Roots of Suffering: Ignorance

SunriseDowntown3_17The word ignorance has a very negative connotation, but it really is just a state of unawareness – of not knowing. This can arise from a lack of experience, confusion, or even from deluded thinking. The problem is that ignorance, especially in the presence of afflictive emotions, often leads to unwise action, which causes suffering for ourselves and others.

There is some interesting research showing that the less we know the more confident we are and vice versa. In our ignorance, we don’t even know enough to recognize our own incompetence – we fail to see our unskillfulness. We even have a name for this; the Dunning–Kruger Effect.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge… – Charles Darwin

Human beings tend to misperceive the true nature of things, including ourselves. We layer stories, expectations, and assumptions on top of our perceptions in order to explain them and fit them into a coherent whole. This includes ourselves and the world around us. We find ourselves grasping at and clinging to things that support our story and ignoring, pushing away, or fighting against things that do not. This creates further confusion, unwise reacting, and suffering.

In addition, we fail to see the impermanence of all things. We live as though our identities, relationships and possessions will go on and on, forever. We try to hold onto things that we think will bring us happiness. We think that if we can possess and keep them, we will be okay, end of story. When things inevitably change, this causes disappointment and dissatisfaction. So, in our ignorance, we go searching outside of ourselves for ever more.

Finally, we fail to recognize the causes and conditions that come together to create and perpetuate suffering. In keeping with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we don’t know enough to be aware of our own role in this harmful cycle. We think that everything good or bad comes from the outside. Because we don’t realize mind is both cause and condition, we don’t look inward and we don’t consider a new approach. Even if we did, we’d have no idea where to start.

Ignorance is of four types: 1) regarding that which is transient as eternal, 2) mistaking the impure for pure, 3) thinking that which brings misery to bring happiness, and 4) taking that which is not-self to be self. – Yoga Sutra 2.5

Since ignorance has its origins in the mind, this is where we need to turn for its antidote. We must get still and quiet long enough to look deeply inside ourselves. We learn to do this through a consistent meditation practice. Meditation becomes a controlled laboratory in which we can observe patterns and habits with less distraction. We also have to be willing to be with all that arises – even the experiences that bring us discomfort – observing with curiosity and resisting the urge to immediately react. If we bring a beginner’s mind and suspend judgment, we can gain some objectivity about what we observe. With patience and diligence we may begin to develop insight, clearing away the obscurations that keep us in ignorance so that we can respond with greater wisdom.

Understand the suffering of worldly existence.
Abandon its causes of ignorance and selfishness.
Practice the path of meditation and compassion.
Awaken from suffering within Great Peace.
– Gautama Buddha

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