The focus of Buddhist teaching, as we’ve discussed, is on suffering—from where it originates, and how it can be overcome.
My understanding is that the suffering with which buddhism is concerned is generally of the mental variety rather than the physical. Certainly physical pain isn’t merely some illusion of the mind (though the point is probably open for argument), but results from some specific internal or external cause. Whether you’ve stubbed your toe, broken your collarbone, or have some painfully debilitating condition, physical suffering can be difficult or nearly impossible to escape from or ignore.
Mental suffering, on the other hand, may not be nearly as easy to pin down, coming as it may from within or without, from truth or fantasy, or from a myriad of other sources, real or imagined. Maybe a friend is sick, or your favorite show got cancelled, or you screwed up at work, or you’re struggling over a major decision… many things can be a source of mental suffering, even without you really being aware of them.
Buddhism’s argument, however, is that we are ultimately the cause of our own suffering. We view reality in the present moment through the filters of the past and the imagined future. My mother has always been there, and therefore she must always be there. I am here, therefore I am here. We think of our reality as endless, or rather, we don’t think of our reality as temporary. Of course, consciously we may acknowledge the inevitability of change, death, or loss, but we don’t believe in it subconsciously.
This, in a way, is attachment.
If we contemplate, or directly experience something’s mutability or impermanence, it causes suffering—not because impermanence is unnatural, bad, or avoidable, but because it doesn’t fit our view of that thing. The thing itself is not responsible for our suffering, nor is—in a strict sense—the instrument of change or impermanence (be it old age, a
car accident traffic collision*, or a change of heart). Rather, it is our attachment to the thing—our belief in its permanence—that causes our suffering.
So, if our goal is to address and hopefully eliminate our suffering, the first thing we have to do is to understand the nature of the attachments that are causing it. It’s perhaps just as easy—and at the same time, not even close to as easy—as that sounds, to identify and address our attachments. This is where meditation, or at least a sustained practice of self-reflection comes into play.
Meditation will allow you to sit with your suffering and study it—how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking about it, and what’s causing it. As you dig deeper into the nature of your attachment, you’ll also be teaching yourself how to recognize it, and how to deal with it. And that’s the first step to ending suffering—learning to recognize, acknowledge, and deal with your attachments more appropriately.