According to Buddhist writings, the man who became known as “Buddha” had a profound insight: much of human suffering happens because of people’s attachment to things they want or expect to happen. (Jesus and other teachers have said essentially the same thing, but Buddhism seems to emphasize it most strongly.)
So we can suffer much less by simply not becoming attached to things turning out a certain way. This is a very simple idea, but it is not so easy to practice. Whether it is human nature or something we learn, the reality is that most of us want and expect many things, either consciously or unconsciously. In fact, our unconscious minds are the source of many wants and expectations that we may be consciously unaware of.
Let’s take a minor example. Let’s say you like ice cream very much, and you are a passenger in a car full of people driving towards your favorite ice cream store. You are not hungry and are watching your diet, so consciously you don’t want to stop because you know you will be tempted to get some ice cream. Someone in the car suggests stopping for ice cream, and there is some discussion about whether to do it or not. Ultimately the driver decides that he needs to get home, and you don’t stop. You notice that you feel disappointed, even though consciously you didn’t even want to stop.
Buddhist principles say that your disappointment is a kind of suffering, and your suffering was caused by your attachment to getting ice cream. But wait, you say, you didn’t really want to stop in the first place! What happened?
Well, first the thought of ice cream came up. Your unconscious mind, which is always trying to make sense of what is happening and prepare you for possible action, sorted through your past experiences and feelings related to ice cream. Low and behold, what it found were memories of pleasure and enjoyment. Now it creates feelings of anticipation to urge you towards more of those good ice-cream-related experiences. When it doesn’t happen, you feel disappointment, even
though your conscious mind didn’t intend to get ice cream in the first place.
Buddha wanted to help people deal with this issue of expectation-based suffering. He apparently was a pretty good psychologist, because he didn’t teach people to try to get rid of those unconscious thoughts and feelings. (Since we don’t have control over our unconscious mind, trying to “get rid of” unconscious thoughts and feelings never works.) Instead, he taught meditation practices that help people become aware of those unconscious thoughts and feelings and let go of them without judging them.
This is important, because trying to change or judge the unconscious thoughts or feelings creates other kinds of expectations – expectations of “doing it right”. Accepting the thoughts and feelings and letting them go brings you back to the present moment, where you can experience “what is” with no expectations of something different happening. Thus, no suffering – at least no additional, unnecessary suffering.