The Reason We Suffer (or We’re Born Naked and the Rest is a Pain in the Butt)

Lodro Rinzler
Oct 31, 2019 · 9 min read

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart…
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
— the Buddha

When I teach meditation I often touch on three realms of how to relate with and work through suffering:

  • the individual realm
  • the inter-personal realm
  • the societal realm

As we sit down to meditate we start with the reality of our personal situation — we have a mind that is sometimes wild and stressed out, and we have to give it space to settle in order to properly address our own suffering. Yet when we get up off the meditation seat we have these people we like, people we dislike, and those individuals we don’t know all around us. They too are suffering and if we’re not careful we bring our suffering into conversation with their suffering and everyone suffers worse. Society, meanwhile, is just a fancy term for all of the people mentioned above. Society is not some big thing out there, it’s here right now made up of you and those people.

When you are riding the train for the morning commute, that train car is a temporary society you are participating in. You can choose to show up and engage it in a kind way, smiling at your neighbors and offering up your seat when needed. Alternatively you can sit there and hide from everyone, or act out on any anger and frustration due to train delays and negatively affect the people around you. It’s your choice! And you are constantly offered it.

In addition, there is your work society, your family society, even your home society of you and a roommate or romantic partner or cat. These are all societies we are co-creating in any given moment. How we show up for these societies is entirely within our control, and the path to positively affecting those societies is based in working with our own minds to the extent that we bring our increased mindfulness and compassion into our inter-personal relationships.

Why We Suffer

RuPaul Charles, the person who revolutionized drag culture and made it accessible like no one else, often fondly says, “We’re born naked, but the rest is drag.” This is perhaps the most accurate depiction of the Buddhist notion of samsara I have ever heard. Samsara is a Sanskrit term which denotes the cycle of suffering we perpetuate in every single moment of our lives. It is how we constantly vacillate between perpetuating passion, aggression, and ignorance, chasing after pleasure and desperately trying to avoid pain. We are born naked, open to limitless possibility, but over time we are exposed to concepts from other people that weigh us down, such as those around the positive or negative associations with a certain color of skin or who people love.

Building on RuPaul’s “born naked” idea, the Zen teacher angel Kyodo Williams Sensei once introduced the Buddhist version of this topic by saying:

“I came gorgeous and genius and magic and perfect and aware and compassionate and wanting to love people and wanting to be connected and by a series of unfortunate events, societal structures hindered my love and my compassion and my desire to be connected to you and to see you…so I’m being liberated from (not liberating in to) something. I don’t have to develop anything; I have to just cultivate the natural basic goodness of my humanity that I arrived here with.”

We are born basically good and open, and then through societal stories get bogged down with concepts that keep us from connecting fully with others.

Over our years, we accumulate stories that inform how we behave and who we think we ought to become. Then, we perform these narratives that we’ve developed throughout our life, dressing ourselves in drag with these concepts. As Sharon Salzberg once put it, “We mark off the territory of our identifications, both personal and group, as though they had intrinsic meaning, whereas it is only like drawing lines in space.” News flash: you are not these constructs! When you strip so many of the fixed ideas and expectations you have accumulated over a lifetime you may discover that limitlessness and goodness once more. You are innately peace. You are basically whole and complete. But you dress yourself in a lot of made-up ideas and those ideas cut you off from that experience.

Day by day we develop all sorts of opinions about what is right and wrong, whether we want to identify with some people, religions, movements and so on. We built what we Buddhists would refer to as an ego out of these concepts, stacking them together Transformer-style to make one big concept that is “me.”

My version of “me” has all sorts of markers I have to look at, many of which cause me suffering:

  • I am a somewhat articulate meditation teacher
  • I am a prolific author
  • I am a great husband
  • I am a kind friend
  • I have all my hair

I could go on and on. None of these markers for who I think I am are so bad, right? But let’s face it: I could give a really bad Buddhist talk tomorrow and my concept of being a decent teacher would crumble. My wife seems like me well enough, but would she really say I’m a “great” husband all the time (likely not)? Also, my hair is definitely thinning and I probably should not have listed that one. The point here is that that I could cling to these markers for who I think I am, and when evidence arises that they are not 100% accurate I will end up devastated and confused about what a Lodro even is anyway.

While there are times when shaking up ego can be a good thing (buy me a drink and I’ll share with you my joyful story of doing drag) but most of the time when our ego is shook up it responds negatively. This is how ego works — every time something doesn’t go the way I think or want it to go, in my career, love life, with friends and more, my mind will register it as an attack on my very being.

This is why so many of us take a break up not as a sign that we haven’t found the right person for us but that we’re inherently unworthy of love; we make it about the core of who we are, not what happens to us. The fact that we are constantly reifying and trying to prop up the ego perpetuates so much of the suffering that exists in our own heads — it’s a really hard struggle to make everything go in line with the way we want it to. And it’s not just you and me — everyone in the world goes through this pattern, which is why there is so much suffering in our world.

That vile politician? That person is a construct of multiple layers of concept and experience that informs how they act, what morals they value, and how they think the country should look. Those white supremacists marching against anyone who does not look like them? Same thing — they have, likely from a young age, been acculturated into a certain belief system that makes them think they are doing the right thing. You and I may take one look at them and think “monsters,” but to them they are heroes because those are the stories they have been telling themselves for years.

So many of the systemic issues we face right now were born long before we were, but the perpetuation of them is rooted in our own ego. As the Zen teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel wrote, “Race, sexuality, and gender are born out of an awareness that ‘I am this.’ The feelings and perceptions that follow this awareness give rise to an experience of life as appearance-based. Race, sexuality, and gender are perpetuated when past experiences of them carries forward into the present.” Even if we inherited concepts of race, gender and sexuality from our parents and their parents before them, we have an opportunity, today, to confront these aspects of our ego and make more conscious choices around how we treat others.

With ego, we build a full identity over time and act from the perspective of self-preservation. Through meditation though, we can learn to undo some of these patterns and not take ourselves (or others) so seriously. We can learn to question some of our assumed beliefs around who other people are and become spacious enough to accommodate perspectives that look different than ours, without perpetuating more suffering.

Imagine you’re going about your day and someone you work with sends an obnoxious email. Stories in response may include: “This person is always like this, they must have been raised with no manners” or “Of course they are trying to make me look bad here; everyone is out for my position at work” or “If this job doesn’t work out I will be destitute, living in a box on the street.”

The Problem With “Me Versus You”

I do a lot of one-on-one work with meditation students and somehow, once there is a perceived threat at work, that student may end up taking it so personally on the ego that they spiral all the way to the belief that they will end up destitute, living in a box on the street. This is quite the leap from one obnoxious email. That is not the reality of the situation. The reality is that this person did something other than what you wanted to have happen, and this brought to life a “me” versus “you” mentality that triggered deep fear and anxiety.

The dualistic “me” versus “you” mentality is the basis of inter-personal suffering as well as societal suffering overall. It’s the fact that all is fine and good with a friend until they do something you disagree with and you villainize them until things are resolved. It’s that those people in that government are monsters and your party is the one who is actually looking out for the country. We create this polarity constantly, lumping people into the camps of who we like and dislike, based on our own expectations, decades (sometimes centuries)-old belief patterns and habitual tendencies.

In the past, when I would even casually make reference to the fact that I spent a period of time as a field organizer on the 2012 Obama campaign, people would go out of their way to leave a review on Amazon: “Great book, but I wish he left his politics out of it.” Here I cannot ignore the fact that I have a particular lens through which I view the political world but I can assure you, Dear Reader, that I am not interested in any partisan aspect. The world of politics at times appears no different than baseball — people pick a team and they want their team to win. The other team is considered garbage people and we only wish the worst for them because they are evil. I am here to call bullshit on all of that.

In order for us to move toward a more sane and compassionate society, we need to stop blaming some amorphous “other” out there for our problems. As the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said,

“We could blame the organization; we could blame the government; we could blame the police force; we could blame the weather; we could blame the food; we could blame the highways; we could blame our own motorcars, our own clothes; we could blame an infinite variety of things. But it is we who are not letting go, not developing enough warmth and sympathy — which makes us problematic. So we cannot blame anybody.”

We need to look within and begin to address our own egoic manifestations of suffering. The more we uncover our innate peace and unearth the bias that holds us back from openly connecting with others, the better. Then we can move our practice off the meditation seat and into the rest of our life, connecting with people not from this “me versus you” mentality but from the perspective of “we’re all in this together.”

The Dalai Lama put it best when he said, “First, one must change. I first watch myself, check myself, then expect change from others.” The good news about how to shift our incredibly aggressive and chaotic society is simple: it starts with us getting to know ourselves better.

Lodro Rinzler the award-winning author of six books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken and the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation. He has taught meditation for eighteen years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals. He answers all emails readers send him via lodrorinzler.com

Lodro Rinzler

Written by

Lodro Rinzler is author of “The Buddha Walks into a Bar,” “Love Hurts” and a handful of other fun books on meditation | Co-Founder of MNDFL. lodrorinzler.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade