Miserable-To Be or Not To Be

Miserable-To Be or Not To Be

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 22, 2022 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Thursday Evening Online Program
September 22, 2022  7:00 to 8:45 pm Eastern time

Dear Still Water Friends,

Decades ago, I read Dan Greenberg’s 1966 book How to Make Yourself Miserable. It is a classic in its field. In the introduction Greenberg writes:

Here at last is the frank report you have been waiting for. In it we shall take you on a step- by-step investigation into every phase of self-torture and humiliation, sharing with you in the process many of the methods we ourselves have used so successfully in the past.

It is our humble but earnest desire that through these pages you will be able to find for yourself the inspiration and the tools for a truly painful, meaningless and miserable life.

The eight-chaptered book is divided into two sections: “Methods to Misery Alone” and “Methods to Misery with Others.” The part of the book that I frequently recall and share with others is Greenberg’s extensive discussion of how we can make ourselves miserable through comparing ourselves with others. He helpfully provides, for example, an “Aid to Evaluating Your Accomplishments”:

Compare yourself with these four ordinary people who were chosen at random.

    • Twenty-six-year-old patent office clerk, A. Einstein, formulated theory of relativity.
    • Swedish singer, Jenny Lind, was so popular that men paid $653.00 per seat to see her.
    • Youthful piano player, W A. Mozart, had already composed his first symphony and three sets of sonatas by the age of eight.Civil servant, Abdullah al Salim of Kuwait, receives a salary of $7,280,000 per week. Every two hours and forty minutes he earns the equivalent of the average American’s lifetime income.

Humorously highlighting the misery I created when I compared myself to others, Greenberg’s parody of a self-help book was surprisingly beneficial to me. I began to see how frequently I did it and how consistently miserable it made me.

In a sense, Greenberg’s book prepared me for Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) teaching on the Three Complexes (of Superiority, Inferiority, and Equality). Thay’s central point is not just that comparing ourselves to others makes us miserable, but that the emotional need to compare ourselves to others arises from our “illusion of self,” our flawed understanding of who we really are. Release from our suffering comes when we are able to see ourselves as inextricably connected with all life. Thay writes in Together We Are One:

Because many of us have suffered, we may feel that we are inferior and without value. The teaching of the Buddha can help us to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination that can free us from this inferiority complex. We may also have a superiority complex that makes us think we are better than others, or an equality complex that makes us always need to be exactly the same as everyone else, even when that doesn’t make sense for the situation. According to the teaching of the Buddha, we cannot compare because there is no self to compare and nothing to compare with. The right hand and the left hand don’t have a separate self. We can’t compare, and shouldn’t try to compare; when we see this, we don’t suffer. …

The complex of superiority brings a lot of suffering to us and to those around us. When the other person or group suffers from an inferiority complex, they struggle and they make us suffer. According to the Buddha, the complex of superiority and inferiority are both sicknesses based on the illusion of self.

In addition, needing to consider ourselves equal to someone else is also a sickness. “Well, I am as good as you are, and I will prove it.” That will also cause a lot of suffering. Whenever we think there is a self, we compare and compete. Buddhist psychology is a little bit different from Western psychology. Instead of trying to build self-esteem, Buddhist psychology is based on the wisdom of nonself and interbeing. When we remove the notion of self, we are free from inferiority, superiority, and equality complexes, and we can find peace, reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will watch a short video in which Thay answers the question “What is the equality complex?” and share our experiences with making ourselves miserable through comparing ourselves to others.

You are invited to join us.

After the announcements are related teaching from the Tao Te Ching and from How to Make Yourself Miserable.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, Stephen Mitchell translation

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.


From How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenberg

How to Make Yourself Miserable If You’re NOT a Talented Person

  • Brood about how everybody is always telling talented people how great they are and how great their work is.
  • Brood about how talented people have the satisfaction of being involved with something creative—something more noble and enduring than the world of commerce; about how the work that talented people do lives on after them, so they have a permanent place in posterity.
  • Brood about how easily talented people can become rich people or famous people if they want to.

How to Make Yourself Miserable If You ARE a Talented Person

  • Brood about how, when you go to see the work of somebody in your own field, you’re either so critical you have a terrible time, or else you’re so envious you feel even worse.
  • Brood about how you’re fair game for critics who have no talent themselves.
  • Brood about how, just when you seem to be getting somewhere in a certain circle, you are always pushed to compete in a bigger circle where your accomplishments look smaller and where the competition is much tougher.
  • Brood about how, if you haven’t been successful yet, your confidence runs out more and more with each failure; about how, if you have achieved success, you’re only as good as your last effort, and you have to keep topping yourself to stay on top.
  • Wonder whether you’re losing your talent.
in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 22, 2022


This week
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
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Silver Spring Morning Meditation

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Tue, April 16

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Tuesday Evening Gaithersburg Group

Wed, April 17

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

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Thu, April 18

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Fri, April 19

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Sat, April 20