Where one seeks to find happiness, one will also find suffering. For it is when we seek a certain pleasure; when we crave something so terribly; that craving and one’s ignorance of it will lead to a perpetual state of longing. Welcome to Anhedonia my friends. Lets hope you didn’t buy a one way ticket.
Anhedonia is a state of being where the anhedonic is unable to experience pleasure in things that are or have been normally pleasurable in the past. For the purpose of this writing I will speak on consummatory anhedonia which refers to the amount of enjoyment one achieves through an activity.
Modern psychology will tell you that if you are experiencing an inability to enjoy things in life one would normally enjoy, you are depressed, possibly even mentally ill. There are books filled with hundreds, thousands, millions of pages perhaps, that will explain to you that you are in some way incapacitated and in need of medical intervention. It is my belief that in most cases this is untrue. If one can find the source of the dissatisfaction, one will find the answer to one’s own unhappiness.
How is one to begin the journey of finding the source of one’s unhappiness? Where lies the root? Is it planted deeply somewhere within the psyche of one’s own mind? Or does it exist on the surface of our thoughts just far enough away to confuse us, yet close enough to seem like a vague memory; is it on the tip of our tongue?
It is not on the tip of our tongue, but it’s roots may not always require a shovel to find.
It is dukkha.
No single English word adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the crucial Pali term dukkha. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used (“stress,” “unsatisfactoriness,” “suffering,” etc.). Each has its own merits in a given context. There is value in not letting oneself get too comfortable with any one particular translation of the word, since the entire thrust of Buddhist practice is the broadening and deepening of one’s understanding of dukkha until its roots are finally exposed and eradicated once and for all. One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you’ve found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.
“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”
— SN 56.11
To understand how to relieve oneself from dukkha, or anhedonia if you will, one must not always run off to the chemist, hand him a piece of paper for which he will give you a little bottle of pills. One needs to study and understand The Four Noble Truths.
That both I and you have had to travel and trudge through this long round is owing to our not discovering, not penetrating four truths. What four?
They are: The Noble Truth of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering.
To begin understanding suffering and its relief, one must first attempt to understand The First Noble Truth:
The First Noble Truth is not a dismal metaphysical statement saying that everything is suffering. Notice that there is a difference between a metaphysical doctrine in which you are making a statement about The Absolute and a Noble Truth which is a reflection. A Noble Truth is a truth to reflect upon; it is not an absolute; it is not The Absolute. This is where Western people get very confused because they interpret this Noble Truth as a kind of metaphysical truth of Buddhism – but it was never meant to be that.
You can see that the First Noble Truth is not an absolute statement because of the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the way of non-suffering. You cannot have absolute suffering and then have a way out of it, can you? That doesn’t make sense. Yet some people will pick up on the First Noble Truth and say that the Buddha taught that everything is suffering.
The Pali word, dukkha, means “incapable of satisfying” or “not able to bear or withstand anything”: always changing, incapable of truly fulfilling us or making us happy. The sensual world is like that, a vibration in nature. It would, in fact, be terrible if we did find satisfaction in the sensory world because then we wouldn’t search beyond it; we’d just be bound to it. However, as we awaken to this dukkha, we begin to find the way out so that we are no longer constantly trapped in sensory consciousness.
Now that we are contemplating what dukkha is, and one may never fully understand it, how do we overcome it? We must find its root cause. The Second Noble Truth tells us it is craving and ignorance:
The Buddha’s had observed that life is suffering. Before He could find a solution to the problem of suffering in life, He had first to look for the cause of suffering. The Buddha was just like a good doctor who first observes a patient’s symptoms and identifies the cause of illness before prescribing a cure. The Buddha discovered that the direct causes of suffering are desire or craving, and ignorance. This is the truth of the cause of suffering, which is the Second Noble Truth.
CRAVING is the deep-seated desire that all living beings have for the pleasures of the senses, and for life itself. For instance, people always seek to enjoy good food, entertainment and pleasant company. Yet none of these can give them complete and lasting satisfaction. After the fine meal has been eaten, the beautiful music heard and the pleasant company shared, one is still not content. One would like to enjoy these pleasures again and again, and for as long as possible…
Craving or desire is like a great tree having many branches. There are branches of greed, of ill will and of anger. The fruit of this tree is suffering, but how does the tree of craving arise? Where does it grow? The answer is that the tree of craving is rooted in ignorance. It grows out of ignorance.
Ignorance is the inability to see the truth about things, to see things as they really are. There are many truths about the world which people are ignorant of because of the limitations of their understanding.
We now partly know what suffering is. We know in part what causes it: craving and ignorance. To understand how to overcome it, we must study The Third Noble Truth:
What is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering? It is the remainderless fading and cessation of that same craving; the rejecting, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it. But whereon is this craving abandoned and made to cease? Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it is abandoned and made to cease.
We must give up that which makes us, or what we think makes us most happy. We must walk away from it. As one ceases to crave and act upon that craving, one frees the mind to pursue knowledge of one’s own suffering, and relieve oneself from ignorance obtained through lack of introspection and understanding of its source.
It will be a long path one must follow to relieve oneself from suffering or anhedonia. It is an eight fold path. We must study and understand The Fourth Noble Truth:
What is the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering? It is the Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration…
These, then, are the elements of the Eightfold Path, grouped in three sections:
1. Wisdom (panna)
Right Understanding (samma ditthi)
Right Aspiration (samma sankappa)
2. Morality (sila)
Right Speech (samma vaca)
Right Action (samma kammanta)
Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
3. Concentration (samadhi)
Right Effort (samma vayama)
Right Mindfulness (samma sati)
Right Concentration (samma samadhi)
The fact that we list them in order does not mean that they happen in a linear way, in sequence – they arise together. We may talk about the Eightfold Path and say ‘First you have Right Understanding, then you have Right Aspiration, then….’ But actually, presented in this way, it simply teaches us to reflect upon the importance of taking responsibility for what we say and do in our lives.
In this brief 1500 or so word essay (most not belonging to me), I cannot fully and in great detail advise on how one can find relief from suffering, and depart from anhedonia. I can only point you in the right direction. I’ve checked your ticket and have replaced it with one which has an open ended return. It will now be up to you to study more, and follow the path which will lead you to your own happiness. I wish you luck in your journey, and leave you with this:
It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or demons, heaven or hell. – Buddha