Removing pain with the Buddha and Schopenhauer

To the Buddha, it was desire which causes suffering. Being alive, however, means to desire, and so he concluded that life is therefore suffering. Our brains have evolved to the extent that we are continuously desiring. Once a desire is fulfilled, another desire comes along, perhaps with an intermittent stage of boredom. Our brains evolved like this for survival. Maintaining a continuous flow of desire means maintaining existence which is, ultimately, the goal of the brain-to preserve the human species. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively on the suffering of the world, and argued that life ‘swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ We may at times find ourselves either bored or dissatisfied with life, or both simultaneously. How, then, can we remove unnecessary or unwanted pain? First, we should remember that some pain is necessary and useful, but if pain is truly unwanted, and we believe that the pain will not benefit us in the future or aid us in achieving future goals, then there are few things which we can do:

Tyler Durden of Fight Club said that ‘it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.’ Even if we do not want to lose everything, we can still remove the things in our life which we do not want or enjoy or need. We should also recognise that the time that matters is here and now, and that although the future is important to some extent, it doesn’t even exist yet, and so we should, perhaps, focus on today, rather than worrying about tomorrow. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we must remind ourselves, when times seem bad, that it could be much, much worse. Yes, it could be better, but reminding ourselves that it could be worse may give us a slightly more objective viewpoint which may help put things in perspective. Another point is that, eventually, one day, you will be dead. None of this pain or boredom now will not matter to you. Nothing at all will matter to you when you’re dead, and on the spectrum of the universe, death is going to come pretty soon, so perhaps reminding ourselves of death’s nearing hand may, strangely, cheer us up since we know that petty complaining and suffering may seem to matter now, but once you’re on your death bed, will you regret allowing all that worry and pain and stress to get to you, rather than enjoying life while it allows you to?

Schopenhauer himself may have advised turning pain into knowledge, and using suffering as a tool for achievement. We may now, though, conclude that a great deal of our suffering, pain and boredom can be dealt with simply by altering our perspective and the way we see the world, existence, and ultimately, our own selves.

The comfort zone

We all have comfort zones, accustomed places and routines. It’s not surprising really, given that it’s in our nature to seek comfort. Comfort is what it is-comforting. Yet, should we always seek comfort so easily? One might say that comfort is both uninteresting and mediocre. Little worthwhile is gained from comfort. Alain de Botton said that people only start to become interesting ‘when they start to rattle the bars of their cages.’ Great things come from pain, sacrifice, discomfort. How can we evolve if all we spend our time doing is working for money and watching endless TV and endless social media feeds? A life of comfort is nothing to be ashamed of, yet is it something to be truly proud of? Comfort is good, I do not deny that, but is comfort always good? Perhaps, you might say, it is. But if you always lived in ‘comfort’, would you have created anything you thought was worth anything? The best of things are made from the worst of times.

If you want to come near to experiencing the feeling of being alive, first you must leave your comfort zone.

Choose

It’s hard to face the fact that the time we exist on earth will not enable us to do all the things that we may want to do. For some of us, perhaps this is the case, but for most of us, there are many various things which we would like to do with our lives yet do not have time for, or we just aren’t able to do them because of the packed and full lives we already lead. This is not easy accept, yet it is a reality which must be faced. Life is not short, it is long compared to a lot of animals, and we do have time to dedicate ourselves to certain vocations. It just depends on what those things are. Recognising that we will not be able to do everything we would have hoped to will allow us to realistically and rationally decide what it is that we are going to do with our life. Decide what it is you want to do, then, if you can, do what it takes to get where you want. If we all wanted something bad enough, we could get there and attain our goal. It’s not really about the brevity of time, it’s about the use of that time. If there’s something out there which you have consciously and determinedly decided to pursue, all that’s left to do is to pursue it. If you believe that pursuit is truly worthwhile, very little will stop you. If you can’t do it because of little things such as wanting more sleep or watching more TV, then you don’t really want it. First and foremost, people get where they are because that is they wanted. It all depends on what you want, and how much you want it.

Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.

The pettiness of our troubles

The amount of concern we take for things that do not matter is unreasonable and unnecessary, only causing us more frustration. We have, as first world societies, become too accustomed to our lifestyles, consequently and mistakenly taking them for granted. We are constantly over exaggerating, and the sense of what is important has been lost. ‘So and so hasn’t liked my Instagram photo!’ ‘The food was terrible, we’re never going there again!’ ‘I don’t have time to watch my Netflix programme!’ These are not uncommon complaints. Yet all of them become trivial when one takes oneself out of the situation. These things which we take so serious become, as Nagel puts it, gratuitous. Someone hasn’t like your post? Over 50% of the world doesn’t even have access to what you mindlessly post, and that person, contrary to what you might want to think, probably doesn’t really you or even really know you. The food was terrible? 800 million people wouldn’t even dream of such a meal. Can’t watch Netflix? Tough. Over 20,000 people die each day of poverty.

We’re all guilty at times of such complaints when we begin to take ourselves too seriously and we become too involved in what is only going on in our own lives, forgetting about the bigger picture. Of course it’s nice to enjoy some of life’s greater pleasures now and then, but to complain when certain, unreasonably hopeful, standards aren’t met is to make a mistake. Moreover, maintaining the bigger picture may both encourage us to aim towards a better future for all and allow us to appreciate the things which so many others do not have. It may be bad right now, but it could be a lot, lot worse.

Overcoming our hindering tendencies

We don’t tend to think about death very often, and it is rarely at the front of our minds when going about our daily life. The main reason for this may be that the majority of places in society have no concern for death, and some do not want any mention of death near their businesses, since a reminder of such a reality may eventually cripple their business. Anyhow, it is not uncommon to forget that one day we will all cease to exist, on earth at least. Moreover, forgetting about or failing to acknowledge death for a great length of time may be one humanity’s hindering tendencies. Forgetting about death for a long time may lead us to subconsciously act as if we were to live forever-as if we will always be able to watch another show on Netflix, to buy another and newer phone, and to keep wasting hours on Facebook and Instagram feeds which tell us nothing other than others appear to be enjoying themselves more than oneself, even if this is to the contrary. We must, perhaps once a day, ponder and embrace the thought that our time is limited, as is the time of others. Perhaps if we thought about death a little more often, we would be able to start doing or achieving what we really desire to get out of this limited and singular life of ours.

Another great human tendency which appears to be hinder us is the tendency to laziness and the avoidance of suffering. It is easy to be lazy, not to do anything, and to be ‘easy-going’, but there is one truth which we must accept: nothing worthwhile can be achieved without hard work. If we want to achieve something we really desire and that is worthwhile, there will have to be sacrifice. Sacrifice hurts at first, but it is worth it. Again, if we resisted the temptation to laziness, the extent of creation and achievement that could be reaped in a lifetime would be multiplied many times over. Moreover, it seems that hard work brings fulfilment, whereas laziness does not. If we think more about death, we may also find ourselves becoming less and less lazy, since we know and recognise our limited lifespan. Ultimately, it is up to you. It may be, though, that death is the most helpful tool in living a more fulfilled life, until we die, of course, but by then, if we have completed what we set out to do, it won’t matter, because we will have been fulfilled.

 

Mill and education

In On Liberty, Mill writes about education, stating its importance, saying that the purpose of universities is not to produce good lawyers, teachers and politicians, but ‘cultivated and capable human beings.’ Mill was more concerned with person we become and who we are, rather than our status, power or wealth. Mill criticises the education system, saying that all education is for is so that we can learn what is easy and interesting, so that when we have to go out of our comfort zones and do something that is not easy or interesting and may not be enjoyable, which we all will inevitably have to do, we become disheartened and frustrated.

Mill would, I think, despise today’s education system, and it is not difficult to see why. Rather than focusing on what is right and wrong when being taught, the emphasis is on what will bring oneself the most pleasure and the least pain, a key utilitarian idea, which Peter Vardy calls the transactional-utilitarian model. Moreover, the education system is strongly individualistic, not really bothered about the concept of community, but only the success and enhancement of pleasure of individuals. This culture of immediate pleasure, and not really thinking about who we become appears to thrive in consumerist cultures, for consumerism advertises and encourages individual success so that one can, through consumption, achieve happiness. Mill would say, however, that we have lost any real concept of happiness, and that consumerism and individualist society does not make us happy.

Both Mill and Nietzsche had different ideas of what it meant to be happy and to be a ‘fulfilled’ human being. Mill concluded that, rather than seeking one’s own happiness, we should first seek the happiness of others, and this concept of a strong community may have been influenced by Aristotle. If we want to be happy, we must first want to make others happy. Nietzsche had a different view of fulfilment, and it was one where suffering and discomfort is prominent, things which the current education discourage and avoid. Nietzsche held the view that only through genuine sacrifice and effort will we achieve anything worthwhile, and that it is only through this that fulfilment can be achieved. Furthermore, the attitude we receive from our 18 years or so of education may influence the way in which we view our whole lives, and so our relationships may be deeply affected by the way we view them. Do we focus on what is right and wrong, or what brings us the most pleasure and the least pain? If we want to become fulfilled, which seems to becoming more and more difficult as consumerist culture takes a greater hold of us, Nietzsche and Mill would both agree that it is the education system that needs to change if we want our lives to change. Nevertheless, it is possible to detach ourselves from what society encourages, and to seek our own fulfilment and happiness, and, perhaps, this may start with community and sacrifice.

Addiction and human nature

Addiction is most commonly associated with the category of drugs. But what if we all had different addictions, to different drugs? I’m not saying that we’re all secretly addicted to heroin or ketamine, because although we put these kind of substances in the group of ‘drugs’ that people take, there may be more and more drugs than we think. Are we all addicts?

Is there something which you need to get you through the day? Must you have coffee in the morning, or TV late at night? Are the Facebook and Instagram feeds your form of relief to make the day bearable? Do you have to read some of a novel to help you get work done? I’m sure everyone has some form of relief they use to get them through life. I may be wrong, but then again…

Addiction may not just be something to do with illegal or legal ‘substances’. In fact, addiction may be all around. The question is whether we are all addicted to something, something which makes the day bearable. This does not mean that addiction is wrong. What it does tell us is a key insight into human nature. If we really do need certain things to pull us through life, what is our natural state? If we are addicts, in one form or another, what is the norm without such things? It is hard to think that the state of humanity is anything but a dissatisfied one. It seems that boredom is natural to man, and that ‘happiness’, or ‘satisfaction’, is not the norm. Perhaps it is, and I am wrong, but throughout life today, the widespread use of social media, the excess of consumption in the form of clothes to the form of television seems to prove my point. We fill our lives with distractions because we are not satisfied.

It was Arthur Schopenhauer who proposed that life is a pendulum swinging ‘backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ When we are in pain, we fill it with things to relieve the pain, but after a while, we become bored of this. This is, according to Schopenhauer, how life works. Even if this is true, we must not despair. In one of my previous posts, ‘why suffering can be good’, I wrote about the usefulness of pain. Although at first we may want to immediately sedate the pain, this may not be the right choice, since it is only through suffering that we can grow as people and evolve. The most worthwhile of things are the products of hard work, sacrifice and suffering. Concluding that we are addicts at nature may help us realise two things:

  1. That it is not primarily our fault for our addictive nature-it is just the world we live in.
  2. Addiction is a way of dealing with boredom and pain. There are many various ways of dealing with this dissatisfaction, some better than others.

Rather than turning to heroine, binge-watching of television or social media feeds, we can, as Alain de Botton wrote, ‘turn pain into knowledge.’

Why suffering can be good

‘Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing.’ Chuck Palahniuk

It is a commonly held view that pain is bad and that suffering is to be avoided. It’s true that avoiding suffering is generally easier than facing it and dealing with it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what we should do. The idea of the importance of bearing with suffering goes back to Nietzsche who emphasised that suffering was necessary for greatness. Nothing good can come without pain, sacrifice, hard work.

An easy life can come from avoiding suffering. The most fulfilled lives, however, the lives of the greats, were made by suffering. It is because of suffering that we are able to listen to the likes of Mozart, to look at the likes of da Vinci, and to read the likes of Homer. The suffering itself may be incredibly painful, at times almost unbearable, but it is this suffering which will enable us to create art of another level. Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a heavy influence on the thought of Nietzsche, once said ‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.’ Only through enduring pain and suffering can we become greater human beings, and, if we wish, create something worthwhile.