You don’t have to believe in souls or reincarnation to follow Buddhist principles.
Because of how Buddhism deals with the problem of human suffering.
You know, that huge problem that affects us all.
Buddhism and human suffering
Buddha’s Four Noble Truths speak to the nature of human suffering:
1st Noble Truth: To live is to suffer. Because it’s human nature to desire things. And when those desires aren’t met, suffering results.
- 2nd Noble Truth: Having expectations, cravings, and desires, and clinging/attaching to “things” as if they are permanent (when in fact phenomena are ever-changing) likely results in being let down and disappointed — when expectations, cravings, and desires aren’t met, and when “things” actually change.
- 3rd Noble Truth: Letting go of expectations, cravings, and desires, and ceasing to cling/attach to an illusory world (including such constructs as selfhood) — relieves human suffering.
- 4th Noble Truth: You can condition your mind to stop clinging and attaching. (Through techniques like mindfulness meditation.)
Buddha arrived at these truths in reaction to all the human suffering he saw in society — after leaving his former life of royalty.
He thought the solution was to rewire the mind. Rid people of having desires, which could hurt them in the end.
That’s like giving up before trying, lowering your expectations, and devaluing who you are.
The brain evolved to desire, expect, and anticipate the future. If it didn’t, we’d be extinct.
Where Buddhism falls short
The solution of “letting go of all desires” evades the issue.
The real way to prevent human suffering in the world — is complicated.
Because real solutions require that people accept the uncertainty of living without becoming pessimistic, detached, or in judgment of all things human, and choose response ability as their constant. That’s the only thing they can count on.
Real solutions also require nations, leaders, and peoples to stop treating others with disrespect, disregard, and in some cases, hatred.
Which requires that nations, leaders, and peoples learn how to care and have empathy for others.
And that requires that leaders, nations, and peoples learn how to care for themselves first. Get in touch with their own emotions, and especially their own pain.
So that they can heal and transform their negative experience into something positive — instead of making others suffer in hopes of validating their pain.
Addressing man-made human suffering
Evil is not something inherent in the world. Evil is learned behavior.
Stemming from lack of proper care, nurture, safety, and healthy development. And grounded in dysfunctional parental and cultural upbringing.
To conquer evil, you have to conquer the human heart. You have to teach people to heal. Grow from pain. Cultivate gratitude from anger and hate. Become emotionally resilient and so committed to their life goals and values — that they change the world just by breathing.
Science and human suffering
In an ideal world, science and technology aim to make life easier, healthier, and more productive.
So why do they create more problems than they solve?
Because the problems are human problems. Regarding interpersonal relationships. Constructive communication. Managing negative emotions effectively. Politics that serve people, not pocket books. And not just a handful of people at that.
The technology itself isn’t enough.
If advanced extraterrestrials bestowed us with technologies beyond our dreams, that wouldn’t guarantee we could fix our mess. And it could open up even more daunting problems.
Human suffering is a human problem. Not a technological one.
Psychology and human suffering
In an ideal world, psychology aims to alleviate human suffering.
Research is supposed to help us understand how humans work. Clinical work is supposed to put those findings to practice.
“[S]uccess in therapy depends in large part on its ability to combat the patient’s demoralization and heighten his hopes of relief. All forms of psychotherapy do this implicitly, regardless of their explicit aims. Progress in therapy, in turn, further shifts the balance toward the ‘welfare emotions’ […] such as love, joy, and pride, so that, with luck, the process becomes self-enhancing.”
– Jerome Frank
It’s natural to want to shift toward the “welfare emotions.”
But the “negative” emotions have their place too. Firstly, “welfare emotions” wouldn’t exists without them. Secondly, they provide tremendous fuel for not just “welfare emotions,” but also growth, wisdom, resilience, and compassion in action.
The clinical setting has its own set of problems — when the goal is to eradicate human suffering by masking symptoms with drugs or alternate states of consciousness. Symptoms signal problems. Problems have to be fixed, or they won’t go away.
Transhumanism and human suffering
Transhumanist David Pearce is the founder of BLTC Research, which aims to:
“…abolish the biological substrates of suffering. Not just in humans, but in all sentient life.”
Buddhists may try to abolish suffering through mental discipline. And psychologists may use talk therapy, drugs or other interventions.
But transhumanists are desperate to achieve this from the bottom up. By engineering a new man. Which may not even be human.
Buddhists want to eradicate human nature from the mind.
Transhumanists want to eradicate humans from the planet.
That would more effectively solve the problem of human suffering, don’t you think?
A dangerous link
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
This concerted effort to eradicate the substrates of suffering — doesn’t bode well for the hopes of an emotionally literate, emotionally intelligent, and truly compassionate human race.
Because in the practical sense — or according to Buddhism, mainstream psychology, and transhumanism — eradication of suffering translates to: eradication of “negative emotion.”
When you “get rid” of negative emotion, you lose your ability to:
- Discern between what’s right and what’s wrong for you (fear and anger provide clear signals)
- Think for yourself, as an independent individual who might have gripes, concerns, or worries about the world
- Become truly grateful for all the bad things in your life, such that you can transform negative experiences into positive and self-empowering outcomes
- Experience genuine compassion, where you can feel another’s because you are in touch with your own, and have empathy for adversity because you can understand how they’re driven by wounds
And that’s only a few examples.
Buddhism and science are teaming up to make us more enlightened, happier, better people.
Or are they?
Next week we’ll look at some hidden dangers of the latest collaboration between Buddhism and psychology: mindfulness meditation. Subscribe to the feed to stay tuned.
This is the 5th article in the series, “Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review.”
What do you think?
About Buddhism as a religion, as a practice, or a pet theory for scientists who want to bring about a Utopian future? How can we use the Buddhist perspective in a balanced way?
What do you think about human suffering? Should we try to get rid of it? Learn from it? Or actually start accepting that it’s a natural part of life?
Want to learn more about how to fix the real problems that lead to suffering? Sign up for the free e-class, Your Life is Your Construct.