What is mental suffering?
The primary source of mental suffering lies in our thoughts. To be sure, life can be painful. Failed relationships, unemployment, illness and death are common sources of that. But mental suffering is what we add on to life problems through the thoughts we have about our experiences. Thoughts that create self-blame, bitterness, worry, despair and hopelessness, along with the craving for life to to be different from the way it is. Such thoughts also close us off from acceptance, peace, and resilience. And from the possibilities that still lie open to us, no matter how bad our experiences.
The prison of thought
Yet we cannot escape thought. It has been estimated that, on average, each human being has 60,000 thoughts a day. However, many of those impressions last only a few seconds. A more detailed study in 2020 revealed that about ten per cent of that number are thought chains – extended thoughts which include worries, catastrophic fantasies and self-judgments as well as creative insights, logical conclusions and problem-solving.
Six thousand thought chains lasting perhaps ten seconds each will easily take up all our waking time. The problem for many people is that they spend more time on destructive thoughts than they do on the constructive variety. Possibly this is helped along by negative bias: the brain’s tendency to focus on what might go wrong rather than on what works well.
How we get lost in our minds
However, there is a deeper problem: which is that many of us waste nearly half our time day-dreaming. In which we get lost in thought chains that are of no earthly use to us; many of which create mental suffering. Another way to put it is that we have no control over our thoughts; they dominate us rather than we them.
As I have written before in The flaw in our minds we are so made that we give thoughts the same reality as we do external objects. This leads to our taking them more seriously than we should so that they take us over. Past disasters, future worries, fantasies about other people, anxious thought chains, depressive chains can seem more ‘real’ to us than the chair we are sitting on.
All this points to the fact that we are not conscious of what we are doing when we get lost in thought; that we have, in fact, lost control. To put it another way: we are not mindful enough.
Mindfulness and attentional control
One benefit of practicing meditation is that it teaches you the habit of paying attention. Research shows that regular practice in mindfulness strengthens those brain mechanisms which govern attentional control. Not just to what is going on out there, but inside consciousness. That way we can decide which thoughts we are going to go with, and which not. And when we develop that power of choice, we are able to defuse from the thoughts that add to our distress. Smoothly going beyond the source of mental suffering to the possibilities available to us in the present moment awareness.
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.