I’ve written a lot about my beef with The Four Noble Truths, which is famously translated into English to communicate that life is suffering and the cause of all suffering is desire. It goes on to explain that if you detach from that desire—and, ideally, from all desire—you will let go of that suffering and reach a state of peace. Now, apologists for the philosophy will say that “dukkha” doesn’t perfectly translate into suffering and tanhā into desire and so it’s a misunderstanding to conclude that it is claiming to not want anything as a means to reach peace. But even they state that the point of meditation is to detach from everything so that you can return to a state of calm and tranquility and not let your emotions eat you up inside.
I would agree with their apologetics if it weren’t for the fact that the practicing Buddhist monk typically lives a life with no material possessions spending years of their lives meditating in a quiet monetary or equivalent secluded location. The evidence, on the contrary to what people say, seems to point to the fact that people really do take it the way that I am pointing out: that desire is the cause of suffering and so want for nothing and minimize said suffering.
I have to be clear about my beef, though: it’s not that the Four Noble Truths are wrong; they are simply incomplete and slightly misleading. We’ve already pointed out the one way in which it’s misleading, but the heart of the problem is that people will always want things—and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are only two problems that arise, of which the Four Noble Truths only covers one: if you behave unethically to get what you want, you cause suffering in others, and if you want something you can’t have, you will feel bad. The Four Noble Truths are also incomplete, though, as three things are causing your emotions: your desires, beliefs, and experiences.
I will credit Buddhism for something extraordinary, however: it’s the only philosophy/self-help/personal growth book with the guts to focus on squelching your desires as a solution to negative emotions. Just about any other book you pick up off the shelf in a library or bookstore will be focused on believing you can achieve anything you want to in life, thus focusing on the beliefs and, as a consequence, getting people to act toward having experiences in accordance with those beliefs. I’ve read hundreds of books in that genre and never came across anyone who exclaimed, “Stop believing you can achieve anything: stop wanting things instead!” (to be fair, maybe those books just aren’t popular enough to be in those stores for me to see)
And this brings us to the heart of the topic today: the desire itself doesn’t cause suffering; it’s a combination of your desires, beliefs, and experiences—specifically, when those three things are in conflict. If you want a hug (desire) and your spouse pushes you away (experience), you will feel bad. If you want to own a car (desire) but you think it’s too expensive (belief), you’ll feel bad. But if you received that hug or believed you could afford the car, you would feel extremely pleased or excited. The difference in the emotion—while, yes, Buddhism is right that the desire is the spark that started it—is what you believe to be true about what you want. Effectively, the difference between the pain, the longing, or the suffering and the love, the excitement, or the pleasure is your perception of events shaped by your beliefs.
People with some basic psychological knowledge are familiar with the idea of “cognitive dissonance”, the concept that explains that when there is a major conflict between your beliefs and your reality, one of the two has to change (often your beliefs). The most famous of this is Aesop’s “Sour Grapes” fable where the fox can’t reach the grapes and so tells himself, “Oh, well. They were sour, anyway.” That’s a changing of a belief to bring his desires, beliefs, and experiences back in harmony. Had he found a way to reach the grapes, he wouldn’t have needed to change his beliefs and suppress his desire for the grapes—he would’ve just gotten the grapes and been happy.
My favorite example to use is a situation where you are hungry but believe that there is nothing in your refrigerator or pantry. It’s an amazing example because if you think there’s nothing in there, you probably won’t bother to check it. And so maybe you dread having to go to the store or maybe you are worried about how much your next grocery bill will be. That would bring negative emotions. But, in a twist, there happens to be food in there in this scenario. So now you feel bad for no reason because you want food (desire), believe you don’t have any (belief), and so you feel bad (emotion) and don’t go check the fridge or cabinet (experience). The reason why I love this example is that it doesn’t matter what’s actually there in terms of how you feel…what you believe is what matters (not counting that you’re hungry and want food, of course).
So, everything in the world can be exactly the same and yet you can feel different because of how you manage your beliefs. You can do it in any situation, and it is not necessarily used to delude yourself as cynics attributing cognitive dissonance to everyone with a different perspective than them often do. If you fail a test, you can see it as an opportunity to get better and study harder. If you don’t make a sports team, you can find out what wasn’t working and use it to get ready for the next opportunity; it might even be that you didn’t get an opportunity that wasn’t a good fit for you and a better one will be available soon after.
Someone messaged me one time with this exact situation: he unfortunately just experienced a breakup, and he felt really bad. But it wasn’t about the person he lost; it was about the fact that he wanted a relationship as validation for his self-esteem. So I asked him how he’d feel if he knew for a fact that the best person in the world for him would show up in his life tomorrow. Of course, he would be ecstatic. Note that, as with the relationship example, nothing has changed, and yet in one scenario he would feel amazing and the other he would feel terrible. And that’s how you can live, too.
There are two benefits to this: feeling good now (i.e., alleviating suffering in Buddhist terminology) and living a better life as a result. See, if you feel like crap, you won’t be in the mood to live your best life: you might start skipping the gym, might choose a less healthy diet, and might treat yourself or others worse. As a result, you’ll create a self-fulfilling prophecy and, therefore, be less likely to be successful in the future. If you experienced a breakup, you definitely won’t be more attractive if you’re moping. If you lost a job, you’ll be more likely to stay in bed than search for a new job if you are depressed. If you experience a setback with your business or athletic career, you will definitely stop improving your skills if you think it’s hopeless.
And this is the takeaway for you: you need your beliefs to support your dreams. You need a positive attitude if you want to improve your life. That will only come if you believe that your life will be better in the future than it is today and that better things are coming—i.e., anything that gives you something to look forward to. Once you believe that, your emotional state will improve just the same as detaching from your desires will because they are part of the same formula for what causes your emotional state. Yes, you could indulge in pleasurable experiences or convince yourself that you don’t want anything, but those are riskier propositions that can backfire in the long term in the form of addictions or depression.
There is one risk, of course: the risk of holding a belief that isn’t true and facing future consequences to feel better now. The gambler’s fallacy of thinking that “you’re due” when you’re really gambling and the odds are really against you is one example of delusional thinking potentially being harmful. But we’re talking about constructive beliefs like that your future will get better or that you can be happy in your current state; we’re not talking about believing that you can jump off a cliff, flap your arms, and fly.
So always keep in mind that any emotional state is affected as much by your desires and beliefs as they are your experiences. Everyone in the same geographic location experiences the same weather, yet some people tend to let a rainy day ruin their day compared to others who rejoice at the rain for the crops that they will eat soon, the chance to do things they needed to get done inside, or just because they love the sound of the rain on their window sill. You cannot control every experience in your life (though you can control much more than you give yourself credit for), but you can control your desires and beliefs. Learn to manage them for your emotional benefit, and you will have a more harmonious life.