The root cause of human suffering

In the most private spaces of each person's inner conscious life, a deep dissatisfaction is lurking, a nagging sense that life is somehow out of kilter, misaligned, not quite as it should be.

No matter how rich or secure or successful a person may be, a fundamental dissatisfaction still persists. The reasons for that dissatisfaction are plain. Everything a human being hopes for is in some sense imperfect, disappointing, or hollow. In the end we all die, which is the ultimate disappointment.

At the same time, surely there are things that every person, no matter how poor or wretched, can be sincerely grateful for. Some things bring more joy than pain, even if the joy is tinged with grief, and even if those things are lost at death.

To renounce desire is not a humane response to the fundamental dissatisfaction, even if the pursuit of desire really were the cause of pain and frustration. It seems that a characteristic of all living things is that they grasp relentlessly after survival and opportunity.

Paradoxically, by facing the emptiness and by surrendering completely to its inevitability, we come to deep peace and no longer suffer.

Many human needs are rooted in biology. Those obviously shouldn't be denied or trivialized. Pain is a fact. We feel pain or grief from loss. Desire is part of what makes us vital.

In any case, disassociating from desire can never actually relieve suffering, because the presence of pain and the lack of pleasure are not what causes suffering.

First of all, pain is not necessarily a synonym for suffering. We can't deny or escape pain, but we can be free from suffering by changing how we relate to the fundamental dissatisfaction.

The fundamental dissatisfaction is an unquenchable thirst that is a side effect of human cognition itself, due to being sentient in the physical world.

We can conceive of a perfectly round circle or a perfectly straight line, but those never exist in the physical world. Nothing in the physical world ever lines up exactly with our inner concepts. How we respond to the experience of that misalignment is what matters.

The mistake that leads to suffering is the simple delusion that the fundamental dissatisfaction can be extinguished by gaining more pleasure or feeling less pain or, in other words, by getting more of what we want.

The root cause of suffering is that we unrelentingly struggle to get rid of the fundamental dissatisfaction by means of the fulfillment of our desires, and yet that dissatisfaction sticks to us as a perpetual, unanswerable craving.

It can be difficult to realize that the fundamental dissatisfaction even exists, because it is veiled by our restless struggle to get rid of it. Once we realize that it exists, we're too horrified to accept that it really is unquenchable.

Paradoxically, by facing the emptiness and by surrendering completely to its inevitability, we come to deep peace and no longer suffer.

Pain is natural and inevitable, and all animals feel it, but the condition of suffering is unnecessary.

Michael Webb, April, 2006

home ]