Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Aphorisms on Suffering, part 2

Part I here.

The unconscious mind is not fully ours; it is part animal, part heritage.

The conscious mind is not fully ours as well; it is part society, part reasoning.

As Freud pointed out a century ago, civilization is a yoke on our instincts. That is what makes us human.

Similarly, reasoning (which is individual) is in constant friction with conditioning (which acts at the level of the collective).

"Will" is something marvelously human. It is to act under the guidance of the neo-cortex, with the drive (say, lust, or to seek approval) very likely being beneath the surface.

Suffering is the inability of our drives to find fulfillment and flourishing, either due to internal conflicts, or because of opposition from outside. An example of the former is lust versus shyness. An example of the latter is the desire for financial security versus currency inflation.

The conscious brain's primary purpose is to mediate between the various conflicting inner drives ("have better self-esteem"), and to seek a workaround/path through outer obstacles ("try to have a nest-egg in the bank").

Suffering has grades, obviously. Something might just lightly impinge on our moral senses (a news item about corruption in a far-off country), or something might lead of a paroxysm of pain (the death of one's child).

As long as one wants a certain state of affairs, the distancing from that state of affairs is tautologically painful.

Ved Vyas (in Bhagwad Gita) was naive is exhorting people to pursue a goal without desire. Why will they pursue at all? Why will someone go through intense pain and obstacles if there is no desire for the result? The most probable reason for this kind of exhortation is to have people follow the desires of others (kings and brahmins), which is an interesting kind of peaceful co-existence.

One's dharma is, in quite a few cases, others' desires.

Desire follows from attachment to certain states and values. If you say you do not desire anything, but still engage in willful acts, then you don't know yourself, yet. (it is at least highly probable that you are attached to a certain philosophy of seeming detachment, with spiritual undertones)

What is perhaps more useful is to say: Don't be needlessly attached. (someone criticizes Bon Jovi, and a fan commits suicide)

As long as there are inner drives, it is inevitable that they will conflict with each other at times. Inevitably, they will require prioritization and lead to suffering (the lower priority drive will feel thwarted). "What do you want more?" is an interesting question of the psyche, and one which has not received the kind of attention in spiritual literature that it deserves.

Similarly, as long as we exist in a physical world with limited resources and competition, it is inevitable that our desires for objects will meet with resistance.

To live is to live with this complexity.

The more developed someone's neo-cortex is, the more is the possibility of his conflict with his inner drives and with the external world. In that sense, though an infant cries, it is more in bliss than an adult who cries (because an infant's conscious brain does not intrude and say: do not cry).

Perhaps "ignorance is bliss" is better phrased as: "unconsciousness is bliss".

As an adult gains in consciousness, he gains also the consciousness of the various conflicts inside and outside. A child is blissfully aware that the world is an arena of conflict. An adult has to live with this knowledge. An adult wishes for infancy at times, but forgets that as an infant he was taken care of by other adults who had to live with what he wants to avoid.

If the inner conflicts are unbearable, psychological intervention is required. Similarly, if the outer conflicts turn violent (say, a war-torn zone), UN is supposed to step in.

On the other hand, there is a normal level of conflict (inner and outer), and hence of suffering, that is considered acceptable. A horny but shy adolescent is a normal human being. A poor man wanting a better life is considered to have normal desires.

Unfortunately, a high degree of suffering (due to circumstances, or due to sensitivity) can make one give up on life as it is, as being too stressful and not worth it. Depression, introversion, renunciation while in youth, celibacy, suicide, (unless whimsical) are results of severe maladjustment.

To know that suffering is inevitable, but to want to study it deeply and act so that its needless instances can be ameliorated (e.g. in cases where it is not a zero-sum situation), both for oneself and for others, is the hallmark of adulthood.

Seekers are infantile in their self-superiority.


Modern Man said...

Greetings Harman,

While I agree that those of us who already exist should accept that suffering is inevitable, one can prevent passing on this very suffering to future generations by refusing to procreate.

I anticipate that you'd consider an anti-natalist maladjusted, but I'd argue that their proposed solution is a direct consequence from the line of reasoning you demonstrated in this post.


Anonymous said...

UG Kishnamurthy:

All I can guarantee you is that as long as you are searching for
happiness, you will remain unhappy.

The plain fact is that if you don't have a problem, you create one.
If you don't have a problem you don't feel that you are living.

Atmospheric pollution is most harmless when compared to the spiritual
and religious pollution that have plagued the world.

Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, where as culture
has invented a single mold to which all must conform. It is grotesque.

Anonymous said...

We have two types of suffering: the physical (pain, diseases, aging...) and the virtual due some dysfunctional thought processes (anguish, boredom, pleasure...). Both disturbs the body. The solution is very simple: make more money. Don´t go in search for suffering administration or whatever. Go for money. Just do it. Forget all the garbage (third or fourth alternatives and so on). Money is enough. But remember: to make money and work to be rich are different goals. Go ahead. Use your brain to put cash on the barrel.
Money, love it or leave it.

Harmanjit Singh said...


Though I like your simple approach, it has its downsides.

After a certain level of affluence, money (which is essentially contract power over others) has diminishing returns. It is perhaps much more interesting at that stage to know how to get the maximum "bang for the buck", i.e. how to spend money in a way which makes one (or those to whom one is attached) feel good, meaningful, happy, etc.

Change said...

Nice analysis. Interesting to read and analyse.
//In that sense, though an infant cries, it is more in bliss than an adult who cries (because an infant's conscious brain does not intrude and say: do not cry).//
//Perhaps "ignorance is bliss" is better phrased as: "unconsciousness is bliss".//

When the child cries, is it ignorant of something? Perhaps, the social conditioning which makes an adult’s brain intrude and say ‘do not cry’ does not exist within the brain of a child. The child is not ignorant of the conditioning, but the fact is that the child does not have the conditioning itself, either to be aware off or to be ignorant off.

On the other hand, the adult’s brain which intrude and say ‘do not cry’ is conditioned such a way that it intrudes. Actually such a brain is ignorant of the conditioning. If that brain is aware of the social conditioning, it may not intrude to say ‘do not cry’, if such a thing is really not required. Hence, ignorance cannot be bliss. Probably we do not know what is bliss. That may be the reasons for making such assumptions!

Harmanjit Singh said...


Moderation of one's instinctual reactions, absent in a child, is present in an adult.

I wouldn't call that merely conditioning. It is also reasoning, sensitivity to others' mental states, and an evolved consciousness which makes one say something to oneself like "do not cry".

A child doesn't really have the evolved awareness of its internal mental states in a way that can eventuate self-intervention.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be misquoting or misunderstanding the philosophy of the Gita. Gita extols you to perform your duty without fail but not to be attached to the result of the action. Because the result is not dependent only on the person who performs the action, but on many other factors not fully in his control.
No one said that do not desire the goal or lose focus on the goal. Infact Krishna tells Arjuna to never lose focus on the goal. The result of an action is the outcome, whether a goal is achieved or not, and this is not fully in the hands of the one who performs the action. Holding oneself solely responsible for the result or being attached to it is the error in the thought process(illusion) that leads to unstable states of suffering or exaltation.

Harmanjit Singh said...


"Gita extols you to perform your duty without fail but not to be attached to the result of the action."

I understand, and I disagree that that is sage advice.

Where do duties come from, if not attachments (yours or someone else's)?

Anonymous said...

Going by the philosophy of Gita again:
Duty springs from Dharma. Dharma is to uphold the stable state of peace and harmony of the Universe and its members. Duty is an action that promotes the upholding of Dharma.

Harmanjit Singh said...

"Duty springs from Dharma. Dharma is to uphold the stable state of peace and harmony of the Universe and its members."

As I said in my article:

"The most probable reason for this kind of exhortation is to have people follow the desires of others (kings and brahmins), which is an interesting kind of peaceful co-existence."

Harmony in a society is mostly about preserving existing property rights.

Anonymous said...

Since you are confused about duty springing form attachment or Dharma: Consider the foll example -
A mother is deeply attached to her son. One day she learns he is a serial killer. What is her duty?

If her duty springs from attachment to her son the she will probably just hush up her knowledge of her son's wrongful actions.
If her duty springs from Dharma then she will probably turn her son in to jail.

No property rights here....

Harmanjit Singh said...

"A mother is deeply attached to her son. One day she learns he is a serial killer. What is her duty?"

I understand your point my friend. What I want to say is: the "larger duty" in this case is born of desire as well. Desire can't be condemned just because it leads to suffering. In this case, in fact, this desire to see justice served is eminently worthwhile.

There is no "inherent" dharma. There are just various kinds of desires. In this case, the desire to protect her son conflicts with her desire to be just to her community. The desire for justice can be considered righteous, but you do realize that justice is a human construct.

Anonymous said...

Desires are not condemned in Hindu philosophy. Only attachment to outcomes of actions or greed, lust,rage,egotistical stubbornness.

There is "inherent" Dharma in all human beings. The inherent power in Nature to restore things to remain in balance to maintain the inherent order is defined as Dharma. A human is also part of Nature so Dharma is inherent in him as well.

So if a mother chooses to turn her killer son in, it is because of Dharma the natural tendency to restore the balance in and around. Such actions are called satkarma.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@anonymous: what is the difference between desire and attachment to an outcome?

Anonymous said...

Desire - to gain knowledge
Action - study hard, write an exam
Outcome of action - failed exam/passed exam
Attachment to outcome - I failed, I failed......suffering
- I passed, I passed .....exhaltation

Harmanjit Singh said...


You are contrasting the "desire" to gain knowledge with the "desire" to pass in the exam. In each case, the failure to achieve the outcome might lead to suffering, and success to achieve will result in happiness.

I repeat: please tell me (conceptually) what is the difference between desire for an outcome, and attachment to an outcome.

Anonymous said...

One may "want" to pass an exam, but one desires something beyond the outcome of the exam, something not tangible like knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Who or What can stop this Desire to gain knowledge or Peace or Contentment or Love?

Do you see the "I" directly attached to Pass/Fail?

That is the difference.

Anonymous said...

"I repeat: please tell me (conceptually) what is the difference between desire for an outcome, and attachment to an outcome."

Desire for an outcome: You want something to happen in a certain way and so you act as per your best understanding.

Attachment to an outcome: The outcome may or may not be the one that you desired but either way it does not cause you to lose emotional balance. Basically you don't over-react.

Anonymous said...

If Einstein had been attached to idea of getting into ETH Zurich where he failed the admission test, he would have been doomed to failure and would hav eprobably been an anonymous drunk loser.
His desire for scientific knowledge did not spring from his ego alone so his ego did not get attached to the idea of getting in or being rejected at a prestigious institute.He went on to acquire the knowledge he sought.
So also with Tiger Pataudi whose desire it was to enjoy the game of cricket and play it well.So the fact he lost an eye did not make him wallow in self pity and stop him from enjoying or playing the game.

basically balance is maintained when one is aware that it is not just the ego that drives man's actions.
This awareness is called "Self awareness".
Desires spring from the Self, Wants from the ego.

Anonymous said...

Truthy, Truthy conclusions..... What to do Harman does not like them.............
But how does one seek Truth and not like a Truthy conclusion?