Ajahn Sucitto

Making Peace With Despair

"This is the practice of what the Buddha called the Four Noble Truths: discontent, its source, its cessation, and the path thereto. It's a pracitce that transforms the sensory world into the spiritual one; based on limitation and mortality, it takes you to freedom and deliverance."


THIS QUESTION OF MAKING PEACE WITH DESPAIR is a profoundly spiritual question. It’s one that cannot be resolved by trying to make the world into a different place – which tends to be the normal approach. To make peace with despair is a matter of understanding not just where difficulties such as sickness and violence arise, but also how the feeling of being bound to and oppressed by those problems occurs, and how constant that feeling is. People can experience despair through thinking when they don’t want to think; through having a mind that’s restless, uncertain, unsteady; through being in a state of doubt, not quite knowing what to do. Those of you who have practised meditation to any degree will recognise the feeling of despair or pain that arises through being stuck with something that you don’t like, such as a painful memory – even when there isn’t anything particularly dreadful happening, or anything that one can really say is unfair.

So the ways that we can experience conflict or discontent are numerous, and the feeling of being oppressed and bound down by it is essentially a spiritual one. It’s a feeling that occurs in the mind, or the heart – the soul, if you like. Human beings have a reflective quality that steps back from experience and says: ‘I don’t like this. It shouldn’t be this way’. Stop it!’ The aim of the spiritual path is to fully understand that the main problem of life is not that the government is unfair, that one isn’t getting enough money’, that there is hunger, violence, pain or sickness, not even that one isn’t loved – but the feeling in the reflective mind of being bound down by these circumstances. Once we have clearly understood the mind, we can experience patience, equanimity, and release – even in predicaments that can be difficult or unpleasant.

To have come round to this question is a sign of a mind ready to reflect on the problems of human existence and what our despair is. Through not understanding this clearly, the Buddha said, we continually strive and wearily trudge around aims and ambitions, causes, motives, campaigns, wars and crusades, birth after birth, trying to put an end to it all. But all we are doing in this way is just stirring it up, making it at least as painful as it was before, and not really getting anywhere.

In the context of human history, the refinement of life today is tremendous; in terms of comfort and security we are leagues apart from our primeval ancestors. Today sixty, seventy or eighty years is a reasonable life-span. One can have heat, warmth for the body at the touch of a switch; one can travel, eat different kinds of foods and get sophisticated medical attention; one can communicate and one can experience sublime states of joy and happiness through the arts, through music, entertainment or intellectual pursuits.

Yet the quality of suffering is still a powerful one. We may not suffer from getting chased out of our cave by a bear, or from the head of our flint axe getting broken off, or from getting the Black Death; but we still suffer because the computer breaks down, the lawn-mower goes on the blink, the TV blows a fuse or the car breaks down. There are all kinds of new diseases, viruses, allergies and nervous complaints that plague humanity no matter how many they wipe out. The World Health Organisation, for example, has found that wherever there have been massive smallpox eradication campaigns, in those areas AIDS is now most prevalent, which is something to do with the use of the smallpox vaccine creating a kind of entry point for the relatively weak AIDS virus to creep in. As fast as we get rid of one problem, we seem to encounter the next. We haven’t really resolved the problem of suffering but we just transfer it to a more refined level.

Our expectations go up as our standards go up. Nowadays, what a nuisance to have to spend nine or ten hours to get from London to Edinburgh, whereas a hundred and fifty years ago to do it in a fortnight without getting coshed by a highwayman or stuck in the peat bogs was a miracle! Of course you can fly in forty-five minutes, but you still have to get there an hour early and hang around at the airport, so the journey may take you three hours. Even in my own lifetime, thirty years ago not everybody had a car. If you had a car in the street where I lived, then you were somebody; we’d go out at weekends in The Car for a treat, all the way to Watford and back, and we’d get up to thirty-five or forty miles an hour on the way! But these days, if you’re in London you don’t even regard Watford as being somewhere else, it’s just the outer bit of London, and one expects to cruise along at at least sixty-five miles an hour to get there.

The machines that have been developed to perform these miraculous feats have become so refined, but they still break down and then one is left even more helpless than before. One hundred and fifty tears ago, if your horse got colic, you could probably give it some medicine or wrap it in a blanket and it would get up on its feet again. Or if you hurt yourself, you’d know what to do; if the problem was on the physical level you could either do something about it or not. But nowadays the machinery that we use simply to fulfil our everyday expectations is so complex you can’t fix it on your own. What happens when there’s a power cut? To our ancestors, sitting in the dark was normal, they just went to sleep or lit a rush lantern; but now if the electricity goes off it can be fatal because some life-support systems require constant power flowing in. We depend on electricity for heating, lighting, making things go, and one has no real power over whether it’s there or not, let alone the post, the waste disposal or the water. So we no longer have immediate control over our environment, and we’re in a powerless position, which means that we’re always living on the edge of a possible plunge into loss, fear, isolation or uncertainty’. This is not to mention the risk of a nuclear holocaust or warfare. The human condition at this time is a very precarious one.

Considering this problem, what can we do about it? Well, we have to use more wisdom and examine the motivation that causes this fragility, this frailty of life; it’s essentially that human beings always try to get more out of life on the sensual plane than there is. We somehow try to cheat death, age or disease, to get past the limitations that nature is always throwing up – like the weather and the environment. In our attempts to control nature, we have refined our position to such an extent that we no longer have access to any inner resilience, endurance, or resourcefulness of spirit. We try to make more than is possible out of the sensory predicament.

It’s in the nature of human beings to try to establish order, a certain improvement of life; we seem to have that kind of drive. But the problem is that we’re not really applying it in the right place. Not that we shouldn’t try to improve or make things better – but the whole frustrating thing is that in trying to overcome Nature, we’re expending a lot of effort and energy in a way which isn’t the most fruitful. It’s like trying to grow wheat on rubble: you have to put a lot of work into that rubble to make it fertile enough to grow wheat, whereas if you plant it on fertile soil you don’t have to put much effort into it. When we’re looking for peace or contentment on the sensory level, this is rather like trying to grow wheat on rubble, and as long as people only perceive themselves as sensory creatures then they’ll always feel this frustration and this inner despair. The sensory realm (by which I mean everything one can hear or see, and the perceptions that arise through hearing, seeing, touching, tasting) is essentially a fragile one, one where we don’t have ultimate control. In the sensory realm, everything is impermanent, because everything that is sensory dies.

There are a lot of great ideas, philosophies, religions and social systems designed to make the world a better place to live in. Take kingship, where there’s one powerful leader, where everybody just follows and lets one person have their way so that things at least all go in one direction. This creates a certain order, so it’s quite a good idea. Then there is shared power, where you have a group of wise people who will advise so the limitations of one individual don’t become the law of the land. Then you can have democracies, but they tend to be influenced by the power of commerce and the economy’, so what if everybody just shared all their wealth through communism? Then there’s religion, having a god like a king that everybody follows. But then, of course, there are always different interpretations of exactly what God wants us to do and the way He want us to do it, which results in conflict. So religions or beliefs or philosophies which are set up by the mind can also be overturned by the mind; it’s not possible to sustain as a permanent thing, or be able to hold onto, the rule, order, state or system.

How many systems actually work as they’re intended to? They always have to be worn in like a pair of shoes, don’t they? Take this monastic system here where we have a particular kind of routine and a Vinaya (discipline) – which is very good, as an idea. But it has to be continually moulded, shaped, adjusted, commented on and explained, and the spirit of it and the right ways to adapt to it have to be taught. One begins to recognise that this isn’t something wrong with the system. A system that allows you to do this – one that doesn’t take itself as being an absolute ultimate truth – is in fact the best kind of system. In other words, a mind-created idea that doesn’t establish itself as anything other than an estimate is perhaps the most accurate one. It’s humble, seemingly insignificant, but it’s the most accurate because it’s saying that one can never establish anything in the sensory sphere that will be perfect; we always have to adjust according to time and place, to what the situation provides.

In your own lives, the structures you create, the routines and relationships you have, only really work if you can establish an ideal that you’re trying to live up to, and do the best you can with it. Take marriage, for example: it says in the ceremony to always love, honour and obey’. Well, to be quite realistic, it might be better to say ‘always try to get on with’. Any mind-wrought system or structure has to be mellowed out in a way that can never be fully expressed. We have to rely upon our reflective understanding, we have to contemplate: is this working? Are we applying ourselves wisely to it? We have an idea of what our marriage should be like, what our day should be like, even what we should be like, and we have to continually adjust to it. You can’t just attach to these notions and expect them to work without reflecting on them. Otherwise you’re likely to get caught up in a tremendous amount of despair with the human world.

Because even though we have a government, there’s still corruption and violence in society; even though we have medicine, there’s still disease; even though we have efficient machinery’, there are still breakdowns, mess-ups, accidents and things going wrong; still something we haven’t quite sorted out, still another worm in the apple. But for someone who wisely reflects and recognises that worms have every right to be in apples – there’s nowhere else for them to go and the apple is a perfect home for a worm – the inconsistencies and inadequacies of life are far more natural to the sensory condition than the ideas of perfection that we rather arrogantly impose upon the world.

The perfect climate where one need never complain about the weather, the perfect day’, the perfect home, the perfect government, the perfect society’, the perfect monastery’, religion, philosophy’, body or mind – where does this idea of perfection come from? It comes from this extra dimension that the human mind has that cats, snails and bugs don’t have. Animals just get on. Not that they don’t experience pain or fear, but they don’t, so far as we can tell, experience the kind of oppressive motiveless anguish that one feels when everything is going wrong. This kind of pain and anguish is a facet of that extra dimension that creates the notion of perfection, the ideal, the Dream. Humans are dreaming creatures, that have high aspirations, with the minds of gods, minds that aspire to perfection and yet are physically rooted in a sensory predicament where perfection just does not exist. The perfection of a rose is that it’s a bud, it blooms, it gets overblown and the petals fall off and it dies. Its perfection is the way it is. So when a rose is losing its petals, you can’t say to it: ‘You’ve let me down, you’ve disappointed me again! Why didn’t you stay that way always? After all that manure I gave you! Cheated again!’ It’s just the way it is.

One begins to understand that this feeling of despair is something that we impose upon the sensory predicament by imagining it to be other than it is. But that ‘extra dimension’ within us which can imagine or aspire is not something we have to nullify’. Sometimes people misunderstand Buddhism in this way; they think it means complete inertia and apathy’, that you live in a state of inertia and just passively watch and wait for extinction, Nibbana, the ultimate wipe-out. But that doesn’t lead to anything like peace of mind, only to a sterilisation or a stifling of the mind. Try’, in five minutes of meditation, to be passively accepting, and you’ll see what a struggle it is! In that five minutes you can sit there trying to be quiet, then something goes thump in the kitchen and you think: ‘Oh, I wonder how long that’s going on for? I’m trying to be quiet! How many minutes have I been sitting here now? Is this really as quiet as it’s ever going to get? I wonder if my mind will go quiet?’ It just goes on, doesn’t it?

But if, on the other hand, you’re just saying, ‘Well, I mustn’t expect to be anything other than wretched and unsatisfactory’ – then you don’t realise any peace of mind either, you just feel choked. We sometimes take this alternative, don’t we? We just choke it all down, just repress it all, blot it out. Something in you is screaming and yet you just swallow it, ignore it; that’s a very common escape hatch or block for our despair. You see people in cities – where there’s a tremendous amount of unpleasant sensory impingement – who’ve learned to block out everything. They walk along with their heads down, not looking at each other, with this programme in the brain saying: ‘Home – go home – get to station – get ticket – don’t get in my way’, don’t notice anything, don’t respond to anything, just shut everything off.’ People do this to an extraordinary degree!

And what do we do about the anguish in the mind, the frustrations of the day’, the sadness or the fear of it? We come home, put the radio on, the TV’, a tape, read a book, have a conversation, a meal, a drink, whatever. In other words, we paste over the pain and distract ourselves with heavy sensory impingement that is pleasant and soothing, which brings a certain relief. But unfortunately it doesn’t avoid despair. Notice how many ways there are to distract ourselves, to avoid looking into the mind, to avoid contemplating the consequences of the day’s events, the memories of the years, the feeling of that argument, that frustration, pain, disappointment, fear, anxiety; there are so many ways to avoid having to do that. It creates a kind of restless need to be always putting something into one’s mind, or consuming some kind of sensory experience to cover up the discontented, agitated feeling. It becomes so normal that many people don’t even realise that there is discontent. They think: ‘I’m all right,’ until maybe they sit quietly for ten minutes and begin to see the seething movement which seems to vibrate in the mind as – lo and behold! – thoughts and memories and feelings come up.

It’s not hard to detect a certain compulsiveness about the sensory appetite which we have; it’s not because we’re essentially greedy or lustful, it’s just that greed gets aroused by the many things and opportunities that we’re encouraged to keep seeking. Why is this, why is there this continual drive and encouragement to seek more, when we apparently have so much already? It’s because we have so much that we tend to get engrossed in the sensory consciousness, feel ever more frustrated by its limitations, and therefore feel we need to have more.

Just look at the outward appearance of our society: if you go into a city’, you’re met by a barrage of sensory impingement. There’s very little there that’s saying: ‘Here’s a way to have less, to put something aside.’ The message is more likely to be one that says: ‘Look, here’s more, here’s more and more and more!’ So even in the midst of profound and stimulating sensory experience, the feeling of need for more is heightened. Take America now , there’s a new religion every other day’, new kinds of yoga, Eastern religions. Now you’ve got your two centrally heated swimming pools, your car, video, private helicopter, five-thousand-acre ranch, you can ALSO get enlightened! You can pick your religion for the day’, you can have a tape, a video of it – you don’t even have to move, just take it all in and pick the one that’s got the most inspiring, most up-to-date thing in it.

The real spiritual quest involves putting aside all expectations that a religious form will be perfect, that you’ll be totally delighted with it, and that it’s the one and only’, better than all the others. Take Theravada Buddhism: just as a form it’s all right, but there are all kinds of drawbacks about it. It doesn’t have a very profound social welfare programme or even very libertarian ideals; it’s hierarchical; it’s not independent, monks and nuns can’t grow their own food or do anything like that, they can’t choose to be organic or even vegetarian, and it’s possible to feel a certain amount of regret about all this. When I first encountered Buddhism, I thought Zen would be nicest because they have really beautiful monasteries, they do calligraphy’, sweep gravel and do neat things like that; they say really wise, witty things and everything is just impeccable. Then I ended up living in a Thai monastery where there were empty cans all over the place, stray dogs wandering about and eating the rubbish that was just piled up around, and I sat in a hut, sweating! It didn’t seem very inspiring, new or progressive, or that I was getting anywhere. Not only on the physical level of the senses, but also on the intellectual level, it was a little bit disappointing; one had to give up a lot of one’s intellectual thirst and idealism.

And yet to really resolve despair, there has to be a total change round of attitude towards one where we’re not expecting the sensory consciousness to provide us with anything more than the foundation from which we can fulfil our humanity by bringing something into our life. Not because we deserve it, or it’s going to make life wonderful, but just because this is what the human being is best suited for.

The fine balance between the spiritual path and seeking for perfection on the worldly level is that the spiritual path is essentially one of giving, of bringing something forth from that reflective aspect of the mind, from that other dimension I’ve talked about. It’s a path of bringing forth patience when there is restlessness, bringing forth love when there is aversion, bringing forth tolerance when there is prejudice. In other words, that reflective aspect responds to a situation rather than reacts to it. The spiritual path is one where there’s this quality of giving, of offering, rather than saying to our environment: ‘Make me happy and do it as quickly as possible!’ The attractiveness of the reactive, worldly state of mind is that one gets a quick, immediate effect; if we get rid of the unsatisfactory quickly’, immediately’, and seemingly completely – if we wipe out the greenfly’, destroy the disease, annihilate the enemy – we get an immediate feeling of success and progress. But then when the problems inevitably come back again, there’s a feeling of irritation, anger and despair. So that with the spiritual path we have to look at things much more broadly and understand that when we are learning to be more patient with the limitations of it, then our expectations are more realistic. We recognise: well, we’re going to lose a certain amount of cabbages this year to rabbits, so that’s the way it is. We have to learn to adapt to that – but that doesn’t mean that we just feel hopeless about it.

So there’s the reflective way of actually adapting to circumstances, but what is the most important thing for a human being to do? Where can we create our peace, our happiness? Essentially’, this is done through bringing forth what we can into the world, and by reflecting on that spirit within us which can do good, which can be wise, patient, and loving. This is a treasure which is so wonderful in its own right that we’re able to endure. We recognise that life is difficult, but we can bear with it because the difficulty no longer becomes the central focus of our attention.

To someone who is unfamiliar with the practice of meditation, the lifestyle of a monk or nun looks like a very difficult one. ‘What do you do in the evenings?’ they ask. ‘You don’t have TV’, you don’t dance, drink, eat (is there something against eating?). There’s no fun, what a miserable way to live!’ And so it would be if the practice was just about repressing and rejecting everything. But if you concentrate on making your life more enriched through developing the power of attention, application, effort, kindness, patience, sensitivity – then those other things don’t matter. You don’t need that many things; it’s not that you’re trying to reject them, it’s just that you don’t need them because you’re getting so much out of very simple things – like looking after each other, or just sitting and being with the breath – that these become far more enriching experiences than, say’, watching the TV or going to a show . It’s not that you’re really giving anything up; you’re actually allowing yourself to have access to freedom from the source of despair, so these other things don’t really matter. If I’m not always perfectly healthy’, that’s in the background. It doesn’t really matter so much if I don’t get my own way all the time, if I can’t do what I want, that’s all peripheral. The sensory world is not something that you find yourself hanging onto, so its ups and downs are no longer deep and burning issues, they’re just something that you use and practise with.

You have to go and give a talk, for instance, and you don’t know what to say’, so you just use that as a way of making peace with that feeling of inadequacy’. You always use the inadequacies of the body and mind and the sensory experience to develop something that will balance them out. So you find that the very limitations of life are continually making you fuller and richer, because you make up for those limitations by the presence of the spirit, of the awareness of the mind.

Life is difficult. We’re not saying there isn’t violence or restlessness or fear, or anything to be frightened of, or anything to feel pain about. But all these things can be seen as opportunities: not to be bound by but to use for liberation. If we’re getting hurt or stuck, it’s because somehow or another we’re holding on, we’re expecting something, we’re thinking that we have control over what’s going to happen – and we’re wrong! It doesn’t work that way’. You can’t really predict what’s going to happen to your own body’, so how can you do it to the world? You can’t do it to your mind, to the thing that you most constantly think is yours and is what you are. Try to make the mind be something – happy’, clear, bright: it won’t do it. But if one steps back, if one gives heart, willingness or attention, it clears by itself. Certainly there may still be difficulties, but that feeling of being stuck with an indigestible throat-full, with an unpalatable morsel of something you can’t swallow , spit out or tolerate – that vanishes.

This is the practice of what the Buddha called the Four Noble Truths: discontent, its source, its cessation, and the path thereto. It’s a practice that transforms the sensory world into the spiritual one; based on limitation and mortality’, it takes you to freedom and deliverance.

Through meditation we can get right back to looking at painful feelings, not asking ourselves what they are or why they should or shouldn’t be, or what we’re going to do about them. But seeing where this despondency actually hits us – where is that feeling and just what is it? It’s wanting things to be other than they are, isn’t it? And if you abide with that feeling, you can feel despair arising in the mind when things are going wrong, getting difficult, or becoming chaotic. But you can contemplate the panic that arises, these feelings that just bubble up; and rather than repress them or just plaster over them with some other kind of sensory impingement, you just watch and keep your attention on the heart which can allow that to be. Then you’re no longer oppressed or entangled in despair, and it will ebb away’.

This is a skilful way in which one defuses the anxiety of the world, in the place where it actually hits you. This is something that doesn’t take two thousand years of history to be able to do; it doesn’t take a massive technology or civilisation. It does require civilisation of the instinct; but it is possible in one lifetime, or even within a few years, to understand and develop some skill on the Path.