Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | February 10, 2015

Suffering or Potential?

A friend shared this interesting lecture with me. It crystallized something important that I’ve pondered for many years.

Reality and the Sacred

(You can find a transcript here, although the video link there is broken, fyi.)

Consider this excerpt:

The primary Buddhist dictum is that life is suffering. What does that mean? It means that because you’re finite and you’re surrounded by something that’s absolute, in a sense you’re in a battle you can never win because there’s always more of what it is that you’re trying to contend with than there is with you. And worse than that, and it’s for this reason that tyrannies can’t last, is that the thing that you’re contending with isn’t even static. It keeps changing. So that what worked for you yesterday won’t necessarily work for you tomorrow.

Makes sense, right?

That’s the power of the occult (hidden, obscure). What wasn’t mentioned slants the whole picture by omission, so you don’t have a clue that it’s happening. There are alternatives to the assumptions that Peterson makes, but since he presents them without question as givens, the possibility of alternatives never gets raised.

To illustrate, consider the same paragraph revised to reflect alternate assumptions. It’s logically just as sound as the original:

The primary alternative to the Buddhist dictum that life is suffering is that life is potential. What does that mean? It means that because you’re finite and you’re surrounded by something that’s absolute, in a sense you’re in an opportunity you can never fully appreciate because there’s always more of what it is that can empower you to achieve what you want than there is against you. And better than that, and it’s for this reason that tyrannies can’t last, is that the thing that assists you isn’t even static. It keeps changing. So that what worked for you yesterday can work even better for you tomorrow.

So why is “life is suffering” so compelling? It’s not logically more compelling than the second version. And in fact it’s not quantitatively more compelling, either — not when you quantify suffering experienced vs. suffering anticipated vs. neutral-to-positive events experienced.

Suffering is, aside from what we imaginatively inflict on ourselves by prognostically evoking our own emotional responses, an incredibly small fraction of our real, unimagined experience. This is what insights about “presence” and “being in the present” help us realize: when we decline to listen to our raucous inner voices and instead tune into actual experience of immediate existence (which, for example, is what meditation is mainly about — but then again so are hiking and fishing and sitting on a cliff gazing over the Grand Canyon or lying on your back on the Mojave sands under a black sky looking at the stars and the moon…) we experience something quite different than suffering.

So, I guess the question is, what do we choose to pay attention to?

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Responses

  1. Video link = dead end; FYI


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