Chapter 25: The heart of any problem

We’ve explored the resistance and other obstacles that cause problems with habit changes, but I’d like to go a little deeper and look at all of our problems, not just habit change.

We face lots of problems in life — frustration with others, unhappiness with ourselves, procrastination and distraction, self-doubt, being stuck, financial problems, and more.

What I’ve learned is that pretty much all of these problems are really just one problem — the One Problem we talked about in the Introduction. And if we can get to the heart of that one problem, we can learn to deal with any problem.

All our problems are One Problem

Let’s first look at the kinds of problems most of us face:

  • Distraction
  • Procrastination
  • Self-doubt
  • Unhappiness with ourselves
  • Anger at our spouses or kids
  • Frustration with a co-worker
  • Anger at other drivers in traffic
  • Failure at habit change such as exercise
  • Unhappiness with our bodies
  • Indecision or self-doubt
  • Being held back by fear
  • Relationship problems
  • Annoyance with people who make bad choices
  • Loneliness
  • Difficulty forgiving yourself or others

In Buddhist terms, these are all forms of “suffering.” I know, it’s not the kind of suffering you might normally imagine, like someone dying of a painful disease or being tortured by captors. But it’s a form of suffering, in that we are unhappy or dissatisfied or feeling bad in some way. It’s a low-grade but constant suffering, like a toothache that makes you cranky and hard to be around.

What’s at the heart of all these forms of suffering? It turns out, we’ve already seen it in our explorations of habit change: it’s the Mind Movie, and our attachment to this story, this image in our heads.

As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has said, it’s not the things that happen to us that cause us to suffer, “it’s what we say to ourselves about the things that are happening.” So the suffering isn’t created by the other person’s actions, or our failure to stick to a habit, or bad external circumstances … but by the Mind Movie we’ve made up about those things.

Let’s look at some examples:

  1. Matt is upset that his business isn’t doing as well as he’d planned. The problem isn’t in the business, which after all is just the market telling him what it thought of what he had to offer at that time. The problem was that he had an ideal about the business’s success (and his own success) that the reality of the business was failing to meet, so he became upset. His Mind Movie is about him succeeding as a businessperson, and he has attached his self-worth to this image. The loss of this image is devastating to him.
  2. Sarah is frustrated because she can’t stick to a diet. The problem isn’t in the foods she’s eating or her level of “discipline,” but in her feeling bad about the reality of her eating not meeting her ideal, and this feeling of guilt and self-hatred leads to her wanting to comfort herself with food. The problem also lies in Sarah’s not wanting to deal with the discomfort of eating a different diet than she’s used to — the reality of this discomfort doesn’t meet her expectation or ideal of being comfortable and enjoying her food.
  3. Kayla is tired of working out and just wants to play video games. The problem isn’t the difficulty of the workouts, but that the discomfort of working out doesn’t meet her ideal of being comfortable. She’d rather quit than face this reality.
  4. Chris is stuck in his job, unhappy, and afraid to start the business he’s always wanted to create. The problem isn’t his job, which after all is fine but doesn’t meet his ideal of owning his own business and working for himself. The problem isn’t that starting a business is too scary, but that it’s not full of certainty that he’ll know what he’s doing and succeed at it. He has an ideal of complete comfort and success, and his fear is that it won’t come true.
  5. Julie procrastinates on writing her book and goes to her usual distractions. The problem isn’t that she’s lazy, but that she also has an ideal of success and comfort, and she procrastinates out of fear of facing an uncomfortable task that has uncertainty and the possibility of failure.

We all face this One Problem of the Mind Movie, over and over, every day. In many forms. We cling to the Mind Movie we’ve made up and suffer when it doesn’t meet up with reality. It’s not that we have created the Mind Movie — it’s that we’re attached to it, and we cling to it tightly.

This is the heart of all our problems, and if we can learn to deal with this heart, we can cope with any life change, any frustration, any suffering.

Why we cling

Let’s go a little philosophical for a moment, and look deeper into why we cling to the Mind Movies we’ve created.

If this attachment to our Mind Movies causes so many problems and suffering, why do we even do it?

We cling to the Mind Movie because it seems nice, and safe, and comfortable. Having an image of ourselves as a successful person, a good person, with comfort and happiness … this is comforting. Thinking of ourselves as having no security, no comfort, no certainty … this is scary.

So we fear not having this Mind Movie, the uncertainty and insecurity and discomfort of it. This fear drives us to cling.

But life is not secure, nor certain, nor comfortable all the time. It is everchanging, impermanent, unpredictable. We fear this impermanence. We fear the change.

So this is the central problem: life is impermanent, and we fear that. We want security, certainty, comfort, not impermanence and uncertainty. This is the central conflict, the tension between what we’d like (our ideals) and the impermanence of reality.

The solution, of course, is to embrace the impermanence. Embrace the reality of each moment. We’ll go further into that in the next chapter.

Mission: See the suffering

As you go through your day today, try to notice times when you’re frustrated, angry, fearful, irritated, procrastinating, feeling bad about yourself. These are all forms of suffering. Learn to recognize them, and then see if you can find the Mind Movie playing in your head that causes the suffering. This takes practice, but it’s there. Journal about it.

Previous: Chapter 24 || Contents || Next: Chapter 26