Overcoming Suffering & Buddhism

The re­cent post (http://​​less­wrong.com/​​lw/​​5xx/​​over­com­ing_suffer­ing_emo­tional_ac­cep­tance) by Kaj_So­tala is very rem­i­nis­cent of Bud­dhism to me. Since no one has com­mented with similar sen­ti­ments, and since I get the im­pres­sion Bud­dhism is not a com­mon topic of dis­cus­sion here, I thought I’d make a quick ar­ti­cle for the cu­ri­ous. I’m not ex­actly a Bud­dhist my­self, but I have a good few books about the topic and have ex­pe­rienced mild suc­cess with med­i­ta­tion.

Bud­dhism is one of the few re­li­gious be­lief sys­tems not en­tirely re­pel­lent to me, for a cou­ple of rea­sons. For one, Bud­dhism—or some tra­di­tions thereof, in­clud­ing the “origi­nal” (Ther­avada), I be­lieve—en­courages ad­her­ents to be skep­ti­cal. The em­pha­sis is not on faith, gods, or sym­bol­ism, but rather on ac­tual prac­tice and ex­pe­rience: in other words, on ob­tain­ing ev­i­dence. You can see for your­self whether or not the sys­tem works, be­cause the re­ward is not in an­other life. It is the ces­sa­tion of suffer­ing in this one.

For two, that em­pha­sis on the prob­lem of suffer­ing seems very rea­son­able to me. Bud­dhism holds that the prob­lem with this world is suffer­ing, and that suffer­ing can be alle­vi­ated by meth­ods some­what similar to the ones in Kaj_So­tala’s post. (The choice of the word “mind­ful­ness”—was that a co­in­ci­dence, or a refer­ence to the Bud­dhist con­cept of the same name?) The idea is that suffer­ing re­sults from un­fulfilled de­sires, them­selves a product of an un­con­trol­led mind. You be­come up­set when the world is This Way, but you want it to be That Way; and even if you try to ac­cept the world-as-it-is, your brain is re­bel­lious. Un­pleas­ant feel­ings arise, un­bid­den and un­wel­come.

The solu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Bud­dhism, is med­i­ta­tion. There are many differ­ent types of med­i­ta­tion, both in tech­nique and in topic med­i­tated upon, but I won’t go into them here. Med­i­ta­tion ap­pears to be phys­i­cally healthy just on its own; a quick Google search on “med­i­ta­tion brain” will bring up hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles about how it af­fects the think­ing or­gan. How­ever, the main goals of Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion are a.) at­tain­ing con­trol over your own mind (i.e., learn­ing to sep­a­rate sense im­pres­sions from emo­tions and val­ues, so that harsh words or even blows cause no cor­re­spond­ing men­tal dis­tur­bance), and b.) at­tain­ing in­sight into Bud­dhist thought about sub­jects such as love, im­per­ma­nence, mind­ful­ness, or skil­lful­ness.

Bud­dhist thought on some sub­jects (see next-to-fi­nal para­graph) I can leave, but mind­ful­ness and skil­lful­ness seem ap­pro­pri­ate to LessWrong. As I un­der­stand it, the idea be­hind mind­ful­ness is sim­ply to be aware of what you’re do­ing, rather than go­ing through the mo­tions—and to be aware of, and fix, cog­ni­tive bi­ases. For be­liefs and men­tal pro­cesses, failing to hit the “Ex­plain” but­ton (to steal from Mr. Yud­kowsky) could be con­sid­ered un-mind­ful. Things you don’t think about are things you could be get­ting wrong. Skil­lful­ness is re­lated; it’s not about skill at some par­tic­u­lar task—it’s about max­i­miz­ing util­ity, to put it sim­ply. The goal is no wasted or mis­taken ac­tions. Your ac­tions should not re­sult in un­in­tended con­se­quences, and your in­tended con­se­quences should never fail to ad­vance your goals in some way. Ra­tion­al­ity is thus a very big part of Bud­dhism, since it is nec­es­sary to be ra­tio­nal to be mind­ful and skil­lful!

**One im­por­tant note:** Bud­dhism has many tra­di­tions, and many, many differ­ent be­liefs. A great deal of it is about as cred­ible as any other re­li­gion. For in­stance, Bud­dhism holds that there is no “self”, ul­ti­mately; how­ever, it also holds that peo­ple are rein­car­nated… so what is it that is be­ing rein­car­nated? I’m sure there is an apol­ogy for this some­where, but the only ex­pla­na­tion I’ve read made less sense than the ques­tion. Karma is also a silly idea, in my opinion. I’ve picked and cho­sen re­gard­ing Bud­dhist be­liefs, and I’m no ex­pert, so if it turns out what I’ve writ­ten isn’t or­tho­dox—well, I’ve warned you!

That’s about all I have to say on the sub­ject. Bud­dhist meth­ods for over­com­ing suffer­ing have served me well; it is from Bud­dhism that I first learned to fight de­pres­sion over things I can do noth­ing about, and that re­gret is only use­ful in­so­far as it can in­spire you to change, and that there is no ex­cuse for be­ing un­skil­lful and un­mind­ful even in the small­est task. I hope this post has served to im­part some knowl­edge, and/​or satisfy (or im­part!) some cu­ri­os­ity.