Alleviating Mental Suffering (using ideas from Buddhism)

Mental Suffering

Alleviating mental suffering is something we spend our entire lives working on. I have previously posted about drawing on ancient philosophies and ideas to write about good mental health practices and this post forms part of that arc. It is my contention here that the Buddhist ideas surrounding mental practices and how to live your life on a daily basis can be helpful in alleviating many psychological issues.

There are people who suffer on a day-to-day basis but even those in good physical and mental health have to find a way to maintain balance. Physical suffering involves pain which is only a bodily sensation and in many cases temporary. Mental suffering is often far worse as it can distort sensation, magnify our problems and exponentially increase our misery. Chan Buddhism describes five main ways in which mental suffering is caused;

  1. Pursuing objectives without considering your own strengths and weaknesses (ignorance)
  2. An insatiable desire to conquer and expand (excessive ambition or greed and want)
  3. Arrogance over achieving a particular objective or position (pride)
  4. Despair over failing to achieve (self-pity)
  5. Insecurity due to doubt (lacking belief)

As Chan Buddhist Master Sheng-yen says, ‘we are vexed most by the enemy within’. The above five causes of suffering come from an internal source, the mechanisms of our own psyche. It is hard to be aware of these causes but through actively practising a focus on our own minds, it is possible to better our human nature.

We each have a way of talking to ourselves and as our thoughts and attitudes shift this inner voice can shift with them. When everything is going well this inner voice may be supportive and complimentary but when we make seemingly bad decisions the voice can turn into a harsh critic. Through recognizing this voice for what it is we can learn to control and deal with it. Learning to deal with ourselves is just one facet of alleviating mental suffering. Another is learning how to be compassionate to our fellow human beings.

A touch of Karma

I am currently not a practising Buddhist although I had dabbled as a younger man. I do, however, have a great interest in the philosophical ideas of Buddhism, especially certain concepts such as no-self and karma. I am unsure of whether we have passed lives that generate karma but I certainly believe that whatever we do or do not do in this life has consequences. A way to work on a day-to-day basis to alleviate mental suffering is through generating sympathy and acting with empathy. The Buddhists teach that we should act towards ourselves and towards other people with compassion.

We can overcome ignorance by examining our own abilities, carefully considering what we are capable of. Through this examination, we can find our particular strengths and move away from worrying about past failures. Thus, we can develop and nurture a spirit of compassion by actively observing four mental practices;

  • Understand your own conflicts and cultivate inner harmony.
  • Feel sympathy for over people’s shortcomings.
  • Forgive other people’s mistakes.
  • Concern yourself with other people’s suffering.

These are Buddhist ideals but I think they are appropriate for anyone looking to practice alleviating mental suffering. The overall idea is that by bringing more empathy into our lives we will improve our own general well being. In addition, since this will have a benefit on our daily interactions with other people it will make a positive contribution to the wider world. This can only be a good thing.


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