of our life, not the events themselves.
You might say that when any event becomes ‘personalized’, which means it has some particular meaning to us personally, then it has the power to elate us or to cause us suffering. Think about all the love songs with lines like, “You mean so much to me!” It is in this ‘meaning’ that we identify with something, which means we take that to be us, and give it the power to cause pleasure or pain, happiness or suffering. Meaning is the story.
If you pay attention to yourself enough to know when you are upset, you can examine your upset-ness and see that it leads you directly back to some story you hold, and the meaning behind whatever experience upset you. And these stories can be just your memories too. Maybe you are telling a story from your past experience and someone interrupts you or cuts you off. You get upset. Maybe you are driving in traffic and someone cuts in front of you suddenly and then hits their brakes. You get upset.
Maybe you read or hear about something in the news, perhaps a political story and since it contradicts your political view point in some way, you get upset. “Those damn democrats!” or “Those damn republicans!” What does it matter? You are upset. That is what matters. And in 99% of cases you are upset because someone or something is contradicting your mental story about what should be. Doesn’t that sound a little insane?
I mean to take a position and then get upset when someone else has a different position. And not to mention that you could easily change your position in a heartbeat. Just as quickly as you became a democrat, you could easily switch to being a republican. So, did anything really change? Only what you decided was YOUR position. It’s very interesting when you start looking at this.
And when we are really upset about something that someone we love does, what is it that we are really upset about? In many cases what we interpreted as them doing was not what they were doing. Somehow we automatically find them guilty of having very bad intentions towards us or others, even though in reality we have no way of knowing what their real intention was.
Some of us are pre-programmed to react to certain situations as though we have been personally attacked or wounded. We are just looking for it to happen, maybe because we think it happened when we were children. Who knows? But if anything happens that even closely resembles us being personally attacked, we react as though it happened. We cannot control ourselves.
It’s all about taking stuff personally, when it gets right down to it. It’s the stuff we take personally that upsets us. So what is something personal? Do we even stop to examine that? I think if you take a closer look you will see that what is personal to us are things that we have become identified with. In other words, ‘I am’ my point of view, my story, my beliefs. Therefore, if you attack them, you attack me.
Endless karma and suffering happens because of this identification with our stories about ourselves and life, and most of it, nearly all of it, is completely fabricated. Even what you think happened to you as a child is likely highly inaccurate. I am the first of seven children in our family. When we get together and talk about things that happened, it is amazing how different the stories are. It’s like we each had a unique experience of our childhood, even though we were all there. And that is how it is in life actually. Your experience is your own, colored by your own inner sunglasses.
Our stories are the source of our suffering. If you really knew this to be true, would you still hang on to your stories and points of view? Is it worth it to you to be right about something, even if that causes you to become a monster? Is being right more important than being happy? That is a very good question because that is a powerful way to look at our lives. How much has the desire to be right cost you in your life? Do we even stop to ask ourselves where and how we picked up these beliefs and points of view? Are they so sacred that they do not deserve some scrutiny?
If you are upset, you are the one at fault, no matter what happened to you. You can blame others all you want. But the upset lies inside of you and only you have the power to remove the cause of it – your own stories. Stories are not the truth. They may seem like the truth and we do feel safer having them, until someone challenges them. But they are not the truth. No one’s stories are. But it is only within your power to dismantle your attachment to your stories and eliminate your suffering. No one else can do it for you.
People die every day from story-related violence. It is rampant and may actually be the number one cause of death. People desperately clinging to their beliefs and points of view, all the while defending them and fighting back against anyone whose are different. This is sheer madness. It can only stop with each one of us, one by one. If you can become aware of, and release your attachment to your stories, the world around you will change. You will no longer be the source of conflict. Just think how much better your life would be.
The rabbit hole actually goes much deeper. But we can start with all these ill-begotten points of view that keep ruining our days and nights, destroying our relationships and our lives. Start there, where it hurts the most. And your life will definitely get better. Don’t be afraid to not have any big points of view. It is actually a relief. With nothing to defend, your life energy can be spent enjoying yourself instead. Wow, what a concept!
The next time you find yourself in a conversation, with anyone, start watching the things you say. See if you can detect your stories. Recently I was watching myself in a conversation with a guy in a bar. It amazed me to see how many times I interrupted him, wanting to make my point, wanting to tell him what he should do, or trying to make sure I got my point of view expressed This happens so much in our lives that to us, it is normal.
You can observe any conversation, yours or someone else’s. You can watch as each person wants to offer up and defend what they know, believe, etc. And you can see quite quickly how arguments can erupt and how ‘personal’ some people’s points of view really are.
Even among people that are naturally compatible, where the chances of an argument are pretty slim, you can still see the ego interactions taking place. This simple observation can lead to much higher self awareness. And remember that it is these mental constructs that we identify with that are at the very source of our suffering. Begin to question your points of view and beliefs. Look at how much a part of your life they have become and be willing to call them into question.
Do you really need to have them? What do you gain by having them? What would you lose by losing them? Are any of these so sacred to you that you have to defend them every time someone says something different? Who are you fighting and why? This is called self-inquiry. And it can lead to freedom from suffering.
In truth we really do not need these mental ‘come froms.’ We think they are important but it is just as easy to change them or get rid of them, as easy as taking off a coat when you get too hot. Be willing to shed a few of these and watch how your life becomes full of ease instead of conflict.
Watch how much energy you have by not wasting it defending these fabrications of the mind, energy that can be used to have a more joyous, fulfilled life. Who are you if you are not your stories? The answer to that, whatever it may be, will be suffering-free.