How Suffering Works – an analogy, and pointers to the way out

Before proceeding, read the student’s disclaimer here

This post is a technocrat’s attempt to elucidate how suffering works, by way of examples. It also attempts to connect some dots between Einstein’s insights, and the mechanics of nature’s law, using an analogical model that I propose here. The model also suggests a method to continually keep coming out of suffering using real-world experiences. Let’s begin!

I’ve appreciated and wondered about this famous quote for a long time –

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.

Albert Einstein

The thing with the mind

Very soon down the path of exploration of the inner reality, we start to notice what a helpless little yelp the mind actually is. It is severely limited in its resourcefulness, and when stuck in a rut, it cannot do anything more than looping in painful little circles forever. Not only that, in doing so, it saps all the energy away from the faculty that could have pulled us out of the situation – awareness.

After this realization, Einstein’s quote above started making a lot of sense. The mind, at its given maturity level, gets engaged in a problem. And the more it tries to solve it, the more it messes it up. Factually, the problem is not the problem. The problem might not even be there. The mind’s standpoint is the problem. If only the mind could move beyond its present level, to the next orbit of intelligence, the current formidable problem will start looking like a no-brainer!

The mind is a thinking tool. And it uses the memory as the database to base its thinking on. It works great till the situation’s variables are within its limits, but when it gets overwhelmed, it gets direly stuck, clueless about the actual way out, but headstrong nonetheless. In its obsessive blindness, the harder it acts, the more suffering it creates for us.

In-fact, it creates a very real physical pain. A further fact; much of the pain, and even sicknesses that we get, are created by the mind. Is it sounding too theoretical? It’s not. You can rather easily see this for yourself. I’d even dare say it is one of the first basic facts we see on the path of Dhamma.

As a result of realizing this fact, half our problems go away, just like that! It happens because we clearly see how we are making ourselves sick. Actually, physically, sick. And how our mind actually loves holding on to pain and anger. Sounds absurd, but we actually do that. And it’s not very hard to discover. We see this happening because our awareness, our faculty to notice events gets stronger, and we are looking at the right places and in the right way. The mind keeps getting in the way, but once we get the hang of it, we see the facts staring at us right in the face, like the elephant that we never noticed so far!

Coming back to the mind. Another analogy that comes to mind (!) is, it is like a computer. Powerful, capable, and phenomenal, but an idiot of a machine. As long as things go well, it’s fine. But we always need a human to handle the sense part. If we take away the human, and an error occurs outside of the programmed intelligence of the system, the computer will start putting out garbage results, and most likely start creating damage, without the slightest cognizance of reality. It won’t ever realize its mistake all by itself.

Analogically, we need awareness to put the intelligence and knowledge of the mind to good use.

Back to where we started:

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.

So how exactly do we get to this “next level” of thinking that Einstein suggests?

The law-of-nature cone

Here’s a proposed model. To quantify these “levels” of the mind per Einstein, Let’s visualize them as concentric rings. These rings represent orbits of mind. Smaller orbits are lower levels of thinking. The levels which keep us poor or continuously in suffering. Or when we can’t solve our problems ourselves. Einstein suggests our mind to move to a bigger orbit, where it can solve its problems created by itself when it was in the smaller orbit.

Orbits of mind: smaller = more suffering

So, in the image above, our mind is in the green orbit, and is stuck in a problem. It now needs a way to move outwards towards blue orbits to solve its current problem. However, we cannot do this, and for just reason. We can’t ‘think’ our way to higher thinking, because, as Einstein said, we can’t solve our problems from the same level of thinking. There has to be another way.

So we do what scientists do. We add one more variable on a third dimension to our circle analogy. We plot experiences along this axis. When we visualize looking into this cone thing from the top, we still see the circle from the earlier picture. So far so good!

The law-of-nature cone

The spectrum of experiences lie along the height of this cone. Lower end is about created experiences, and the higher side is about naturally occurring experiences. It is hard to go to higher thinking via thinking from a lower level of mind. Thinking is in the mental space. But experiences are in the physical space! If we learn to move up the experiences axis, we will automatically move outwards on the mental scale.

Created and Natural experiences

Normally we want to live in the “created experiences” space. Watching a movie, eating great food, seeking stuff that makes us feel good, and everything that we want to keep experiencing in general. All our life we keep trying to “create the experiences” that we like.

But, for a fact, even if we don’t create experiences, we will still get them. However, they will most probably be the ones we don’t like. Examples of these abound the moment we sit in meditation. Or when we try to do any wholesome act beyond our level of spiritual development. Like sitting down to study, or complete a must-do task. Restlessness, pain, itches, food cravings, TV, and the like.

We can visualize it as the mind wanting to fall back to the created experiences, in the sketch above. It is effectively trapped inside its craving of created experiences. Naturally, if it lives in a space of experiences that it has created for itself, it cannot solve problems beyond a certain level because it is living in a simulated reality.

Now, the deal is, the level of mind is directly related to how far up we are in the “natural experiences” zone. The more we neutrally experience nature as it actually happens, the larger the mental orbit becomes. And we enter into a positive spiral of spiritual growth.

How can we move up the law-of-nature cone?

By exercising and strengthening our right faculties. Awareness and concentration, to be specific. And not wanting to change the experiences. Instead, trying to understand them for what they really are. This results in the mind moving up in the zone of natural experiences, and as a by-product, outwards to higher levels of thinking. And it gets smarter, as Einstein tells us. So we naturally start seeing the process of our suffering, and simply start choosing not to suffer anymore.

This is exactly what we practice when we sit down and meditate. The Buddha taught us systematic practices of mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samatha), the exercises to strengthen awareness and alertness leading to wisdom. (See Chapter 13, page 82 here in this book)

Gradually, the awareness starts noticing when the mind is blindly reacting to natural experiences, and the resultant suffering that is caused. Next up, the mind starts getting these glimpses, which appear as “Aha moments“. The facts now enter the conscious mind’s space, and it performs its orbit-shift maneuver, as Einstein always wanted!

Hope that was useful! Thanks for reading 🙂

Dreamer, doer, maker-turned-leader. Former electronics nerd. Passion driven, for good or for bad. A dabbler in spirituality. Moved on from independence to interdependence. Moved on from label-based identification to creating key value, in whatever format possible.