Close this search box.


Breaking the Habit: Buddhism and the Personal Aspects of Suffering

05_Flatbed_2 – SEPTEMBER Original Filename: BD0428-001.jpg

This is a shortened and edited version of an article I wrote for the recently published second volume of Book BBook B is a contemporary series of books featuring articles about spirituality, art, and philosophy by Buddhist writers and personalities based in Hong Kong.


For more than 2,550 years, the Buddhist heritage has guided beings to wake up and realize that this world is not as it seems. We were born and reborn to sit in communion with the Buddha, and to know that the suffering marking this universe does not have to be. On the personal level, however, we continue to suffer because we are afflicted by habits of self-deception. These self-generated tricks cloud the mirror to our true nature. What is the story of our patterned ignorance and personal suffering, and how can we give it a happy ending?

Polly Young-Eisendrath argues that for healing and transformation have a chance for success, both the universal and personal aspects of suffering must be attended to. Universal aspects of suffering include the Three Poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion), and the human tendency to ignore, deny, and fear impermanence and change. Personal aspects consist of inner conflicts, deficits, complexes, projections, and identifications (Safran, 2003, p. 303). While Young-Eisendrath believes that Buddhism’s psychotherapeutic strength lies in taming and transforming the universal aspects, I suspect that it is the personal aspects that hinder our insight into our self-deception and its harmful results.

According to Young-Eisendrath, we create our own suffering by “evaluating, desiring, fantasizing, aggrandizing, and diminishing both objective and subjective events and experiences” (Safran 2003, p. 302). This is an important observation, but there is a glaring unknown at play here, and that is whether or not we know Young-Eisendrath’s described eventare happening. A given person may or may not know that he feels frustrated when someone discredits his perceived superiority. He might or might not be aware of his vexation when he realizes his ignorance about something, but cannot stand to admit it to others. The hypothetical situations are endless. It is quite possible that I know that I am entering into negative patterns or modes of thought, but it is also possible that I am not consciously aware of it. What matters is that I continue to do it.

For Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who honoured Hong Kong with a tour this November, the reason for my harmful, negative patterns and habits is a lack of mindfulness. Mindfulness is absolutely crucial to self-transformation (King, 2005, p. 32). We have all the tools, power, and resolve within to heal and transform personal suffering. This is quite true and certain: it is the promise of the universal doctrine of Buddha Nature (Brown, 1991, p. 131), which applies to all beings. If we could stand back from a more rational perspective and determine that our mistaken assumptions were hurting us, we would leap at the prospect of reducing them. If we give mindfulness a chance, Nhat Hanh promises that we will be able to discover the causes of our self-created suffering. When we come to such an understanding, we will be in a position to know ourselves better.

Evidently, the insight of the Buddhist message was clear from the very outset of its inception; the Buddha held nothing back when it came to teaching how to end universal suffering. This time, therefore, it is not so much the universal aspects we are vexed with. It is the fact that we lack mindfulness and cannot recognize the moments when we create our personal suffering. In other words, when complexes, projections, or identifications are triggered, we continue to indulge in them because we do not even consciously know that they are active. Therefore, to exercise mindfulness during interpersonal situations is part of several awareness-honing activities that sharpen one’s sense of the personal aspects at work. There are many methods to achieve this end (I have provided a list of sources that are far more qualified than myself to speak about it), but one point is worth stressing: it is not so much breaking the habit as knowing the habit and then gently releasing it.

Buddhism and psychoanalysis have formed an important interdisciplinary discourse since the latter half of the twentieth century. Where does this brief dialogue between Thich Nhat Hanh and Young-Eisendrath lead us? Since we are addressing the personal aspects of suffering, the practice of wisdom needs to be grounded in compassion. The raison d’être of the Mah?y?na tradition is bodhicitta, an intensely compassionate desire to be enlightened to benefit all beings. The very word “compassion” entails compassion for oneself as well as others. One learns to love oneself precisely so she has more love to extend to others: whoever truly loves herself will not want to harm another (Watts, 2007, p. 120). Once we start to feel compassion, we are actually more mindful. We start to be naturally honest with ourselves. We wisely forgive ourselves for the mistakes we have made in the past. We realize when we are experiencing personal aspects of suffering, and remember, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, to “breathe and smile.”

Useful Resources

Brown, Brian Edward. The Buddha Nature: A Study of the Tath?gatagarbha and ?l?yavijñ?na. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991.

King, Sallie B. Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005.

Nhat Hanh, Thich.

–       Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. New York: Bantam, 1991.

–       No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 2002.

–       The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2006.

Safran, Jeremy D. (ed.) Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.Watts, Alan B. Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Back to Thich Nhat Hanh Birthday Edition 2012

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments