Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Dharma of Problem-Hacking


In the previous installment, I said that Buddhist philosophy has a very technical understanding of suffering. This is no understatement. While "dukkha" just means something like unease, discomfort, or dissatisfaction, the Dharma allows for a great deal of nuance. Examples are most useful here.

If you make a list of five things that are bothering you right now, you would likely be able to group the list items into "big" problems and "small" problems. In other words, there is stress about complex and multifaceted problems like finding a job, writing a book, paying a mortgage, and then there is stress about simple, immediate problems like aching wrists, hunger, or sore muscles. With regard to the Dharma, we would understand both as dukkha, but as different kinds of dukkha.

For our purposes, what is important is that the simple, immediate problems are actually more pervasive than we typically realize. When we stop and ask ourselves what is bothering us, the big issues tend to gather a good bit of attention because they are so complex, so influential or connected to other concerns we have. Nevertheless, when we let our attention on the big concerns recede, we find tons and tons of very simple little discomforts and dissatisfaction that slip beneath our notice most of the time. These little sufferings form the bulk of our suffering. All of the big sufferings decompose into the little ones, so it's important to focus on how those little sufferings are triggered and how to alleviate them.

We begin problem-hacking Dharma style when we look at our big problems in terms of the little problems that compose them and focus in on how those little problems manifest in the present moment. The thing about little problems is that they're usually easier to solve or at least ameliorate by something you can do just do. If you have a big problem, it's easy to feel powerless. If you have a set of little problems, you should be able to do something about at least one of them. If you can't, it's no good wasting time worrying about it, so jut distract yourself with something you can do.

Believe it or not, that process is the beginning of the end of suffering. It takes practice and effort, but it works.