Suffering and Transcendence

Acknowledging the depth of the former leads to the latter.

Posted Jan 27, 2019

A quote often attributed to the Buddha goes like this, “I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”

I think what he meant is that most of us don’t know when we’re suffering, though we know when we’re in pain. In modern times we look for the causes of pain in all the wrong places—in the past, in circumstances, in other people.

Though not a Buddhist, I find myself quoting him often, as in his three sources of suffering.

CLINGING: Greed, over-possessiveness, addictions, compulsions, etc. 

IDENTIFYING: with possessions, prestige, power, roles, beliefs, domination, victimhood, etc.

And the greatest source of suffering in my opinion:

CONDEMNING: Excessive disliking, hatred, envy, anger, resentment, contempt, vindictiveness, revenge

Those who condemn others are the least likely to know they’re suffering. Condemning emotions are externalizing – the problem is someone else. They have adrenaline, which masks pain by temporarily increasing energy and confidence. But condemners must continue condemning to avoid the crash into depressed mood that comes after the adrenaline effect. Once we start condemning it works like an addiction, lifting us up and dropping us down. 

Condemning emotions alternate with bouts of worry or depression. They lower immune efficiency and raise the likelihood of physical ailments—coughs, colds, aches, pains—chronic exhaustion, and substance abuse.

It goes without saying that condemning emotions ruin work and social relationships.

Though aimed at others, condemning is wrought with hidden self-anger, self-devaluation, and eventually self-contempt. Condemning and self-value are mutually exclusive. Despite the self-righteousness that comes with adrenaline, it’s impossible to like yourself while condemning others. 

Condemning as a Defense System

Condemning emotions systematically defend against vulnerability. The more vulnerable people feel, the more likely they are to condemn. But the great swindle of defense systems is that they don’t make us feel safer, they just make us more defensive. And the more defensive we get, the more vulnerable we feel. This feedback-loop of condemning is what hijacks people’s lives, as well as our politics and the national consciousness.  

The Vulnerability beneath Condemning

The most common vulnerability that condemning defends against takes the form of:

  • Guilt (violating your deeper values)
  • Shame (sense of failure or inadequacy)
  • Fear (perception of danger)
  • Sadness, sorrow (loss)
  • Grief (loss of loved one).

For health and well-being, the last thing we want to do is defend against vulnerable emotions. Vulnerable emotions are the route to healing and transcendence. What’s more, they’re self-correcting, if we allow ourselves to experience them at least briefly.

The undefended experience of:

  • Guilt motivates behavior consistent with deeper values.
  • Shame motivates new attempts at success.
  • Fear motivates caution, safety-seeking.
  • Sadness, sorrow, and grief motivate value-creation (holding people, nature, and things as important, worthy of appreciation, time, effort, sacrifice).

By cutting off vulnerable emotions, condemning undermines their self-correcting motivations. Emotions work against us rather than for us.


When we sense the urge to condemn, we must instead validate the deeper vulnerability and act on self-correcting motivation.

When I’m afraid, I’ll be more cautious and ensure safety.

When I’m ashamed, I’ll try something else to be successful in love, work, or social contexts.

When I’m guilty, I’ll be true to my deeper values and make amends for mistakes.

When I’m sad, sorrowful, or grieving, I’ll create value (hold someone as important and worthy of appreciation, time, effort, and sacrifice).

The great therapeutic challenge is to build habits of validating vulnerable emotions and acting on their self-correcting motivations, rather than denying, avoiding, or blaming them on others. Building habits requires repetition and practice. At the first experience of a condemning emotion, practice the following:

  • Do something else to be successful in love, work, or social contexts.
  • Stay true to your deeper values and make amends for any offense committed.
  • Create value (hold someone or something as valuable, worthy of appreciation, time, effort, sacrifice).

If you want to reinforce the self-destructiveness of condemning emotions, continue to explain, justify, and offer evidence for them. If you want to transcend them, focus on the kind of person, partner, parent, friend, and citizen you most want to be.

The Great Detoxifier: Combine the Ancient with the Scientific

The ancient component is “loving kindness” or “meta-mediation.” Don’t panic, it doesn’t have to be real meditation. You can just think it. Wish happiness, health, well-being, love, harmony, and safety for those you want to condemn.

The scientific component is brain-rewiring. Set aside a few seconds, six times per day, spread throughout the day, to think loving-kindness thoughts about the object of your condemnation.

Six weeks of practicing loving kindness thoughts and validating your vulnerable emotions and following their motivations to heal, correct, and improve should regulate the impulse to condemn.