Episode 15: Am I More Important Than Everyone Else in the Universe?

rapper on stage at concert facing crowd holding up phones

subscribe for free AND GET the latest PODCAST episodes in your favorite player:

Do each of us believe deep down that we’re just a little bit more important than everyone else? My happiness, my goals, my relationships? The root cause of our suffering from the Buddhist perspective is this belief, a delusion called ignorance, seen as the true source of all our suffering: from disappointment in the face of life’s setbacks, to the dissatisfaction we can feel even when we get exactly what we want. It’s a retelling of the Buddha’s very first teaching, The Four Noble Truths: on suffering, its causes and antidotes, with a modern twist.

Robert Thurman, the foremost Western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, once explained the root of all human suffering in the clearest, most entertaining way that I’ve ever heard. 

He said our problem is that we think, out of everyone we know, out of everyone we’ve ever met or heard of, out of everyone alive on the planet, and every other living creature on Earth—and who knows where else in the universe—that each of us believes, not so deep down inside, that we’re just a little bit more important than everyone else.

Think about this right now. Does it ring true? I’m just a little bit more important than everyone else: my happiness, my goals, my relationships. Do each of us genuinely feel that others’ happiness and goals and dreams are as important as our own? That others’ pain and suffering are equally consequential?

The way Thurman said this was so simple, so funny, and so true, that I often come back to his words when I’m feeling frustrated, angry, craving, or otherwise suffering with a focus on myself, my problems, my needs, and my goals. 

Of course, in theory, others’ lives must be of equal value to mine. And because of the sheer number of others versus the singular me, the sum total of all their concerns should be more important than my own few goals and problems. But for some reason it’s hard, at least for me, to jump from this logical truth to consistently and deeply feeling that others are just as important as me.

I’m Scott Snibbe, and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. In this week’s episode we’ll address the root causes of suffering, a delusion that’s called ignorance. We’ll examine the mental pain that we feel in the face of life’s setbacks, as well as the unsatisfactory way we can feel even when we get exactly what we want. It’s a retelling of the Buddha’s very first teaching with a modern twist.

The Buddha’s first teaching

The topic that we’re addressing today typically goes by the term “suffering,” which makes for lousy marketing. But please stay with me, because I promise this discussion will be worth your while in revealing a deeper path to a satisfying life. 

I don’t even think suffering is the best translation for the Sanskrit term duhkha, which sounds to us like a schoolyard naught word, but is actually a complex term encompassing a broad range of concepts. The term I prefer is “unsatisfactory”: that life is uncomfortable, that problems inevitably arise, and that even in a pleasant life, we nevertheless often feel unsatisfied with our increasing accumulation of objects, goals, and relationships. 

Another term people have also started to use for suffering is “stress,” which I like a lot. Life is stressful! You can see how this is true for everyone, from the homeless to successful but overworked professionals, to older people with lots of free time but the stress of loneliness, sickness, and chronic pain. Even billionaires and superstars experience the stresses of competition and fame’s spotlight. The higher you climb, the fiercer the competition, and the more you have to lose.

I’m going to hone closely to the traditional approach to this topic, where we go through an almost comically exhaustive list of what sucks about life. Then, we move into the mind, where we find the delusions that are the true source of our mental anguish, and also find there the antidotes to eliminate them.

There’s no way to avoid problems in life. But there are ways to remain happy regardless of what problems you encounter. I’ve often summarized Buddhism to my friends by saying that its mind training techniques don’t guarantee freedom from problems, but instead offer a path to happiness and calm through whatever problems we inevitably face.

Why do we contemplate suffering?

Traditionally, Buddhism describes three types of suffering, and it’s helped me immensely to understand suffering through this lens, with a simple structure that I often bring to mind in daily life when encountering problems. Instead of being surprised by problems, now when I encounter them I am often able to think, “Right, it’s that one,” with a small sense of accomplishment at being able to label problems without being wholly caught up in them. 

The Suffering of Suffering

The first form of suffering is called the “Suffering of Suffering”: the things that we all agree are painful, like poverty, sickness, ageing, and death—anything that’s unpleasant. Being criticized, feeling lonely, violence, and the discomfort of heat and cold and physical pain all fit into this category too. 

You may ask what’s the point of meditating on the things that cause us pain. The point is that same one we began with when we started this podcast, to come to a more realistic view of life. With a more realistic view of life we’re then prepared for the inevitable suffering we’ll each experience. And reflecting realistically on suffering helps us turn toward healthy forms of refuge to cope with pain, leading to a genuine happiness and contentment that’s no longer dependent upon our circumstances.

The Suffering of Change

The second type of suffering is called the Suffering of Change. This is a more profound meditation, and better fits the term “unsatisfactory,” because it addresses the dissatisfaction that we feel even when we’re enjoying life’s pleasures. 

In fact, it’s this category that often drives people to Buddhism, and this was the case for me personally. As I started to check off the goals that I had in life: job, good reputation, nice place to live, a partner, possessions, and so on, I found that I still felt a sense of dissatisfaction and irritation

Why is that? The Buddhist view is that no external object brings lasting happiness on its own: not even a great job, a beautiful home, piles of money in the bank, or even a loving partner. 

There’s a simple logic we use in Buddhism to establish this. If external things were the cause of happiness—money, relationships, kids, status—then the more of these we had, the happier we’d get. But that’s not the case. As we achieve and consume and collect more in life, it’s often the case that we become less happy, and long for the simpler life that we had before.

If you’re a White Stripes fan, there’s a great 1-minute song called “Little Room” all about this, from the point of view of a musical artist. The song talks about how when you’re in your starting out in your “little room” you feel hunger and creativity and drive to obtain the bigger room of success. But then once you finally get to that “big room” in life, you find yourself wistfully looking back at that little room, sometimes having nothing to say in that expensive big room, and needing to think back to your little room for inspiration!

The White Stripes, “Little Room” 1-minute song: “Well you’re in your little room / And you’re working on something good / But if it’s really good / You’re gonna need a bigger room / And when you’re in the bigger room / You might not know what to do / You might have to think of / How you got started sitting in your little room.”
(Note “lithium”’s YouTube comment: “Damn, I wish this song was longer!” demonstrating the Suffering of Change).

Happiness and satisfaction are internal experiences of the mind that don’t depend on external conditions. You can have billions of dollars in the bank and feel unsatisfied. And you can be destitute and feel content, happy, satisfied. My father is someone like this, someone who’s terrible with money, regularly on the edge of financial ruin, and yet he’s also one of the happiest people I know on Earth. He’s so happy to wake up and enjoy another day of sunshine and smiles. He doesn’t need anything else. From examples like this we can see that happiness and suffering have mental, not physical causes.

Of course, though, there’s a basic level of needs that everyone requires to even think about such questions. It’s a luxury to contemplate the suffering of being well-off, or bored, or competing to stay at the top. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains the levels of needs that we satisfy in turn before we get to the luxury of the highest point in the pyramid: the self-actualized search for meaning in life.

But most of the audience for this show, people with the leisure time and  access to the technology to listen to podcasts, are likely those who have reached this tip of the pyramid, looking to achieve their full potential in life.

Mazlow’s Pyramid: Hierarchy of Needs. Notice how the fourth tier of the pyramid backs up the view of people often turning to Buddhism at the point when they have achieved what they thought would make them happy in life.

The suffering of change can be summarized succinctly into three points. The first is that the objects we desire change: they wear out, they’re fragile and unreliable. Relationships and status and health can change in an instant. We could lose our job tomorrow. Our partner could leave us. We could fall ill or have an accident. Or go from being respected to ridiculed, justly or not. This is the uncertain nature of life.

A next form of the suffering of change is that, even when our objects don’t wear out, when we don’t lose our jobs, and when our partners don’t leave us, our minds can still change. We can get sick of our old phone, fall out of love, or get bored with our job. So the second form of the Suffering of Change is how our mind is impermanent, how it’s always subject to change.

The last way of understanding the suffering of change is that even when objects don’t wear out, and even when we don’t get sick of them, still, when we die, we lose them too.

Contemplation on the suffering of change isn’t meant to depress you, and you don’t need to give up the pleasing experiences of life. But the point is to come to a realistic view that external objects can never be wholly satisfying; that we need to turn inward for a more reliable source of happiness, on that actually helps us better enjoy life’s pleasures as we fully embrace their impermanence.

All Pervasive Suffering

The last category of suffering is what I found from the traditional Buddhist point of view to be the hardest to understand. This comes back to Robert Thurman’s fabulous joke, which isn’t really a joke at all but the most profound of truths: how each of us inside, deep down, thinks that, out of everyone that’s alive, everyone that’s ever existed, out of all of them, we’re just a little bit more important.

This attitude, Thurman says—and the Buddha said first, of course—is that the deepest source of all our suffering is a specific delusion, called the root delusion, which we usually refer to as ignorance. It’s an ignorance of the deeper truths of reality and the true sources of happiness in life: the ignorance of our deep interdependence with all beings and all nature, the equality of our own needs and the needs of others.

This fundamental ignorance underlies our everyday experience and is the root cause of feeling dissatisfied. When we come to understand this ignorance, we’re then able to more clearly apply the antidotes to find a stable happiness that stays with us whatever our external conditions, whatever our job or relationship or wealth or status, whether alone, or with others.

The Causes of Suffering

As I mentioned, this teaching on suffering, and its causes and antidotes was the Buddha’s very first teaching, which is often translated as The Four Noble Truths. Robert Thurman prefers to call these The Four Facts, which I also find better, because it suggests the empirical, scientific way that the Buddha approached reality instead of the aristocratic sounding “Noble Truths.” 

When I researched the origin of The Four Noble Truths, I found out that the earliest Buddhist scriptures don’t even use the term “noble” at all, but stick to a more empirical way of stating these as Four Truths or Four Facts. 

These Truths have been embraced and taught by many beings of noble spirit, like the Buddha himself and the Dalai Lama today. But you can decide for yourself whether they deserve to be called noble or not. I believe that the Buddha would have encouraged this approach, one that aligns with his advice to empirically test his teachings against your own direct experience like a scientist to determine whether they’re valid for you.

I am just a little more important!

So, suffering has a cause from the Buddhist perspective. And all these forms of suffering are said to stem from a single cause. Ignorance is the root of both ordinary worldly suffering, the Suffering of Suffering, and also the Suffering of Change, when our minds don’t stably find happiness in any external pleasures. 

Both forms of suffering are rooted in Robert Thurman’s joke, that we think we’re just a little bit more important than everyone else; that we have an expectation that things must go our way; that the external universe will bend to our self-centered wishes. And then we get upset when our fantasy of a world that we expect to always please us and never harm us is shattered by the way we actually observe the universe to behave.

It sounds crazy when you state it so plainly, doesn’t it? Most of us really do see the world this way, that we expect it to bring us only good and for problems to avoid us. But we have no control over the universe like this. We only have control over our own minds.

This goes back to the view of Buddhism we started with in our first episode: that all our suffering comes from the simple mismatch between our internal fantasy of the reality we wish for and the actual reality we face.

To put it more plainly, the cause of our suffering is self-centeredness. And the antidote is to come to a clearer sense of our own importance as equal to others; Not inferior, and not self-sacrificing, but to attain a healthy sense of self-respect, and an equal respect for others.

What if I feel less important?

At this point in the logical analysis, some people have the objection, “Well, what if I feel less important? That’s not selfishness or ego, but it’s still a form of suffering.”

However, the Buddhist view on this point is clear. Feeling sorry for yourself or inferior to others is just as equally a manifestation of ego as is feeling superior to others. In each, your emphasis is on yourself.

Instead of “I’m a little bit more important than everyone” (or a lot more important, if you look at some of our megalomaniac leaders). Instead of feeling more important than others, feeling less important is an equally self-centered approach. You’re still thinking of me, but it’s now “poor me” feeling sorry for myself. Feeling that everyone else is better off than you is, unfortunately, also seen as a manifestation of ego, and an equally mistaken view of reality.

It’s a shame to feel this way about your precious life: that it’s not important, that we’re inferior. Because your life is profoundly important. There’s so much you can achieve in each day, and so much simple impermanent beauty to enjoy in the world and in our relationships.

The antidote to dissatisfaction

The last two of the Four Facts are the most hopeful. The first fact was that life is unsatisfactory; the second, that this dissatisfaction has a cause. Now, the third fact is that our internal mental experience of dissatisfaction can be eliminated. 

If you do your homework, you can find people historically, and people living today, and probably even people in your own immediate circle who don’t have this sense of dissatisfaction, who don’t get upset or throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. These are the people whose minds are more aligned with the true nature of reality. 

But that third Truth—that suffering can be eliminate—that truth in itself wouldn’t be that hopeful if it wasn’t for the fourth Truth, which says there’s a path for anyone to eliminate suffering, just as they did.

It’s not a path that magically eliminates worldly suffering like sickness and death and poverty. But it’s a path to eliminate our mental suffering when we rail against reality as it is, when we see ourselves as more important than others, when we expect everything to go our way and then get disappointed when life’s inevitable problems arise.

The root cause of our problems is our delusions

To align our minds with the way things truly are, to find our inner best nature, and to put our expectations in line with reality, then, is the cause of happiness. Paradoxically, expecting problems becomes the source of our happiness. Because problems inevitably occur. Yet if we’re ready for them, we can maintain a stable, even happy mind. 

 This is why Buddhists are always thinking about suffering and death. We’re not depressed or pessimistic. We’re realists, aligning our minds with empirically observable inner and outer realities.

We typically call these states of mind that aren’t aligned with reality delusions. The root of all our suffering and dissatisfaction is these delusions. In fact, as you’re starting to see with Buddhism in this tradition, there is another numbered list that comes into play here, one of three root delusions, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

But before I do, if you have a tiny bit of experience with Buddhism, you may have heard something different. That it’s not delusions, but karma that’s the root of our problems: invisible seeds planted by bad deeds we did in past lives that ripen without our control and cause us to get a great job, or break our leg, or get cancer, or live a long, peaceful life.

This view can be a huge turnoff to those of us who can’t find scientifically verifiable evidence for past lives. And it starts to make Buddhism look not like an empirical adventure into the mind, but like another faith-based religion, with a set of unverifiable beliefs at its core, where karma looks a lot like religious predestination.

But the actual Buddhist view of karma is not so mechanistic, even for those that believe in past lives. Karma is not a random sentence to a reactive life of chaos, where every time something bad happens you feel guilty for your past lives’ past deeds; and every time things go well, you feel proud of your mysterious forgotten acts of goodness.

The teachings on cause and effect, at least in the Tibetan Tradition I’m most familiar with, say that karma itself is a dependent phenomenon, also caught up in our mental habits. These mental habits are the real cause of our suffering, and not mysterious karmic seeds. 

I want to emphasize this point here: that even for Buddhists who wholly believe in karma that ripens across multiple lifetimes, their view of the workings of cause and effect says that karma cannot ripen unless our delusions are active.

It took me a couple decades of researching and thinking and meditating on this topic, and also listening and talking to my teachers, to arrive at this relatively simple point of understanding: that it’s one’s mental training that’s most important when we look at cause and effect

Your future happiness depends on the environment you create within your mind right now. It’s our minds’ habits that cause us to respond destructively or constructively to life’s challenges and windfalls, not the acts themselves. And we can start reinforcing these positive habits right now. You’re doing it as you listen to this podcast, creating the causes of your future satisfaction by cultivating a more realistic view of life’s problems.

So, once again we end up full-circle back at the mind. Because, again, that’s all we really have. All each of us experiences is our inner mental model: mental interpretation of invisible, soundless, tasteless perceptual experiences combined with memories, thoughts, and emotions that our brains and minds mix into a fabricated virtual reality of color, sound, form and strong emotional reactions to conjured illusions.

The emotions that disturb us, the emotions that cause us continual pain, this Fourth Truth of reality, the Fourth Fact, is that our delusions are the root cause of our suffering. 

But the good news is that these delusions can be reduced and eliminated. So, let’s dive into what the delusions are, and their antidotes.

The root delusions

The three root delusions from the Buddhist perspective, the true causes of our suffering and dissatisfaction, are typically called attachment, anger, and ignorance.

These words have Western definitions, so it’s useful to open up your mind to the Buddhist definitions, and let go of how you understand these terms conventionally or clinically.

If we didn’t have delusions, it’s taught that we wouldn’t suffer. And if you’ve been lucky enough to meet people who lack such delusions, or in whom they are greatly reduced, you’ve seen this for yourself. 

My main motivation for entering this path was through observing the profound love and kindness and patience and forgiveness of The Dalai Lama, and then later, the profoundly good qualities of my own Tibetan and Western teachers

I saw the Third Truth for myself in action. I saw real people who seemed to have eliminated anxiety and compulsive desire and endless striving. People  I could sit down a few feet in front of and listen to and observe their joy and contentment up close. 

Some of my teachers had far more difficult external circumstances than I did: imprisoned or tortured for years in Tibet, friends and family murdered, forced to abandon their culture, then struggling for resources in addition to their ordinary sufferings of sickness and pain and loneliness. Yet I seemed to suffer far more than my teachers from my less severe problems with relationship, family, work, health, and money.

Attachment

From this perspective, the delusions are the roots of our suffering, not external circumstances. And for that reason, these three root delusions are often called the Three Poisons. It’s that serious, and they’re that destructive. They poison our ability to be happy, to be present and connected, to enjoy and make the most of our fleeting lives.

A first poison to consider is attachment. Attachment in Buddhism isn’t the healthy, pleasant, connecting form of attachment that psychology talks about between children and their parents or between committed partners, but has a different, precise definition. 

Attachment is when you see an object or person or achievement that you want and you exaggerate its importance; you exaggerate its ability to satisfy you. That’s it. A better term for “attachment” might be “compulsive desire.” Sometimes we just say “desire,” but there are many healthy desires, like the desire to help others. So, desire may be a poor term for this strong, painful mental experience of attachment.

When you’re feeling attachment, it’s not pleasant. You feel that if you don’t obtain that person, that thing, or that achievement then you can’t be happy. You must have it. And this strong, compulsive, exaggerated view can make you do bad things in order to achieve what you want.

Some practical examples are that you might want sex so much that you’re willing to abuse or exploit another person to get it. You might want certain foods so much that you’re willing to sacrifice your health and lifespan for their taste, eating to excess. You might want a job or position of status so much that you’re willing to competitively destroy a close friendship in order to achieve it. And you might crave money or possessions so much that you’re willing to steal or cheat or lie to obtain them.

But then when you obtain these, they don’t bring you lasting happiness. And it’s not just because of the collateral damage in unethically obtaining the objects. Even when you obtain your objects of attachment honestly, without harming others, still, these external objects don’t bring true, deep, lasting happiness. External objects lack the ability to fully satisfy you: even a loving partner, a safe home, a good job. If they did, then everyone who had these things would be happy, but they aren’t.

I’ve observed this in myself. I’ve noticed that when I finally obtained something I felt strong desire for: some form of success, a relationship, a sexual connection, or financial security. When I closely observed my mind at these moments, I saw that the pleasant feeling in my mind didn’t come from obtaining the object, but was actually my mind finally, for a moment, being free of the irritation of compulsive desire! It was being free from attachment for a short while that gave me peace, not obtaining the object itself.

“It was being free from attachment for a short while that gave me peace, not obtaining the object itself.

Deep happiness comes from something that, at first, can feel scary and painful, which is giving up our attachment. There isn’t a path to true happiness without doing this. You can do it slowly and gently and patiently and never get down on yourself, accepting yourself as you are each step along the way. You start with weaker objects of attachment and move gradually to the stronger ones. But your attachment is not your friend. Your attachments and addictions aren’t helping you, and they aren’t an important part of who you are.

The Tibetan Buddhist path can be a little easier for modern people to follow than some other paths, because in this path we don’t say that you have to give up any of these objects. You can keep your job, your partner, your delicious meals, and everything else. My teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, once gently scolded a student who was criticizing another for staying in a fancy hotel. Rinpoche said, “What do you mean? The best place to meditate is a five-star hotel!”

And I just loved hearing a lama say this, because it makes sense. A hotel is a very nice place compared to a cold mountain cave or a hard sidewalk. And I appreciated his commonsense admission that luxury and pleasure are indeed enjoyable. But what Rinpoche and our other Buddhist teachers explain is how to properly enjoy things.

It’s possible to enjoy things without attachment, to see their impermanent, fleeting nature, and to become aware at all times of our evolving mental experience itself instead of projecting happiness onto the objects around us. 

It’s the mental experience of the object that we’re enjoying, not the object itself. And the path to happiness is conditioning our minds so that they don’t expect and demand more pleasures for continued happiness. 

In this way, paradoxically, from this middle-way Tibetan Buddhist view, you’ll actually enjoy life more by accepting whatever comes to you, whether pleasure or pain.

Next week, we’ll do meditations on the antidotes to attachment. But for now, to quickly mention them, when you find yourself feeling strong attachment, you can observe that feeling and see how it’s an exaggerated one. You’re grossly over-exaggerating the ability of that object to please you.

So, one antidote is to realistically and deliberately consider the faults of the object you’re craving. Like in a relationship, your partner may seem perfect and beautiful at first, but inevitably you’ll get to intimately know each other’s faults; to annoy each other; and, of course, your physical beauty will fade too.

You don’t do this meditation to the point of disgust, but to the point that you have a balanced, 360 view of the reality of the object, and not this exaggerated view that the object is wholly pleasurable. When you expect problems and change, you’re ready for them, you’re seeing reality as it truly is rather than your projected fantasy.

There are other more powerful antidotes that we’ll introduce in a few weeks—the most profound antidotes. One is embracing your attachment to generate a deep sense of compassionate connection with all beings, channeling and purifying attachment’s strong energy. Another is using your attachment to understand the profound interdependent nature of reality, your connection to all beings and and even to all of nature and the universe.

Anger

Anger is the second of the three root delusions to consider. Its definition is similar to attachment, similarly clear and simple, compared to the complexity of the Western view of this emotion. From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, anger is encountering an object or experience that you dislike and exaggerating its harm.

I can see this in myself when I get angry at something trivial, like a person cutting ahead in line. You can see your primitive brain incorrectly interpreting this trivial event as a life or death threat. This is a form of projection, where we give more power to objects than they truly have. The person cutting ahead of you doesn’t have the power to anger you. Anger is an internal conditioned experience of the ego being thwarted and throwing a tantrum. 

The reality of external objects that seem to infuriate us is that they are neutral. They have no inherent power to harm or to help us. Whether our mind gets angry is only determined by how our mind has been conditioned to react based on habits that we’ve deliberately or mindlessly cultivated. 

When we get what we don’t want, or when we don’t get what we want, we can simply observe that experience. This is the approach of mindfulness, a great antidote to anger and attachment. Instead of reacting, we just observe the experience itself: you watch what’s literally happening in front of you or inside you, and observe without becoming these thoughts and feelings.

And then you can observe your reaction. You can observe your anger (or with the prior delusion, you can observe your attachment). Seeing the mental experience of anger or attachment from a distance becomes a powerful antidote that reveals your deeper nature and gives you control over your body, speech, and mind.

Again, we’ll do some meditation on the antidotes to delusions next week. But a powerful antidote to anger is that, just as we contemplate the faults of an object of attachment, with anger we can contemplate the benefits of unpleasant experiences. 

We’ve each met or at least read about people who have said that the seemingly worst experiences of their lives have been transformative experience that made their lives substantially better: Even tragedies like getting cancer or losing a loved one; that this experience ripped them out of a more trivial, unconsidered way of living, propelling a powerful change in their life that made it more meaningful and satisfying.

We don’t wish these problems like this on ourselves or on anyone else. But contemplating the possible benefits of bad experiences that you’re currently having, or ones you resent from the past, or ones that you might encounter in the future can be healing and transformative.

There are countless stories of the transformative power of difficult experiences: from disease to financial ruin to injury and even losing your loved ones. This approach requires courage. But contemplating the benefits of negative experiences helps prepare you for when they inevitably occur.

I was reminded of the power of difficult experiences by a friend I recently met up with who had suffered a concussion that caused him to lose both his business and his relationship. He was thrown into poverty subsistence as his mind was unable to focus with the aftereffects of the injury. 

Yet, he said that he much preferred the person he eventually became as a result of the injury; that it had made him a better, more compassionate, less competitive person in a way that he saw no path to before the accident. It had driven him toward healthy mental and physical pursuits like yoga and meditation that profoundly transformed his life.

Contemplating the benefits of difficult experiences is the main practice that’s taught at this stage of the path. Other, more subtle antidotes occur later on the path. The nuclear weapons of Buddhist teachings include Great Compassion, a technique that uses anger to feel a connection with everyone else who’s angry, in a way that universalizes our experience as a cause for increasing compassion. Another very strong technique that we’ll also explore later is the subtler expansion of Cause and Effect, where we go more deeply and subtly into the dependent origination of all phenomena, and see how everything depends on the mind itself. 

Ignorance

The last delusion is the root cause of all the others. It’s called ignorance, and it’s not as precisely defined as anger and attachment. Different traditions have varying descriptions of what ignorance is, depending on the time, culture, and audience. However, they all map to different teachings that the Buddha gave, and there are coarser and subtler views of ignorance.

To be practical, ignorance is an ignorance of the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering. Every day, countless people who want to be happy instead create for themselves the causes of suffering by not understanding the true causes of happiness.

If you look at the person you most despise—perhaps a political leader of the opposite party, or some global criminal—if you get a little distance from your anger you can see that he or she is acting out of an internal logic that’s convinced their actions will make them happy. 

They often believe their actions are even in the best interest of the world, in the service of a great cause. Though their actions are pissing you off, inside that person’s mind, they believe that what they are doing will bring happiness for both themselves and others. That is one form of ignorance: pursuing actions that aren’t the cause of one’s own internal, lasting mental happiness or the happiness of others.

When you see the world in this way, you naturally expand your compassion. Because you see that people don’t act from purely evil motivations, but from a misguided view that what they are doing will make them happy. 

Even the people who’ve committed the worst crimes on earth believed that the crimes they were committing would bring happiness for themselves and often for others. But it’s a profoundly distorted, wrong-headed view of cause and effect. Because, in fact, they are bringing suffering to even themselves. When you look at those creating great harm in the world, doing great wrongs, do they really seem happy?

On a deeper level, ignorance is an ignorance of our equality with others; that, as Robert Thurman says, we aren’t the most important person in the world. But neither are we the least important. We each equally deserve happiness and are equally important beings in the universe.

There’s also a subtler form of ignorance as to how the universe and our minds operate, in an endless dependent chain of cause and effect. This is a topic that we’ll explore in depth in a few weeks, a topic traditionally called Emptiness or dependent origination.

Hopefully this tour of suffering has been more interesting and encouraging than you expected. Your comments and questions are welcome on our website at skepticspath.org. There’s also a private discussion group on our Facebook page that you’re welcome to join for a more intimate discussion of each episode. 

I look forward to next week, when we’ll do a practical meditation on suffering, its roots, and its antidotes, a practice that brings us to a more realistic view of life and our place in it. A practice that brings us an understanding that the true cause of a happy, meaningful life is to embrace the full range of human experience without attachment, anger, or ignorance.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

SHARe

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

SHARe

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

JOIN OUR MAILING LIST

JOIN OUR
MAILING LIST

Sign up and receive a free “Simple Ten-minute Meditation” MP3 and PDF. We’ll never sell your email and all our content is free.