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.

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Pessimism and happiness

Pessimism tends to be looked down upon in today’s society, and it is thought that optimism is the way forward and the only outlook which will permit a certain kind of happiness. The image of pessimist would usually be thought of as somebody who is always in a bad mood, who does not appreciate the joys of life, and does not enjoy anything much at all. Although this may be a form of pessimism, not all pessimism is the same.

It is reasonable to say that, at certain times, we may all feel somewhat pessimistic: our job is not going well, we do not enjoy our hobbies as we much as we used to, and we seem to make so many mistakes that despair appears to be the only option. Optimism disdains and despises such thoughts, and always hopes for the best and is confident that the future will turn out to be what we hope it to be. Although this does, in theory, seem like a good option for pursuing happiness, in practice it does not, generally, turn out the same way.

Pessimists are unfairly discarded in today’s society and are looked upon only as barriers to success and satisfaction, yet this is not the case. Pessimism is not saying that we cannot be appreciative, joyful, or glad in moments of life. On the contrary, pessimism is letting us know that not everything will turn out the way we wish, that we will always make mistakes, and that by expecting the worst outcomes, things can only get better. Moreover, pessimists are well aware of the possibility of a sudden death, and the inevitability of everybody’s death, as well as a universal imperfection present in everyone. Being aware that one day, we will not be alive anymore can, even though it stems from a pessimistic thought, lead to greater appreciation of the pleasures of life, since we have become acutely aware of life’s limits and brevity. Similarly, awareness of flawed human nature can lead to compassion, a fundamental teaching of Arthur Schopenhauer, since we recognise that we are all very similar indeed, and that we all make mistakes and are fallible.

Pessimism recognises that life is not always going to be what we hoped for, and if we accept and embrace the tough parts of life, while realising that our lives are short and that we are all gradually dying (as Alain de Botton puts it), then perhaps we can get more out of life, and when the desirable parts of existence come upon us, we can experience them more fully and with greater appreciation. We may find that eventually, pessimism may lead us to a strange, unknown kind of happiness.

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.