In Buddhist traditions, unnecessary suffering is caused by the three poisons: passion, aggression, and ignorance.
Ignorance may be the most important of these three. It refers to ignorance of the fact that there is no stable, continuous self.
There is no self, we are interdependent
There certainly can be a stable story of myself: I am a Father of Skye and Rumi, husband to Lael, and so on. But, this is a story like many other stories I could tell: about Mark Shepard’s restoration agriculture farm, for example. Regarding the self, there is only a set of body sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arise in each moment as a consequence of three factors: (1) our genetics, (2) our learning history up to this moment, and (3) the context of this moment. For example, if I write the words “peanut butter”, the words cause relevant neurons to fire and you might become aware of the thought “jelly” or “sandwich” or “allergy”. It could be said that who you are at this moment is the landscape of neural networks primed by the current context along with the state of your body. That self is always changing in almost every way, from cells to hormones to stomach contents to neuron firing, and so on. Thus, that self will differ from moment to moment; it is not stable or continuous. Furthermore, the self, defined in this way, is not separate from anything else – we are interdependent with everything else, constantly involved in a complex dance in which our history interacts with the present, itself the result of such a complex interplay of interconnections, we humans can’t possibly understand it all. Thus, not only is the self not stable or continuous, it is exquisitely temporary, connected and interdependent. Yet, if we are too caught up in the easy delusion of a stable and continuous self, it is easy to see why passion and aggression, the other two poisons, would be so prevalent. Passion and agression is centrally represented in psychology, in the form of approach and avoidance.
Passion refers, in part, to grasping and trying to hold on to things that make us feel good (approach) – that thing makes us feel good, so we want more of that thing for as long as possible. Aggression refers, in part, to pushing away things that make us feel bad (avoidane) – that thing makes me feel bad, so I want less of that thing for less time.
Of course we all want more pleasure and less pain. So, why would passion and aggression lead to more suffering rather than less. There are entire books written on this subject, but for our purposes, we can make a simple point. For complex lives, more information is better. But what if that information comes in the form of unpleasant emotion or pain? We want to get rid of that unpleasant emotion or pain, right? Welcome to a very biased filter on perceiving reality.
Here’s a fun example. If you feel pain from touching a hot stove, would you (a) disconnect the pain nerves in your hand or (b) remove your hand from the stove? Option “a” is absurd, yet whereas we treat physical pain as useful information that guides appropriate behavior (e.g., removing my hand from the stove), we often want to deal with unpleasant emotion differently. We want to avoid unpleasant emotion (which is different than negative emotion) do the equivalent of disconnecting the nerves rather than notice the unpleasant emotion and process the useful information it provides to guide our behavior. The point is that the best way to go through life is by using all of the information available to navigate a given situation (something we might call intimacy with reality) and that, sometimes, unpleasant emotion or pain is part of that information. It’s not the kind of intellectual information we learn in school, but it is information nonetheless. Mindfulness is one way we can practice attending to all of the information available, including unpleasant emotion, and thus have the most information possible to inform our life’s behaviors. It is important to be clear that we need all the information available to us. This will include pleasant emotions and thoughts and unpleasant alike.
Putting all of this together can help explain the scientific evidence that making stable, global, and internal attributions is associated the hopelessness and depression. If a student fails a math test and automatically has the thought, “I’m stupid”, this attributes their failing test grade to an internal cause (me) that is stable over time (“I’m stupid” is a trait that does not change over time) and is global (“I’m stupid” implies being stupid at everything, not just math). This is a dramatic and empirically validated illustration of treating the self as stable and continuous and independent, rather than interdependent. In this case, hopelessness depression, which has been reliably associated with suicide, is a very clear example of unnecessary suffering. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), both well validated treatments for depresssion, owe some of their effectiveness to helping people realize how inaccurate these stable, global, and internal attributions are.