Why do we suffer?
Why do we cling to horrible things from our past that should just be left behind like garbage or futures we only imagine? Conversely, we cling to things we hold dear that are pulling away from us or obsessively pursue dreams we are warned to be careful about wishing for because we may just get it.
The big problem is how to solve this conundrum: To abolish suffering we must be 100% accepting of what is. But we live and work in a world where most people live defined by horrible pasts and relentlessly pursue unnecessarily greedy dreams. So if we were to be a shiny jewel of enlightenment, 100% accepting of What Is, we are a snowball in Hell.
Most of us have at some time in our lives stumbled into precious moments or periods where we are in such a state of enlightenment. These are times such as during a long vacation or a retreat such as a Tony Robbins seminar or time at a monastery.
Interestingly though, enlightenment can happen at the height of periods where things seem like it just couldn’t get worse. Then from out of nowhere this sort of magical acceptance, capitulation happens. Counter-intuitively, your mind just gives in to it, as a gazelle may mercifully passes out in the jaws of lions. You get to that nice place beyond mad, where everything doesn’t mean much to you. And then, you get back to life, where slowly, you’re dissolved back into the muck of the world of Dukkha.
The Root of Dukkha
This post begins a series that looks at our suffering-related emotions through the prism of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins, inspired by a quasi evolutionary psychology point of view. Answering the question, “Why do we Suffer?”, is under the umbrella of that discipline because it’s quite universal among people everywhere and of every time.
The “sins” of the Seven Deadly Sins are still within us despite our great intellect because they are deeply rooted in mechanisms that were of immeasurable value to our individual survival during our lower-sentience1 past. These “sins” are not “bad” things about us. They are relics of our old friends that manifest within us in uncomfortable ways as we muddle our way through this ugly stage of our transition to fully awakened beings.
I say “quasi evolutionary psychology”2 above because I’m not an evolutionary psychologist. I’m a software developer with decades of experience working on decision support systems3. These systems I develop involve a whole lot of moving parts resulting in chaotic systems that are really tough to control – just like real life. The complexity of the world we find ourselves in cannot be eloquently explained without looking down to the simpler underlying mechanisms. So let’s look to the underlying roots of dukkha. And let’s throw in other prisms of Zen, chaos theory, and mimetic theory ending up with something that doesn’t quite look like any of those things.
We’ll start this journey by tackling dukkha head-on with the root of dukkha – the deadly “sin” of Envy.
Knowledge from Nothing
Imagine awakening alone in a strange forest where you don’t recognize anything – none of the plants, animals, rocks. There is no one around to tell you what’s edible or poisonous. You’re as helpless as if you were five years old. You’re hungry as hell and wander around these strange woods hoping to stumble across familiar food like apples or the the neighborhood McDonalds. You’re unsuccessful, but you do see a variety of bushes full of fruits, mushrooms, and yummy looking vegetation, none of which you recognize.
You also learned from a ranger-lead tour years ago at Yosemite that there are many yummy looking berries that are very poisonous to people. What do you do? You have one chance to be fatally wrong, no hospital here to pump your stomach. But you eventually spot what appears to be some sort of mammalian animal eating berries from one of those bushes. You reason, “The animal is alive, it’s kind of like me, so those berries are probably edible.”
If someone else is doing something, it’s probably OK. That sounds like a very logical rule of thumb, a heuristic. Most know that we can pretty much eat what mammals such as bears, seals, dogs, and cats eat. But there are exceptions such as eating eucalyptus leaves, the staple of koala bears, or chocolate supposedly being toxic to dogs. Conversely, some things poisonous to other animals are edible for us.
The “math will state” that living by the simple rule of eating something another animal that kind of looks like you eats offers higher odds of surviving to reproduce than playing Russian Roulette with the random variety of unrecognized plants (eating whatever you stumble upon) or starving. Countless other creatures played Russian Roulette for you.
You can benefit from the hard-won information gained by the fortunate ones that survived a particular berry variety by simply copying that creature. No sophisticated thinking is required. You don’t need the intelligence required to add two plus two or reason your odds for winning a round of heads and tails to execute a generalized simple rule: Copy what another creature is doing.
There are at least two major ways that new methods and machines, innovations, and knowledge come to be by we humans. The first way is that we can invent them purposefully using our intellect – so-called “intelligent design”. This can range from something as mundane as organizing my office to meet the competing requirements of comfort, efficiency, function, and pleasing aesthetics to inventing something epic such as it was with the nuclear bomb in Manhattan Project style.
The second way to innovate is less obvious to us in our daily lives but magnitudes more prevalent. That is copying something you observe. You discover a paradise city, it’s mentioned in a highly respected source such as Forbes as a great place to live, and before you know it everyone else has moved there. For me as a programmer, I can “learn” a new programming language fairly quickly by copying snippets of code without ever formally learning the language – even though I will eventually run into walls.
I need to digress a bit to explain that those examples roughly encapsulate Mimetic Theory. We can make decisions based on copying what respected sources are doing or endorses without having to invest a ton of energy getting into the weeds of the decision. However, as such copying of that good advice goes viral, it leads to a follow-up proposition of Mimetic Theory. That is, the increased demand for those resources leads to annoying shortages, leading to conflict – competition for those limited resources. As a great example of Mimetic Theory, I became interested in it because Peter Thiel is heavily influenced by it.
Back to the two mechanisms of innovation. The two mechanisms aren’t mutually exclusive, meaning we don’t use one or the other. In fact, I think one could argue that just about everything we do in the “intelligent designer” mode is founded upon copying and pasting, mixing and matching, copied components already in our heads that we’ve collected over our lives.
The copying mechanism came first. Why? It is much more likely to eventually spontaneously develop in evolution’s big game of chance than the mechanism of “intelligent designers”. Our human intelligence, along with the knowledge and technology we’ve developed using that intelligence is built upon that mechanism of copying.
Is a monkey smart enough to purposefully invent a solution for cleansing dirty yams, for example, taking it to a stream and rinsing it off? That monkey will associate the yam and motions of dipping the yam into the stream with a better eating experience. It isn’t sitting there pondering its discovery, “Eureka! The kinetic energy of the water in the stream and of my hands dislodges pathogenic particles from the yam that would be detrimental to my teeth, sense of taste, and my gut!”
That lucky monkey will “robotically” continue to practice the rinsing ritual. Unlike us, he cannot then write a book on the subject (a good title: The Stream of Cleanliness) and earn a living for the next year or so on the talk show circuit. Or compose a PowerPoint presentation to the decision-making executives in SBAR fashion:
- Situation – We suffer from health problems due to poorly prepared food.
- Background – Yams are dug from the ground. They are dirty.
- Assessment – The mechanized removal of the undesirable matter will result improved taste and hygienic quality of the yams.
- Recommendation – Yams should be transported to a stream where the constant flow of the water and agitation of the undesirable matter by our hands will remove it.
That presentation is well beyond the level of sophistication in the monkey education system. If not for the phenomenon of monkey see, monkey do, that “happy accident” (as Bob Ross would say) will die with that monkey, perhaps not to be re-discovered for millennia: A thousand monkeys eating yams for a thousand years will eventually learn to wash them.
They observe and mimic. Remember, it’s just a heuristic. They really don’t purposefully observe the happy accident and appreciate its value. They just copy it.
On the Shoulders of Consulting Giants
As mentioned earlier, even for we intelligently designing humans, we still primarily copy. Here are a few corporate mantras that refer to copying:
- Why reinvent the wheel?
- We need <insert buzzword of the month here – ex: Big Data>!!!!
- No one was ever fired for hiring IBM.
The last one isn’t necessarily a testimonial to IBM. It means that going with IBM is (was?) such an obvious, almost prudent, choice that no matter how poor the outcome, the executive that approved it couldn’t possibly be faulted. It’s herd mentality. The opposite is Not invented here, which is prideful resistance to copying.
All software developers today copy snippets of code all day long from blogs, github, stackoverflow, posted by the many generous software developers out there. The bulk of the code I write today mostly “plagiarizes” myself out of my toolkit/library of thousands of functions and megabytes of code I’ve written over the years. But most of that code and patterns in my head are in turn learned by copying examples of others.
It’s not cheating (the bloggers usually intend for us to use the examples they provide), or is in any way akin to taking charity (programmers are a prideful lot). It’s prudent. Yes, why reinvent the wheel? I remember back in those pre-Internet 1980s when I pretty much had to re-write practically everything except for the OS and compiler for each customer. Imagine writing my own browser, database engine and providers, analytics graphs, and all!
Metaphor and analogy are a type of copying. Even the overall structure of the analytics systems I develop are based on patterns, “cook books”, decades-old generalized algorithms. It’s all copying.
Envy – The Root of Dukkha
This notion of the simple, primal heuristic of copying is still our predominant mechanism for doing thing, updating our skills, ensuring our fitness in civilization. That’s why advertising works. We’re presented with an image and there’s a good chance we’ll want to copy it, even if it is frivolous or even harmful. We really don’t have enough time to diligently think through every question presented to us, nor do we in reality have all the information we need.
It’s important to note that the model of our envy (the person in possession of what we desire) needs to be someone we perceive as successful. In a nutshell, that would often be those who we’ve been conditioned to perceive as glamorous and/or successful people. As children, we would mimic adults. At the very least the fact that they survived to be older implies that they must be doing things right. So even if you give it no thought at all, it’s a good heuristic.
We humans still take consciously and subconsciously take advantage of the countless unwitting experiments that happen in the world every second. Like gene mutations, the vast majority of these experiments are completely benign, no value, no harm. A few will end up harmful, maybe fatal. Even fewer will end up as a happy accident. Of those rare happy accidents, a small percentage will “go viral” – catch the eye of someone else who will copy it, and it will be observed by others, and on and on.
The problem is that with our unimaginably complex society consisting of seven billion people all connected to Kevin Bacon within six degrees, all striving for a piece of limited resources, there is just way too much to copy. It’s not the simple days of long ago in the days of Moses where envy was dominated by “coveting thy neighbor’s wife”4 or literally looking at that “greener pasture” over yonder.
We’re pulled in all directions, constantly bombarded with ads, not just while watching TV, but also during work hours while innocently researching on the Internet. And they are all appealing! Subconsciously, thousands of functions in your brain are screaming, “I do want all of that stuff!”
In today’s Big Data era, it’s interesting to note that Machine Learning models are just copying machines too. The only difference is that the algorithms look for a rule hidden in our data. No one tells it to us, but we copy it anything under the theory that if it worked before it’ll work now. Again, a pretty good rule of thumb.
Jealousy – Envy’s Partner
The thing about envy is that it’s not just about wanting something someone else has. In our sentient, self-aware brain, coupled with our instinct to survive, it’s also about not losing something we already have to someone envying us. That could be loved ones, our life, things we worked so hard to earn, our good reputation, lack of physical pain. Is this what jealousy is? The flip side of envy – protecting what we have as opposed to wanting something someone else has.
Gratitude – The Antidote for Envy
Each of the seven deadly sins is associated with an antidote, a virtue. For envy, that virtue is gratitude. But being thankful for what we have doesn’t really shut up the dukkha of missing out on all those things going on out there. It’s hard to be grateful for what you have when you’ve fallen short of your hopes or when loved ones are ill. The thing is, those thoughts are just in your head.
Every single thing you feel, whether it’s suffering or joy, are all just computations just in your head. Others may concur with you that this or that sucks or is great. But that’s because we’ve all learned from and taught each other these same things. Agreement by others doesn’t make things right. They are still just computations calculated in your three pound brain.
The reality is:
- We can’t do or have every single thing we observe. Nor do we want every single thing we see.
- We have nothing, and we want nothing. If you don’t understand this, you’ve missed the entire point of Zen. “Want” is the most terrible four-letter word. As Ringo Starr said, “I want nuthin’, not even nuthin’.”
Certainly, all that is going on out there pulling you in every direction isn’t just noise. For every choice we make there are choices we must leave on the table, opportunity costs. So to worry about what we didn’t do is madness since that means we would be in a perpetual state of buyer’s remorse.
Things we envy are of value to someone which for some reason we want to emulate as a model. But that doesn’t mean it’s of more value than what we have. It just means this person is someone your primitive brain considers a worthy model and so there is an instinct to emulate that person.
Cut out that noise. Be here with what is here and now. Yes, other of those countless paths you could be drawn to would lead to something else. But in the end, they are neither worse nor better. All we really want is not to suffer, to not live in a state of dukkha. Love what you have, evolve with it. Nothing is better or worse than anything else.
The Root of Dukkha – Seven Deadly Sins Series
This post on pride and fear is part of a series looking at Dukkha from the point of view of the seven deadly “sins”.
Here are links to great resources on the topic of memes, Mimetic Theory, and mirror neurons. etc:
- Mimetic Theory, Book – Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Wolfgang Palaver
- Memes, Book – The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore
- Opportunity Cost, Book – The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
The puddingstone in the photo at the top represents all the change over the 4+ billion year old life of Earth. This quartzite puddingstone is metamorphosed (a very slow type of metamorphism similar to the slow smoking of brisket BBQ) sand and jasper stones for over two billion years ago, respectively hardened and re-crystallized over billions of years of activity on Earth.
1 By lower-sentience, I mean that I think sentience is a continuum, but there is certainly something different about human sentience.
2 I attempt to tie Buddhism/Zen to ideas from a wide array of disciplines. In order to stick to the topic (Buddhism/Zen) as much as I can, I cannot get too much in the weeds.
3 My reasoning for considering Decision Support Systems as Buddhism is because these systems are directly linked to our thought processes. This is unlike utilitarian software that are more machines like cars than something actually engaged in our decision-making process. I could term these Decision Support systems as analytics, business intelligence, data mining, whatever. Often, the differences in such sets of terms are stretches in order for vendors to differentiate themselves.
4 Moses may have noticed perhaps Aaron was taking a fancy to Mrs. Moses, so he made it one of the Top 10 Rules for Godliness.