Suffering + Internal Dialogue
"Beginning an internal dialogue doesn’t start with a leap of faith, but with a careful observation of ones own experience. A deepening of self-awareness with as least judgement as possible."
This is easier said than done, as I’m sure many of you who have tried to go within have found.
B. Alan Wallace offers some insight into why this first stage of developing awareness is often a complex blend of pain and anxiety. “Among the many facets of experience that we can attend to, Buddhism pays specific attention to the phenomenon of suffering”.
Why would I do this? Why pay attention to that which is hurting me? Isn’t that what chronic depressives do? How is that going to help me lead an unbound life? While a religion with its intricacies and formalities, there is much value in Buddhist thought that can be adopted in an agnostic sense. The focus into suffering is one of these.
So why the focusing in on suffering?
To answer this, first we must look into the causes of suffering. After all, if we’re not aware of the root causes of all that creates pain, how then are we supposed to live without suffering in a sustainable, realistic 21st century world? There are two root causes of suffering as emphasised in the Buddhist religion.
The crucial problem is we don’t know what we’re doing. I’ll explain what I mean. When we’re young, our awareness is bound usually to our family and perhaps a few close friends. As we age and learn more, adapt to our physical, social and emotional surroundings, our awareness expands to notice more and more intricacies in the everyday. The issue in this unbounded awareness is that our thinking brain begins to get overloaded with information to the point it becomes impossible to analyse all that’s coming in.
This is where your reticular activating system comes in. Located in the brain stem, the RAS is responsible for filtering all incoming data into ‘useful’ constructs and omitting patterns not recognised as useful. Evolutionarily speaking, the RAS helped early homo-sapiens identify between predator, prey and mates. Without the existence of civilised society or technology, this played a vital part in our survival and everyday functioning. Our survival depended on our attachment to the trueness or accuracy in responding to whatever was observed in both external and internal environments.
However, as we’ve transitioned into technologically advanced civilisations, not only is there so much more data available, but most of us are still bound by the awareness allowed by our RAS. This is a psychological phenomenon known as ‘tunnel vision’.
"We see only that which we want to see."
While an important system in a fiercely competitive environment, it can hinder our own development in that we will always be searching for and agreeing with data that supports our current world view. If we exist in a constant state of competitive fear, we’re only going to see fear and obstacles.
Compound this with social expectations, emotional fluctuations and personal character development, one can appreciate how the very constructing of our own realities serves to help and hinder our everyday functioning.
Delusion takes many forms, but key to them all is an attachment to an incomplete illusion of ourselves. Developing awareness of this illusion is as hard as it is simple.
One of the first steps involved in internal dialogue is shifting attention to things you might usually ignore. For example, when was the last time you noticed the sway of the trees in the wind, or to that discomfort in your back?
Stemming from the first come all the distortion induced ‘twistings of the mind’ including hatred, resentment, craving, hostility and a myriad other derivative afflictions.
An illustration best highlights this second cause of suffering; secondary suffering.
Person X has a weight issue. They try to fast, diet and exercise, but all ends in disappointment and a return to their old habits after a few weeks. This person says ‘I can’t lose weight’. They believe they can’t lose weight. Their RAS is going to be finding examples to support this and omitting those that don't. This person will remain in this cycle until new acceptance is reached.
For this person, that might be an acceptance that the path to health is not a sprint but steady, purposeful walk. Without acceptance of this awareness, person X is likely to continue their self-fulfilling prophecy until they die.
Many of us fall into the trap of playing victim to secondary suffering; one of the many bonuses of our over-developed parietal cortices.
"Unlike in healing primary suffering where we foster an active shift in awareness to alternative stimuli, steps in healing secondary suffering afflictions lie in accepting who we are and how we are relating to that stimuli."
For person X, they may feel disappointed and angry with themselves. They may feel happy or relaxed when they eat too much. These thoughts and feelings blend to construct (in a ‘chicken-egg’ type scenario) judgements on the event of failing to lose weight.
Judgements formed may include ‘I will always be fat’, ‘diets don’t work for me’, ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I love eating’, ‘I hate myself’, ‘other people think I’m disgusting’.
Healing secondary sufferings is rooted in the practice of detached compassion; noticing these judgements and being curious about them.
A first step might be to write down your thoughts, feelings and sensations through the day. We’ll talk more on the value of journalling for internal dialogue soon.
In the words of Aristotle, ‘the ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival’. Only when the root causes of suffering can be noticed and accepted can one shift from mere survival to a life of deeper, more meaningful dialogue with self and other.