In Buddhist teaching, suffering is understood to originate from the human tendency to be in a state of grasping (wanting), or rejecting (not wanting). In other words, to be either wanting something we don’t have, or to be trying to get away from something we do have, both of which lead to discontent, anxiety and contraction.
We spend much of our time in either one of these states, meaning that we exist in an almost constant state of tension — to what degree depends on the intensity with which we are grasping or rejecting (or both!).
We grasp for things we think will make us happy.
“When I have a job I love/a great relationship/a slimmer body etc., I will be happy”
This is the fundamental concept that underlies all of our grasping. It’s the story we tell ourselves about how we can’t be happy/satisfied/contented/living life fully NOW, because something necessary for that is lacking.
This mindset of lack, or scarcity, keeps us stuck in a never-ending cycle of feeling that the present moment is not enough. We project forward into the future, holding on to the hope that at some point, when we have these things that are missing now, we will be happy. Then we’ll be able to fully show up to life.
The belief we hold is: What is there now is not enough.
To that extent, grasping is also a rejection of the present moment.
We reject aspects of life, and certain situations because they feel uncomfortable. Perhaps something scares us. Perhaps it hurts. Perhaps it makes us unbearably angry.
“No! This is not ok! It should be different!”
The story we tell ourselves is that our present circumstances are not acceptable. Not fair. Intolerable. That when this thing stops, or we escape from this situation, or shift this thing, then we’ll be happy. Then we’ll enjoy life. Then we’ll feel light and carefree and joyful again.
The belief we hold is: What is there now is unacceptable.
We reject what is, here in the present moment, voicelessly demanding that things be different than they are.
In both cases, we are arguing with reality.
And when we argue with reality, we lose.
What is, is. Which is not to say that we can’t work towards shifting things. But we don’t need to be arguing with reality while we’re doing that.
The reason this matters — after all, if we’re not suffering too greatly we might just decide to put up with the mild levels of tension — is that the tension produced by arguing with reality creates contraction.
And this contraction manifests on all levels of our being;
:: Physically — fidgetiness, shallow breathing, and restlessness on the milder end of the scale, to panic attacks, depression, eating disorders and all other illnesses classed as psychosomatic.
:: Mentally — we’re expending mental energy with our wanting and not wanting; we have fewer resources for other cognitive activity.
:: Emotionally — our desire for things to be different than they are takes up emotional resources, meaning that our hearts are constricted through being suffused with these desires that cannot (in the present moment) be met.
As a result, our capacity to be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy is impaired.
Contraction creates imbalances in the system, which leads to dis-ease.
As a complex (and highly adaptive) system, we might be able to function normally (even well), for quite a while. But at some point, if nothing changes, the balance is going to tip and our health is going to suffer.
This state of contraction bears its influence on all aspects of our lives; our relationships, decisions, productivity, creativity and so on. It distances us from our hearts, so that we are less open, less giving, and less able to receive. The wisdom of our hearts (those brains that beat) is reduced to a whisper.
And with time, we adapt to this state of contraction; it becomes normal.
Expansion is the antidote to contraction. Breathing deep. Relaxing the mind. Releasing tension in the body.
Radical acceptance (including acceptance of our non-acceptance ;)).
Expansion shifts us into a qualitatively different state, one that opens us to ease, flow, receptivity. A Tai Chi Master I met told me “The intention to relax is one of the highest.” Just holding this truth helps me to notice when I contract or tense, mentally or physically.
It is the only sane response to a world that is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and a mind that is chronically fearful and dissatisfied.