I think Siddhartha (AKA The Buddha) was most ingenious in identifying the main sources of human suffering; namely, craving, aversion and delusion.
Given the random nature of the cosmos, strong attachments to things, points of view, and predictable outcomes are all but guaranteed to cause bitter disappointment eventually. Similarly, strong aversion toward things we view as unpleasant typically strengthens their power over us. And when craving and aversion become habitual, they are quite likely to lead to delusions about the nature of reality, which tend to cause more suffering in turn.
How much better to mindfully cultivate equanimity as our default. A regular mindfulness practice can do wonders for producing equanimity; think of it as a kind of serenity born of looking deeply into the nature of reality. When you discover your true nature — that of no-birth, no-death; no-coming, no-going; no-being, no-nonbeing, a great deal of your anxiety tends to drop away of its own accord. You lose the habitual desire to control events and outcomes, to make other people conform to your expectations (a fool’s errand that poisons relationships), and to bend the universe to your will.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus called this state ataraxia, or “unassailable tranquility of mind.” He recommended cultivating this quality by enjoying the natural pleasures of life in moderation and in the company of like-minded friends. He referred to it in terms of tending the garden of the mind: clearing out weeds and cultivating beautiful flowers and plants. This is not unlike the Buddhist idea of “tak[ing] refuge in the sangha,” a community of mutually supportive spiritual practitioners.
If craving, aversion and delusion indeed lie at the heart of our suffering, it stands to reason that their opposites would lead to its relief. Anyone who has suffered from some kind of obsessive or addictive disorder understands the lifesaving role mindfulness of consumption can play. Keeping our desires simple, and moderating them when they begin to grow out of control, is essential to our mental and physical health. Instead of assiduously avoiding aspects of life we find unpleasant, we can determine to face them head-on; this robs them of much of their anxiety-producing power. And embracing reality directly — the opposite of delusion — leads to great tranquility of mind.
Image courtesy of Maria Janicki