As modern, savvy, and reasonably well-educated human beings, we like to think that our opinions are based on truth and that we don’t make a lot of assumptions. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we make one kind of assumption all the time, and it’s an important one. This one assumption is responsible for the vast majority of our misery and suffering.
The assumption we make is whether some event, circumstance, or experience is good or bad. When new information enters our awareness, our minds immediately begin making their assessments about what this means for us, whether it will hurt us or help us, whether we like it or not, and whether it’s a good or a bad thing. Think about the last piece of news you got about the world, your job, your family, or a friend. Can you honestly say that you didn’t immediately evaluate and have an opinion on it? What about the last time you noticed that your back ached or your head hurt? Was your response neutral? As in, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder why I’m so sore?”
I don’t ask this to point out that you (or I, or any other human being for that matter) is deficient. We all do it, and it’s necessary to our survival to be able to assess and evaluate new information. But it’s also important to realize that:
- All our assessments about whether something is good or bad, helpful or harmful, to be sought out or avoided, are assumptions, not facts; and
- These assumptions add a lot of unnecessary suffering to our lives.
Have you heard the saying that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional?
Today I woke up feeling under the weather. My throat was scratchy, my nose was running, and my thoughts were particularly slow and sleepy as my brain struggled to make its way through the slush of a head cold. As it dawned on me that I was sick, I began to think about all the things I had hoped to get done today. I immediately became frustrated and angry that I was not going to be able to do them in the state that I was in.
It seems obvious to me and most everybody else I know that being sick is a bad thing. When’s the last time that somebody told you they didn’t feel well and you responded by saying, “Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you!”
And yet, if you look carefully, you’ll find that my misery–the frustration and disappointment I felt–did not arise because I felt sick. It arose because I assumed that being sick was a bad thing because I wouldn’t be able to get done everything I’d planned.
What would happen if I let go of my goals, plans, and everything I “needed” to get done? What does being sick with a cold look like then? Well, it’s certainly not comfortable, but it mostly involves taking it easy, resting, and sleeping when I’m tired. It involves eating when I’m hungry and calling somebody when I get lonely or need something from the outside world. For me it also involves eating lots of oranges and garlic and snuggling up under a blanket with a book or a movie. None of these things are particularly bad or hard or difficult. Even the fact that something in my body is out of whack is not in and of itself bad. Like periodic forest fires that are critical to the well-being of forests, it gives my body the chance to reassert its health and balance.
Being sick, then, is neither a good nor a bad thing. I would posit that the same is true for anything else. What do you think? Can you think of anything that’s good or bad on its own, without the attitudes and worries that we bring to it? If you think of something very quickly, I recommend you read a Zen story about a wise farmer (found here–scroll down and read “Maybe,” story number 6) and then try again.
Like I said, I don’t think the point of all this is that we should stop evaluating and assessing things. We can’t. But the more we learn to question our assumptions and let go of them when they’re not serving us, the happier we’ll be.
Not only does being sick give me a reason to take great care of myself, but it also gave me an insight and a blog post to boot. Not bad for something I so strongly dislike.