SuttaCentral

The choice of suffering vs love

Something in the back of my mind asked me to share a story, so here goes.

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I fell in love with a girl, as young men do. Things ended, as they do. When it ended I was very distraught. At some point I realized that my suffering was my own doing, and I could end it whenever I wanted. But, I did not. Even knowing that it was my choice, I chose to suffer for quite a while.

That was the first lesson I learned, that suffering was my own choice. Much like the double-arrow analogy I have heard from Buddhism.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned another lesson from that experience. Not only was the suffering my own choice, but so was the love that I felt. The sort of unconditional love that I felt really didn’t have to do with the girl so much as it had to do with my own choice to feel that way towards her. There must have been a decision, if unconscious, to feel that way, much in the same way that suffering is an unconscious choice.

But now I am left with the quandary that, even understanding that I could choose to love everyone unconditionally, and feel that feeling of being in love, but towards everyone I meet… I can’t seem to do it. Perhaps for brief moments, but then it passes, and for lack of better word, I don’t really want to?

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I’ve thought about this quite a lot myself, especially since the last few years I have chosen not to pursue intimate relationships in order to develop my practice further. I recall reading an article by a nun a long time ago where she talked about celibacy allowing her to be in love with the entire world instead of with individual people. This is becoming more clear to me now, but it was not really something I understood on an experiential or intuitive level until I had been celibate and unentangled in relationships for quite a long time.

I don’t focus so much on love as a feeling directed towards a particular person, rather I focus on the feeling of love itself. And I also try not to focus on any particular person I don’t feel love towards, rather I focus on the feeling of not loving them. So I guess I try to investigate the feelings themselves (e.g. why have they arisen, are they skillful or unskillful), independent of where they are directed. If I’m doing this, it matters less whether I’m feeling love or not-love, and what’s more prominent is where the feelings originate. (As an aside, this is also a fantastic way to deal with fear of insects.)

I recently read this explanation by Sayadaw U Tejaniya, which I’ll share as it was helpful for me in terms of how to approach this in a practical way:

If desire arises because of a particular object, you should stop observing that object. It is not a dhamma object; it is an object of desire. The object you need to watch in such a situation is desire itself. Watch the feeling that comes with the desire.

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Suffering is created by ourselves in a sutta which I forget the name, buddha said we can know the source of suffering and by destroying the source we can destroy suffering

For example, Would you suffer if your mother die ?

If yes then why would you suffer ?

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Yes, this is exactly what I meant.

I suppose I’m referring to something that happened to me just over a year ago… I had an argument with some friends where my ego flared up and I said something that I was regretting. I had been studying Buddhism for a few years, and thought I had better control over my emotions/ego. It was a bit upsetting to realize how little control I had over myself when something stressful happened.

I’m not entirely sure why I opened the bible for advice, but reading Jesus’ sermon on the mount (for about the 10th time; I was raised in a Christian household), suddenly I saw Jesus in a different light. He was giving the same advice as Buddha. Essentially, “your ego is causing every problem, just let it go.” So I did. At the time, I made a choice to give up my ego entirely, in any situation, and not allow my ego to react to people in a negative way, no matter what they said or did. Suddenly this feeling washed over me that I had only felt before when I was “in love”. But, as you said, this was not directed towards a person, but towards humanity in general. It felt extremely overwhelming, both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.

Now I’m not sure what to make of it. I feel like I could choose to experience that feeling of love towards everyone, 24/7/365 if I want that. But for some reason, I feel like I don’t want that. Why wouldn’t I want to hold onto that feeling of being in love with the entire world? Perhaps my ego is telling me that people don’t deserve to be loved? I’m not sure how to explain it.

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I think this sutta is relevant to your problem

Sn42.11
With Bhadraka
At one time the Buddha was staying in the land of the Mallas, near the Mallian town called Uruvelakappa. Then Bhadraka the village chief went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Please, sir, teach me the origin and cessation of suffering.”

“Chief, if I were to teach you about the origin and ending of suffering in the past, saying ‘this is how it was in the past,’ you might have doubts or uncertainties about that. If I were to teach you about the origin and ending of suffering in the future, saying ‘this is how it will be in the future,’ you might have doubts or uncertainties about that. Rather, chief, I will teach you about the origin and ending of suffering as I am sitting right here and you are sitting right there. Listen and pay close attention, I will speak.”

“Yes, sir,” Bhadraka replied. The Buddha said this:

“What do you think, chief? Are there any people here in Uruvelakappa who, if they were executed, imprisoned, fined, or condemned, it would cause you sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress?”

“There are, sir.”

“But are there any people here in Uruvelakappa who, if they were executed, imprisoned, fined, or condemned, it would not cause you sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress?”

“There are, sir.”

“What’s the cause, chief, what’s the reason why, if this was to happen to some people it could cause you sorrow, while if it happens to others it does not?”

“The people regarding whom this would give rise to sorrow are those I desire and love. The people regarding whom this would not give rise to sorrow are those I don’t desire and love.”

“With this present phenomenon that is seen, known, immediate, attained, and fathomed, you may infer to the past and future: ‘All the suffering that arose in the past was rooted and sourced in desire. For desire is the root of suffering. All the suffering that will arise in the future will be rooted and sourced in desire. For desire is the root of suffering.’”

“It’s incredible, sir, it’s amazing! How well said this was by the Buddha! ‘All the suffering that arises is rooted and sourced in desire. For desire is the root of suffering.’

I have a boy called Ciravāsi, who resides in a house away from here. I rise early and send someone, saying: ‘Go, my man, and check on my boy Ciravāsi.’ Until they get back I worry: ‘I hope nothing’s wrong with Ciravāsi!’”

“What do you think, chief? If Ciravāsi was executed, imprisoned, fined, or condemned, would it cause you sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress?”

“How could it not, sir?”

“This too is a way to understand: ‘All the suffering that arises is rooted and sourced in desire. For desire is the root of suffering.’

What do you think, chief? Before you’d seen or heard of Ciravāsi’s mother, did you have any desire or love or fondness for her?”

“No, sir.”

“Then was it because you saw or heard of her that you had desire or love or fondness for her?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, chief? If Ciravāsi’s mother was executed, imprisoned, fined, or condemned, would it cause you sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress?”

“How could it not, sir?”

“This too is a way to understand: ‘All the suffering that arises is rooted and sourced in desire. For desire is the root of suffering.’”

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I can definitely understand what you mean, I have those moments where the ego is so much stronger than I think it ought to be after this much practice. And it’s humbling. I guess that’s what I try to take from it, the ego is a powerful and tricky thing and it’s better not to overestimate my level of control over it. But it’s not mine you know, it’s just something I have to be careful about.

I also know what you mean about the feeling of love for everyone being so overwhelming:

Whenever I have really felt that type of universal love in a sustained, intense way, I always think about how overwhelming it would be to feel that way constantly. It’s not a bad feeling, just so intense it’s almost frightening. I’m not sure I could choose to feel that way all the time yet, and that’s probably a good thing. But I guess I figure if I get to the point in my practice where that feeling sustains itself all the time, I’ll be ready to handle it.

Ajahn Chah has this wonderful Dhamma talk about being careful with strong feelings, with a quote that comes back to me a lot when I’m negotiating feelings about other people, sharing in case it’s helpful for you:

When you feed grass to your buffalo, you have to be careful. If you’re careful when it kicks out, it won’t kick you. You have to feed it and take care of it, but you should be smart enough to do that without getting bitten.

http://ajahnchah.org/book/About_Being_Careful.php

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Not really we have a choice for how to feel. Love feeling arises on contact, entirely pre-determined by past kamma.

We do have choices here imo, consciously, on if we gonna suffer.
It is when feeling arises with its momentum, together with right resolve & right attention, we don’t perpetuate past behavior unto future.

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Thanks for sharing your experience, @Moloch. From reading your reflections, I’m wondering if you’re being unrealistically hard on yourself by framing suffering (as well as unconditional love) as a “choice”?

It’s true that whether we choose to draw the arrow out or dig it in further involves intention, but from my experience the reality is much harder than that. The choice to, say, stop longing for a love lost, is not as simple as a choice of what to eat for breakfast. That element of choice also goes along with a heap of conditioning and past actions, and then there’s the skill in actually knowing how to choose something different.

There’s no off-switch you can flip whenever you want; these things take time.

I think this might give a hint as to why you can’t seem to ‘choose’ to love everyone unconditionally**? It’s not just a matter of whether you want to or not, but can you? Do you know how to? People spend copious amounts of time towards loving-kindness practice so that that sort of activity becomes habitual.

So I would say, this isn’t an all-or-nothing exercise, but rather a skill to be built up over time. Step by step, you can lean the mind towards what is wholesome and beneficial. It can be boiled down to:

**Regarding unconditional love, I’d definitely examine what this experience was like for you in the context of your ex-partner. Often when we’re with someone romantically, there is love, but also so much more going on that it isn’t quite unconditional love.

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Some quotes from the suttas to cheer you up, friend!

Ananda’s great love for the Buddha (Jataka 533):

Conversation between King Pasenadi and Queen Mallikā (MN 87)

And for conclusion, Dhammapada 212-213

See also: Ajaan Mun’s Spiritual Partner (page 164): https://forestdhamma.org/ebooks/english/pdf/Acariya_Mun__A_Spiritual_Biography.pdf

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The practitioner’s first responsibility is to their own practice:

"…so should you, monks, practice the establishment of mindfulness.
You should (also) practice the establishment of mindfulness (by saying)
“I will look after others.”

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.

And how does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot."—SN 47.19, Olendzki.

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From another angle …

It might be useful to think of these feelings in the context of going from unwholesome to wholesome and from coarser to finer :slight_smile:

The first differentiation is wholesome or not. Universal metta is certainly wholesome.
But All feelings (pleasant or unpleasant) are agitating to some degree - ‘rapture’ is agitating :smiley:

However, in practicing Metta, it is a wholesome and pleasant form of ‘agitation’ :slight_smile: and doesn’t lead to harm for oneself or others.

AN 5.176 Piti/Rapture
When he said this, Venerable Sāriputta said to the Buddha, “It’s incredible, sir, it’s amazing! How well said this was by the Buddha: ‘Householders, you have supplied the mendicant Saṅgha with robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick. But you should not be content with just this much. So you should train like this: “How can we, from time to time, enter and dwell in the rapture of seclusion?” That’s how you should train.’

At a time when a noble disciple enters and dwells in the rapture of seclusion, five things aren’t present in him. The pain and sadness connected with sensual pleasures. The pleasure and happiness connected with sensual pleasures. The pain and sadness connected with the unskillful. The pleasure and happiness connected with the unskillful. The pain and sadness connected with the skillful. At a time when a noble disciple enters and dwells in the rapture of seclusion, these five things aren’t present in him.”

Note the pleasure and happiness connected with the Skillful are present :slight_smile:

The next in the sequence is Equanimity, and beyond that is a progression of ever increasing stillness - as per the Buddhas instructions for progression through increasingly refined states of Samadhi.

AN11.16
Furthermore, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. Then they reflect: ‘Even this heart’s release by love is produced by choices and intentions.’

With much metta :pray: :slight_smile: :revolving_hearts: :dharmawheel:

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For a man in love of a female, attempting to utilize love sensation to develop dhamma, is a path full of dangers, too easy to be tipped off balance.
Asuba is better choice of meditation in this situation.

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Many thanks to the participants who have answered this potentially too-personal topic impersonally and with lots of input from the Suttas. :pray:

May you all be well, happy, and at peace.

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it can be helpful to see this in terms of conditioning rather than presence of ego as this points to a process of repeated influences rather than simply the presence or absence of something which can be seen as more solid.
A process is more fluid, though I do most certainly relate to how shocking it can be when strong conditioning appears amidst our dedicated practice endeavours. :dizzy_face:

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Yes, this is it. Well said.

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I think this sutta fits this discussion more than my previous shown sutta

Mn87
“Lord, how could there not be an aberration in my faculties? My dear & beloved little son, my only child, has died. Because of his death, I have no desire to work or to eat. I keep going to the cemetery and crying out, ‘Where have you gone, my only little child? Where have you gone, my only little child?’”

“That’s the way it is, householder. That’s the way it is—for sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are born from one who is dear, come springing from one who is dear.”

This shows that personal/individual love is something that should be avoided at all cost

This love can be the doorway to more universal love and I would suggest, is not to be avoided, but rather understood and deepened to integrate spiritual qualities. It is attachment, negative conditioning and projection which need to be transformed, and are often very present in relation to “one who is dear”.

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But how do you differentiate between love and attachment ?

I see attachment as constricted and self-serving whereas love is spacious, free and generous. I would suggest that love can only be real in the absence of attachment. It can be helpful to clarify in terms of “spiritual love” (metta) yet of course there is often a mix eg. a parent may have great attachment to a child yet will also often have strong elements of unselfish and spiritual love.

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I think self love too should be avoided at all cost, since there’s no self in the first place,

Furthermore since you don’t even own yourself pretending that you own a child is baseless

What do you think ?

Update 1
If a foreigner’s child die you don’t suffer I think one starts to suffer once they think that child is “mine” thus “I” lose

Furthermore if there’s no “I” there would be no “mine” there would be no reason to suffer since nothing that can suffer are related to you in this world

In that sense I think I am still right that love should be avoided at all cost even self love let alone child love

And good will should be developed instead