I need some help understanding how the Buddhist view on 'accepting what is' and noticing how craving for it to be different to how it is causes suffering, is different to learned helplessness where you become conditioned to give up trying because you believe it's futile. They seem to be very similar to me. In what ways are they different. Is the difference that with Buddhism you don't give up trying? For example if I have a string of failed relationships it can cause learned helplessness and I might give up trying to begin a new one but how would I see it through a Buddhist lense? It's finished because everything is impermanent, now I accept that and I don't give up hope because that's just how it is? But still there is a part of me that feels it's pointless to try again if I know it's going to end in pain again.


4 Answers 4


Suchness has a different flavor from helplessness you describe. It's more like you always live afresh, as if you were a new person, a new child - every time. It's not that you accept things as inevitable as victim accepts her pain - as much as you see the world and the situation you are in with no baggage from the past. That's the meaning. See the difference?

So if you don't have a gf, you face the world being as naive, open, and vulnerable as if you never had a gf and never had the pain. You don't know what to expect, so everything is possible.

You don't compare what you see against your memories projected forward as expectations. Nor you compare it against the fantasies you see on TV. Your eyes are truly open to see what's really happening in actuality, hence it's called "suchness", freedom from preconceptions.

It's not that you stop learning or end up living in the present moment like an imbecile who can't reason or plan. It's just that you approach the world with an attitude of freshness, not tiredness. You have no fear holding you down, so you can play and improvise. You have no thoughts veiling your eyes, so you can see.

And despite past pains or failures, you still stay like that - new, open. That's the spirit of suchness or "accepting what is" if you want.

  • I don't see how that is possible without being a fully awakened/enlightened being. How is it possible? It's only natural that if one has experienced a lot of pain that one will try to avoid it in future is it not?
    – Arturia
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 23:02
  • 2
    (big smile) of course it is possible. It's just scary as hell, like jumping off an airplane, but it certainly is possible.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 23:17
  • I'm beginning to lose faith that it's possible to be honest. I'm not sure I believe in enlightenment at all. It seems like such a vague concept. Nobody is sure what it's like or how to get there. I have moments of wakefulness and presence but that's about all.
    – Arturia
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 5:29
  • Luckily some of us here are absolutely 100% sure ;) There is no enlightenment, my friend. Or rather, enlightenment is to know there's no enlightenment. That's why it's like jumping off an airplane. Now try it on for size, see how it feels.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 11:31

Ordinary homosexual, transgender, childless heterosexual relationships & other forms of liberal or unconventional sexuality don't really fall into a Buddhist lens (despite the extensive efforts of Western Buddhists to market or preach Buddhism to these liberal or unconventional groups) because there is often not enough to naturally or instinctually bind couples in these types of relationships. While some people might get lucky in finding a soul mate, relationships based on sexual need & lust (rather than service to children & family) have shaky foundations due to a lack of sacrifice or altruism. The various teachings on relationship in Buddhism all have 'sacrifice' ('caga') as a requisite condition. In short, in my opinion, the question falls outside of the scope of Buddhism because Buddhism does not teach accepting the vicissitudes of self-centred relationships. In my studies, I have not found one single sutta that mentions the role of sex as a requisite of relationship. Instead, the teachings focus on developing certain virtues as requisites of relationship. In Buddhism, where virtues are lacking in relationship, it is taken as a given those relationships will be problematic or will fail (eg. AN 4.53). Where I live, my two best & most reliable friends are a gay couple. They both have devoted their lives to public service & altruism, which is probably why their personal relationship has lasted their entire adult lives. They are highly virtuous & moral individuals.

  • You seem to be implying that homosexual relationships are not based on "service to children and family". Firstly this is a misperception because many LGBT people have kids and form families, just not in the traditional conventional way which is only a social construct anyway. Second, many heterosexuals do not have children or families. So I completely disagree with what you're saying and if that's what Buddhism actually says, which I doubt it really does, then I don't subscribe.
    – Arturia
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 23:12
  • There are some broader perspectives on marriage, e.g. here ... it isn't only about children (nor only about sexuality). Also one of the suttas about a relationship, which mentions caga, is this one ... but I'm not sure that caga does means "sacrifice", exactly ... it seems to be more usually translated as "generosity" (or gift), possibly also restraint or renunciation (or giving up).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 9:09
  • Am I subscribed to the Theravada subforum? Perhaps Arturia, you may wish to explore the different forms of Buddhism and find one that fits in to your liking.
    – C Smith
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 11:46

Is the difference that with Buddhism you don't give up trying?

I suppose one difference might be that you ought to learn from mistakes -- stop doing a "wrong" thing (or stop trying to do something in the "wrong" way), and do it "right" instead.

For example, this answer includes some doctrine on how to find a marriage partner -- it includes advice both on what to avoid ("unsuitable associates" and "unproven traditional criteria"), and on what to do instead ("find wise people who cause no fear or worry").

Secondly, I'm not sure what "learned helplessness" is. I suppose it might be a type of self-view, e.g. the view that "I am helpless" or "I am a failure" etc.

I think there's Buddhist doctrine that any "view of self" is "wrong" and a cause of suffering.

If that's so then Buddhism wouldn't be teaching "learned helplessness". And in fact I see Buddhism as the opposite, as empowering -- it's doctrine you can use to escape or avoid or minimise failure, to succeed -- a map of what's what and of which paths lead where, to help you know and decide.

If self is like a chariot i.e. a collection of parts, Buddhism tends to analyse (disassemble) those parts. Instead of a view of self, if you're looking at a "failed relationship", you might identify causes for that, and identify the causes as being other than "self"; for example:

  • The relationship failed because of anger, or words spoken in anger
  • The relationship failed because of greed for sensual satisfaction

You don't have to identify these factors (anger and greed) as being "self", -- but having identified them as harmful, you could view them as harmful and resolve to better avoid them in future (and maybe be confident that, having learned to avoid causes of a "failed relationship", some future relationship[s] may be less of a failure).

Fourthly you might want to reassess whether the relationship was a "failure".

There are different ways to view it -- and one of those ways is to view it as a failure, and to decide "better to have no relationship than a bad relationship" -- but that's not the only view.

You might possibly want to see it as just a relationship, not good and not bad -- a mountain for example isn't good or bad, it's just a mountain. Similarly it was just a relationship.

You might also want to view it as a successful relationship, albeit temporary/impermanent. Was there any good to the relationship? Did it give anyone the opportunity to do good, to have good "intent", did people ever cooperate or benefit, learn any kindness?

I don't know what criteria you use to judge a relationship but maybe it wasn't a complete failure, maybe it was a success sometimes, though impermanent.

Seeing what's "good" may be a part of Buddhism -- there's doctrine which says that "good" (or "skillful virtue") may be cause for a "lack of remorse".

Lastly there is some additional, general doctrine that may be helpful.

According to Buddhism, everything is "impermanent". Knowing and accepting that might provide some alternative to categorising a relationship as "a failure".

There's also extensive doctrine -- about the Brahmaviharas for example; and the precepts; and being harmless -- which are meant to help with any and all social relationships.

Applying these doctrines may help you relate more successfully. It might also provide criteria or ways to judge/assess whether a relationship is successful -- for example if a relationship is "harmless" then it's relatively successful in practice ("relatively", when compared to a harmful relationship), but also relatively successful by definition.

  • Leaned helplessness is when you become conditioned to abuse or pain etc and so you give up trying to change or escape the situation because you believe it's futile. For example Martin Seligman did a famous experiment with dogs in which he conditioned them to give up trying to escape from an electric shock even though it was possible for them to. People who do not vote because they believe it's pointless are exhibiting learned helplessness.
    – Arturia
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 23:05
  • That may be more likely to happen when you are (feeling trapped) in a relationship, isn't that so? But I mostly meant that "I'm not sure what it is" from a Buddhist perspective. I do think it may be (or may have) some self-view though -- "I am trapped", "I am helpless", "I am incapable", etc. Conversely I think Buddhism may be keen to emphasise that you have to "do it" yourself.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 11:13

First of all, there are many “Buddhist lenses.” And, beyond any doubt, “learned helplessness” is a profound state of suffering that is extremely difficult to deal with. My heart goes out to you! It is painful for me to understand the nature of your situation. For someone to recommend you somehow “accept” this condition is either ignorant of its true nature or pathologically indifferent. The notion that the wish to overcome suffering is a form of craving is not a Buddhist teaching! Learned helplessness always has a long a deep history. I strongly suggest you find a good psychotherapist who, at the very least, knows what learned helplessness really is and can therefore help you extract yourself from it. I wish you well and hope that you will find someone who actually understands you and provides with the love and good advice you obviously need!

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