Two people attend a house party, where they socialize with the same guests, drink from the same beer tap, and are exposed to the same music and atmosphere. They decide to share a taxi and drive home when the party is over as they live closely together. “That party really sucked,” one person says. “The beer was terrible, the DJ was really bad, and the guests were insufferable.” Then the other person says smiling joyfully: “Really? I just had the best party in years. It was awesome.”
This example shows how different we see, in essence, the same thing. How come someone experiences outside events as very pleasurable while another person is annoyed by the same circumstances? It seems that everyone has different interpretations of what’s happening around them. What’s gold for someone is mud to someone else. So, what’s preferable, unpleasant, beautiful, or undesirable, although consensus exists, ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder.
Nevertheless, many people have difficulties seeing their realities for what they are: subjective, based on opinion, and not the absolute truth. If someone believes a party inherently sucks, then this person doesn’t see it as a mere observation but as a fact. And as a consequence, the person believes he suffers from the party, but in reality, he suffers from his attitude towards it.
The party itself cannot cause suffering. Just like we can’t listen to music without ears or taste food without a tongue, something can only be suffered if there’s a sufferer. The party needs something to observe and interpret. And thus, in reality, problems cannot exist without a perceiver, as circumstances aren’t troublesome without someone or something identifying them as such.
So, if there’s nothing inherently problematic about reality, doesn’t that mean that we humans repeatedly (and on a grand scale) worry about problems that don’t even exist?
The many different worlds
Before we try to answer whether or not our problems actually exist, we’ll explore the nature of reality in the light of Eastern philosophical ideas. After all, most (if not all) issues relate to our circumstances; to what we perceive as reality. For example, according to our collectively agreed-upon norms, ‘having financial problems’ means that we cannot pay off debts over the long or short term or pay for our living expenses. And since we cannot meet the norms, we consider our situation ‘problematic.’
But regardless of the discomfort that financial problems bring, the problematic element we attach to it remains subjective. It’s a consequence of a collective perception of reality, labeling appearances right or wrong, valuable or not valuable, desirable or undesirable.
As human beings, reality as we experience it consists of countless concepts and ideas. These help us make sense of chaos by naming things, using labels, bundling elements together, distinguishing one thing from the other, and applying value judgments. These concepts and ideas can be collective and individual, meaning that the human world consists of billions of ‘sub-worlds’ which are all realities on their own. Hence, in one person’s universe, a party is fantastic. In another, it’s lame.
Also, human reality isn’t the only reality out there. Animals, and possibly even plants, have their unique perceptions of reality. The world of dogs primarily consists of smells, for example. Dogs cannot reason like humans and don’t understand concepts like ‘capitalism,’ or ‘religion,’ or ‘financial problems.’ And because they cannot comprehend these concepts, they won’t cause them any concern. Dogs are concerned with food, protecting their loved ones, and bodily affection, which are traits we share. And so, the worlds of humans and dogs intersect but are still very different from each other.
The Taoist scripture Zhuangzi mentions a parable about the human concept of beauty. In the story, two women considered most attractive by men were rather repulsive in the eyes of other living creatures:
Mao Qiang and Li Ji were accounted by men to be most beautiful, but when fishes saw them, they dived deep in the water from them; when birds, they flew from them aloft; and when deer saw them, they separated and fled away.Zhuangzi, Inner Chapters, The Adjustment of Controversies, par. 11
Could it be that the fish, birds, and deer simply have bad taste? Or could it be that our value judgments, even if the whole of humanity agrees upon them, aren’t universally true?
Looking from Zhuangzi’s perspective, the most reasonable answer is that human perception of beauty is not universal, nor is the perception of animals. Attractive beauty in a dog’s eyes is probably another dog, in the eyes of a snake, another snake, in the eyes of a human being, another human being. But none of these creatures has a monopoly on beauty itself. Herefore, beauty is not universal but created by the perceiver.
No matter if look at the world as humans or fish, our realities are subjective, restricted to our unique worlds of experience. So, human problems aren’t generally dog problems. And what seem problems to one person often aren’t problems to another.
In Buddhism, we can find a concept called the ‘two truths,’ which distinguishes between relative truth (or conventional truth) and absolute truth (the world as it is). The concept is much debated, and there isn’t a consensus on the absolute truth, probably because it’s pretty difficult to conceptualize what we cannot cognitively experience.
Some argue that the absolute truth is emptiness, and if we manage to look past the illusion, we can experience that, in reality, nothing is there. And so, the actual universe goes beyond the senses. The Taoists call this absolute truth ‘Tao,’ and Lao Tzu described it as follows:
The Tao is like an empty container:Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 4
it can never be emptied and can never be filled.
Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things.
It dulls the sharp, unties the knotted,
shades the lighted, and unites all of creation with dust.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than the concept of God.
But we could say, with relative certainty, that the concept signifies how we perceive the universe differs from the actual universe itself. Our senses determine our perception of the universe; we can only witness the world as far as our senses allow us to. And from this limited perception arises our relative truth, as is the case with dogs and fishes. And deer.
Relative truth is subjective. The notion that a party ‘sucks’ isn’t less valid than the opinion that the party is ‘fantastic.’ Isn’t the same true regarding our problems? What’s problematic to one isn’t problematic to another. Problems, therefore, are also subjective. They’re among the layer of conventional truth that obscures the absolute truth; they are as illusory as everything else our minds create. They are a perception of reality, not reality itself. They’re mere interpretations of the circumstances, not the circumstances. They don’t exist in the ‘absolute reality’ because if they did, everyone else would have encountered them as well. So, outside of our perceptions, there is no problem. In the same way, there is no dog; at least not our human concept of it.
Yet, problems appear very real to those who manufacture them. We tend to suffer them endlessly, so the pain they cause is heartfelt. And, unfortunately, we’re masters at creating these problems as well.
The problem machine
An investor notices that his stocks have lost twenty percent of their value in a single day. He panics and can barely keep it together. But another investor who experiences the same twenty percent decline is delighted, as she now has an opportunity to purchase stocks at a bargain.
Again, because of our subjective realities, whether something appears problematic differs per person. On top of that, we see that solving one problem often leads to another problem. Some people just dwell in a perpetual stream of “issues” regardless of how many of them they solve.
For example, a week later, the twenty percent drop has changed to a thirty percent increase, which means the previous problem (the twenty percent drop) has been solved. But the first investor then starts worrying that he didn’t buy the dip, and thus he missed out on potential profit. He’s even more distressed when he discovers that the other investor did buy the dip. So, even though his portfolio increased by ten percent, he still perceives his situation as problematic.
And so it’s with many things in life. There’s always someone creating problems out of situations that aren’t necessarily bad. And then, if the problems get solved, this person examines the status quo to propose even more problems. People with such fault-finding mindsets can endlessly solve issues by altering circumstances; it’s just a matter of time until new ones arise. No set of circumstances will end their problems if they keep creating them.
Resolvement versus dissolvement
There’s a consensus among many that we should deal with problems by solving them. Therefore, problems become nails to be hammered. And if they aren’t hammered, they’ll be sticking out of the wall forever. There certainly are situations that pose a direct threat to our safety (or other people’s safety) that require action. And some tend to be sticky and very difficult to tolerate, and thus we’re probably better off doing something about them.
However, our problems don’t need to be solved in many cases. After all, they are creations of a fault-finding mind and don’t represent reality in itself.
Anything can be considered problematic. Take, for example, a situation in which people dislike your physical appearance. Why does this appear as a problem? Because you’re worried about other people’s opinions. So, there are two things you can do: the first one is to try and “solve” your problem by changing your appearance, perhaps dress differently, get a haircut or lip fillers, as an attempt for people to like you.
The second one is to let go of the problem altogether, which, in this case, means that you accept your appearance and let go of the desire to be liked by those people. After all, the people disliking you aren’t a problem in itself; the mind makes it so. But a dog couldn’t care less what people think of his appearance and doesn’t care about yours either. So, being unattractive in the eyes of others may be an everyday human problem; it’s definitely not absolute. So, is it really a problem then?
The problem vanishes by embracing the circumstances as they are and not wishing to change anything about them. So, instead of solving them by rearranging the environment, we can dissolve them by letting them go. In essence, it’s what meditation does, as it decreases the discursive thinking patterns generating these problems in the first place. Buddhist scholar Gil Fronsdal stated the following:
Rather than directly solving our personal problems, non-action and meditation can help us to step away from our preoccupation with our problems, and this change in emphasis can sometimes make space for new solutions to arise or for the problem itself to diminish on its own. Some problems are better dissolved than solved.Gil Fronsdal, The Action of Non-Action
Often, when we solve a problem, we essentially change our circumstances in our favor. But the caveat is that our circumstances are out of control, meaning that if we experience our circumstances as problematic, we find fault at something in which we ultimately have no say. After solving a specific problem, it can appear again after circumstances change. Problem-solving, therefore, isn’t always efficient, as the ever-changing universe can easily undo our efforts. Changing the experience of our circumstances lies within our control.
Changing our attitude is much more efficient and realistic than changing the world. Instead of changing outside occurrences to solve what we recognize as ‘problems,’ we could also free ourselves from these problems by letting the discursive activities in our minds dissolve.
Here’s where the illusory nature of our problems works to our advantage: problems don’t exist outside our perception. At the same time, our thoughts are very inconsistent, and our attitude towards the environment changes, often without us even realizing it. We can painfully worry about a situation but have entirely lost these worries later. How come something that so heavily occupied us a few days ago seems relatively insignificant today? Have the circumstances changed? Or have we changed?
Many people experience an altered mindset when they’re drunk or under the influence of certain substances. Their day-to-day worries often disappear, and the world seems radically different and much less gloomy. But no radical changes took place in the world. What’s drastically changed, however, are their mental states.
Although temporarily effective, narcotics may not be the healthiest way to dissolve one’s problems. Moreover, people often see their problems and worries reappear after the “high” subsides, sometimes even louder and more robust. There are healthier ways to dissolve our problems, for example, by contemplating the nature of reality and the vastness of the universe. Or we could shift our focus from the situation to its silver lining.
Buddhists get to the root of the issue through meditation by calming the great manufacturer of all things horrible, also known as the mind. When the mind settles down, problems disappear, and all we’re left with are the intrinsically neutral outside circumstances. And so, eventually, the world gets pretty OK as it is, and the problems we thought we had, don’t seem problems at all.
Thank you for watching.