concept section: copyright Robert Ellis 2010


Frustration is commonly the emotion we feel when we keep encountering obstacles to the satisfaction of our desires. In Middle Way philosophy it is used in the slightly more specific sense of the obstacle to the fulfilment of our desires created by their lack of integration. We have different desires for different things that come to the fore at different moments, but unless these desires work together in a way that addresses conditions, they are less likely to be fulfilled. A useful metaphor to understand this is to think of our desires as a team. If a team constantly disputes about the best way to work, it will be less effective at achieving its objectives, which means that each individual member of the team will also fail to reach the objectives he or she had in being part of the team. Similarly, if the team does not address conditions (for example, if it is a football team, not playing by the rules of football) then it will also not succeed.

To explain frustration, it is not necessary to bring in any other values than the unintegrated desires themselves. Those desires each consist in an experience of wanting something, but when desires are unintegrated they are not able to address conditions so as to get that thing. The kind of thing I mean here may vary enormously between straightforward and immediate desires and long-term complex ones. You may want to cook a delicious meal, but the central dish is spoilt by a few moments of inattention created by your anxieties about something else. Or you may want to get onto a medical course at university, a difficult course to get onto demanding high grades, but your efforts to study hard for this are disrupted by other desires that take you out partying and getting hung over as a result. In both these cases it is not fate or anything external, but the lack of integration of your own desires, that leads you to fail to satisfy the most important ones. Nor is the problem that your desire to go out partying is bad in any way: it is the fact that it conflicts with what you most importantly want to do (in your more reflective mood) that is the problem. In your less reflective mood it is the medical ambitions that are the problem: but it is not either desire that is the problem so much as the conflict between them and the ways in which each (to varying extents) fails to address conditions.

The concept of 'frustration' is a development of that of dukkha (often translated 'suffering') in Buddhism. However, traditional Buddhism gives a very misleading impression of the nature of the problem by frequently presenting frustration as a feature of existence, rather than as a conflict between desires. Despite its superficially non-dualistic language, Buddhism also often creates a dualism between the desires of ordinary life ('samsara') and those of the ultimate spiritual goal ('nirvana'). We do not have 'wrong' or 'samsaric' desires in any sense, but rather we have desires that are not capable of fulfilment because they cannot be integrated with other desires and are not compatible with the conditions. For example, a desire to smoke is not compatible with a desire not to smoke for the sake of our health, and is also not compatible with the conditions of long-term health that are required to fulfil our other desires. Nor do we gain spiritual liberation by getting rid of our desires, but, on the contrary, by making it possible to fulfil them.

The opposite of frustration is thus integration of desires, not enlightenment. Nor is it any other solution that sets up a dualistic alternative to desires themselves or creates values distinct from desires themselves. Integration of desires has a conditional interdependence with integration of meaning and integration of belief, just as frustration has a close relationship with doubt and fragmentation of meaning.

Links to further discussion

Frustration and papanca as evidence of frustration (scroll down to 5.b.i & ii)

The psychological basis of belief


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