Overcoming Suffering & Buddhism

post by Hul-Gil · 2011-05-31T04:35:00.004Z · score: 4 (12 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 27 comments

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.

27 comments

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comment by ata · 2011-05-31T06:35:18.800Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't claim to be a Buddhist or particularly familiar with any specific traditions or doctrines within Buddhism, and I'm not really interested in Buddhism-qua-Buddhism, but I'm definitely interested in stealing the good parts in the name of doing-what-works-ism (and there do seem to be substantial good parts). If indeed there is such a mental state as enlightenment and it is as useful and important and worthwhile as some people think it is, then the steps toward attaining it should be distilled, systematized, and added to the standard x-rationality toolbox, no need to keep it attached to a religious tradition and taught using jargon and symbolism that may be obsolete, misleading, or just suboptimal.

I'm currently checking out Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, which takes a generally secular and practical approach.

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?

Some Buddhists have told me that their concept (known usually as "rebirth" rather than "reincarnation") is not exactly what people usually think of as reincarnation, but I currently wouldn't be able to describe what exactly they do mean by it. Though I recall that it struck me as something that would end up being only trivially true or false (depending on interpretation) anyway, even if it's not "you die and your magical decision-making / qualia-experiencing / virtue-recording homunculus flies off into a newborn kitten's body" reincarnation.

Of course it'll contain inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies; perhaps the Buddha really did medidate really hard until something genuinely important clicked, but he was not a scientist and no external empirical information suddenly appeared in his brain at that moment, so I'd mostly ignore anything Buddhism says about the external nature of reality; we can generally expect it to be more insightful about what it says about the proper use of one's mind, since that's something that we can get information about just by thinking and noticing the right things (and then testing, of course). Indeed, a lot of Buddhism's actual insights seem to be about dissolving cognitive illusions (or, at least, that's the best interpretation I can put on what I've heard about it; I wonder if a person claiming to be enlightened could tell you how the self is an illusion (that is, what algorithm feels like a self from the inside), or if all they can do is profess that the self is an illusion).

comment by timtyler · 2011-05-31T10:34:41.568Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea is that suffering results from unfulfilled desires, themselves a product of an uncontrolled mind.

Note that this is the kind of doctrine rich leaders might want to instill in their impoverished workers - to try and make sure that they are not too dissatisfied with their lot in life.

If happiness lies within, you are less likely to steal other people's stuff. That sort of thing often gets the thumbs up from those who own most of the stuff.

IMO, this is no coincidence - Buddhism - like many religions - is, in part, a tool for manipulating the masses by those in power.

comment by atucker · 2011-06-01T00:51:56.308Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

IMO, this is no coincidence - Buddhism - like many religions - is, in part, a tool for manipulating the masses by those in power.

I think that this is more by selection effect than by design.

If your religion is constantly telling people to overthrow the worldly status quo all the time then it probably gets put down before it gets big. I don't think that people near the founding of any current major religion sat down and thought "Now how can we keep these peasants in check?" as part of coming up with the doctrines of the religion.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-05-31T09:42:21.418Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(The choice of the word "mindfulness" - was that a coincidence, or a reference to the Buddhist concept of the same name?)

Western psychology originally picked up the concept from Buddhism, and then began developing it independently. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness_(psychology&#x29 .

comment by Manfred · 2011-05-31T14:22:49.902Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To fix the link, replace the right parenthesis with the code %29

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-05-31T14:45:06.920Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fixed, thanks.

comment by Hul-Gil · 2011-06-01T00:03:00.070Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks - I had no idea about this!

comment by timtyler · 2011-05-31T08:13:47.188Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Karma is also a silly idea, in my opinion.

There are perfectly sensibe aspects of karma. Karma means "action" or "deed", with the implication that actions have associated consequences, that it is useful to consider to be part of the action. It reflects the common principle: as you reap, so you sow.

comment by outlier · 2011-05-31T08:39:24.749Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Karma means (unfortunately) something more than that to buddhists. The view you described is something smart people came up with to make it acceptable for themselves. Original buddhist karma is ultimate balance of good and evil in the universe.

comment by timtyler · 2011-05-31T10:11:01.284Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I am aware of that. Karma is still a useful concept, though. Despite its baggage it is still something good to have in your ontology - at least IMHO.

comment by Hul-Gil · 2011-06-01T00:01:12.531Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have a problem with that principle - what I don't like is the possible misinterpretations. As outlier notes, the original concept of karma has pretty distasteful consequences, and while the idea of reaping what you sow is useful, dressing up the concept as "karma" risks associating it with some of the original concepts. I've actually debated with people who believe that those who are suffering or in bad circumstances deserve it, because they were evil in a past life, and to help them would be to "mess up" their karma...!

Repugnant.

comment by mutterc · 2011-06-01T19:43:29.392Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read (in What To Expect, maybe) that until the 50s or so, doctors generally would not give pain relief during childbirth. Not so much because of concern over side effects, etc. but for reasons as above.

Painful childbirth was seen as a divine curse upon womankind - a punishment for Eve's role in the Original Sin. Therefore ameliorating said pain would be immoral.

Ugh.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-06-01T07:46:25.844Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mess up the helper's karma, or the helpee's? (IAWYC that it's repugnant in both cases. Even if it were true.)

comment by Hul-Gil · 2011-06-01T07:50:56.261Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mess up the helpee's, I think... blech! I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so.

comment by hwc · 2011-06-01T11:33:08.673Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Break down the claims of Buddhism and test them individually against evidence. Bring me what's left.

comment by Hul-Gil · 2011-06-06T07:36:46.872Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Exactly how I feel about the matter, and what I have attempted to do. One thing I forgot to note, though, is that I feel the best way to reduce suffering is to remove the source, rather than remove your desire. When this is not possible, however, then the meditation can be helpful.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-05-31T22:26:51.060Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Overcoming Suffering & Buddhism

I do wish we learn to overcome this odd fascination with Buddhism that surfaces from time to time.

comment by timtyler · 2011-05-31T08:19:02.365Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Take care with psychological techniques oriented towards reducing self-suffering. Suffering is an important signal that something is wrong. Pain is similar. If you ignore or damp down the signal, that is a kind of self-sabotage. Sometimes the paradoxical effect is to increase the number of your long term problems. Instead, it is often best to respect and heed the signal - and track down the causes of the problem it is indicating.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-31T10:54:59.900Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depends on the cause of the suffering. If I feel bad because, for example, I hate my job, that's something I can do something about - I can find another job. If I feel bad because my dog died, there is very little I can do about that, and continuing to feel bad would be counterproductive. If I feel bad because I suffer from depression, and that depression is resistant to current medications, then continuing to feel bad would be worse than useless.

In all those cases I imagine something like the techniques discussed in the original post might have some effect.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-05-31T11:08:15.192Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shut up and do the impossible. People are accepting things they can't change all the freaking time, and then they can change them but they don't because they've accepted them. Accept death and oppose cryonics, accept pain and oppose anesthesia. Even if it were reversible it'd be dangerous because it prevents you from trying harder, but historically it's been worse than that.

Depression is an exception, because it's detached unhappiness.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-31T11:10:53.381Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm talking about accepting things that have already happened. Wanting to prevent any future deaths is a good thing. Continuing to feel bad about deaths that have already happened is, past a certain point, counterproductive.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-05-31T11:22:24.106Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, extreme sunk cost indifference? Might work. Doesn't it make negative reinforcement too small?

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-31T11:51:08.013Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depression is an exception, because it's detached unhappiness.

And, from an abstract behavioural perspective, can sometimes be considered to be accepting negative circumstances and not trying to change them.

comment by Hul-Gil · 2011-05-31T23:53:41.679Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tracking down and fixing the problems is another way to reduce suffering. I understand and agree with what you say, but just want to point out "alleviating suffering" doesn't necessarily mean only "ignoring suffering".

comment by [deleted] · 2015-11-16T22:53:23.592Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoy praying to, visualising, thinking about, and imaging Guanyin, the attractive Buddhist goddess of compassion and and mercy. She hears all our suffering and comforts us. I love her.

comment by timtyler · 2011-05-31T08:16:40.003Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Well, we have the answer to that one from science: "incarnations" come from seeds which come from parents. So: part of you potentially lives on beyond your own death, Also, part of you is very old - and contains wisdom from your ancestors.

Buddhism identified some of these puzzle pieces, but then made a mess of assembling them. It identified karma as what gets reincarnated - whereas today, we would say that it is DNA that is the immortal essence that potentially gets to live forever.