As George Mumford said in the 10% Happier meditation app, “Who’s the enemy? Unawareness.” Unawareness is serious business and is a root cause for so much suffering in the world. For the individual though, isn’t ignorance bliss?
A great series of questions about the phrase “suffering from unawareness” was raised by Yuri in Mistakes and Let Go Learn From. To quote the question:
Does a dog suffer from unawareness? an ant? a tree? a rock?
Is it possible to suffer without awareness?
Perhaps it is those who are aware who suffer most.
You could say awareness is suffering ?
To put the questions into my own words, how can one suffer if they are not aware? Doesn’t it hurt more to be aware? Those are interesting and fair questions. To clarify about “suffering” in the mindfulness meditation context, we’re talking about Dukkha. If one wants to go deep with an exploration of suffering, there’s an interesting podcast episode titled Joseph Goldstein – Insight Hour – Ep. 30 – The Four Noble Truths: Dukkha. Unpacking what suffering is can get deep. Suffice it to say, suffering goes beyond just pain.
To quote Selflessness and Mindfulness Where Y O U are the Target:
In this context, suffering is also sometimes known as the dissatisfying aspects of life. The sensation of being angry, feeling ill, or sadness doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have the same kind of impact when one is in a state of selflessness.
Now that we’ve covered suffering and shown our understanding of the spirit of the questions, let’s get back to the dog, ant, tree, and rock questions directly. An exploration of these questions directly might prove enlightening and perhaps even fun.
Rocks are not conscious. If one is as unfeeling as a rock, they won’t suffer nor feel the typical dissatisfactions that come with life. As stated on Minerals vs. Rocks, it’s noteworthy that “Rocks are generally made of two or more minerals.” Among other things, humans are made up of minerals. A human is a constellation of many different things.
Ants are a trickier thing to talk about. Ants are special creatures of earth and are quite different from humans. Humans will take in information through their senses, automatically abstract and filter away extraneous details, and then create a mental map of what was, what is, and what might be. Although there is much about ants we don’t understand, it’s clear that ants have evolved differently to survive in life.
As stated in We’ve Been Looking at Ant Intelligence the Wrong Way, “ants do not integrate all this information into a unified representation of the world, a so-called cognitive map.” They have adapted for navigation in different ways. There’s still much we don’t know about ants. So doggone it, we don’t know what ants think.
In my opinion, dogs are awesome. The more we learn about them, the more awesome they seem. As shared in Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?, dogs experience “basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love.” Do dogs suffer from dissatisfaction in life? As a former owner of many dogs, yes. Dogs suffer from dissatisfaction in life. In fact, once I observed a dog’s unhealthy attachment to fear which kept it from going to the bathroom until the poor dog just lost it wherever he was. That dog couldn’t be trained / reached since there was no way to explore this unhealthy attachment to its fear.
Although dogs learn, I am not aware of any scientific evidence supporting dogs having the ability to reflect on their thinking. In other words, dogs don’t have the power of metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking.
Dogs don’t have the same mental tools available that humans do. Joe Rogan, Sam harris and Dan Harris (cofounder of the 10% Happier meditation app), discuss meditation and metacognition in this video (NSFW due to cussing and references to recreational drug use):
Dan Harris does an excellent job in that video expanding on the concept of metacognition.
According to the article Scientists Discover Plants Have “Brains” That Determine When They Grow, trees have “a series of cells acting as a command center of sorts.” However, they also don’t have brains which allow metacognition.
That said, trees can be quite inspirational to humans. As shared on Why Trees Are The Ultimate Meditation Teachers:
A meditation teacher once advised me to look to the example trees set as steady, observant beings.
Studying nature can give us insight into ourselves and our relationship to the rest of the universe.
Through our human cognitive abilities, we can take note of our thoughts and train ourselves to respond to things which happen to us as opposed to take a knee-jerk reaction to everything in life. In a purely knee-jerk kind of world, we get road rage, more regrets, and are painfully lost in our thoughts.
The good news is that starting the Meditation Journey is Simple. That doesn’t mean meditating is easy. However, that’s another topic for another time.
As opposed to unawareness or ignorance being bliss, “Our suffering stems from ignorance.” as S. N. Goenka put it. As you deal with unawareness in its many forms in life, may you be safe, be happy, be healthy, and live with ease.
One thought on “Meditating on Suffering From Unawareness”
Thank you for taking my questions so seriously! That was…unexpected.
While I agree with much of what Goenka says in that article, I don’t believe suffering stems from ignorance. Just because ignorance leads to suffering does not mean suffering is caused by ignorance.
In my world, suffering is a choice caused by awareness of pain and what we make of it cognitively.