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S2E2: The origin of suffering

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Espiritualidad y Ciencia
S2E2: The origin of suffering
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I lived in Santa Marta, a small town located on the Caribbean Sea. My stay there lasted for almost 7 years, and it was a mix of both pleasant and difficult experiences. One of the most difficult being my realization of the harsh reality of my country when I witnessed numerous violent incidents related to the senseless war between the left and right, drug trafficking, and in some cases, just common violence.

When I first started hearing about these events, which were not reported in the capital of the country, I thought they were isolated incidents. However, as time went on, I came to understand that violence in Colombia was a multi-headed monster with no single discernible cause or solution.

I would often reflect on this topic with my colleagues and would express that the image that residents of the country’s interior had of Santa Marta was that of a peaceful and safe place. One of my colleagues once commented, “And that’s nothing, my brother. Things used to be worse. I still remember when the Cárdenas and the Valdeblánquez families would shoot at each other in the middle of the city.” I asked who they were, and my colleague explained that they were two families of farmers who had settled in Santa Marta during the marijuana boom of the early 1970s, when the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta became one of the most significant marijuana producers in the world.

I didn’t gather more information about that history at the time, but over time, I heard many other people talk about the war of the Cardenas and Valdeblanquez, so my curiosity about those two families became much greater. I believe it was my first wife’s father who told me more details about it.

The extermination of two families

It is not clear exactly how the hostility between the two families, who were also related, began. Some say it was because Hilario Valdeblánquez didn’t join his cousin José Antonio Cárdenas in killing a police commander in the department of La Guajira, others believe that Cárdenas killed Valdeblánquez for the love of Rebeca Brito, whom they both desired. But the book “Chronicle of a Vendetta” by Alvaro Cotes, states that it all began because Roberto, Toño’s (Jose Antonio Cárdenas) brother, left a young woman from the Valdeblánquez family standing at the altar in a church in Dibulla, La Guajira.

A brother of the dishonored woman lodged a complaint to Toño Cárdenas, the argument escalated and as the farmers are famous for carrying guns on a daily basis, they ended up shooting each other, and in the middle of the confrontation a member of the Valdeblánquez family died. Now doubly aggrieved, the Valdeblánquez swore to avenge the death and dishonor they had been victims of, and began a bloody revenge, which is said to have resulted in around 100 deaths.

The first Cárdenas killed was Emiro, Toño’s older brother, but he wouldn’t be the last. In the 11 years that this senseless vendetta lasted, all the males of the Cárdenas family, 12 members of the Valdeblánquez family, and 60 of their men died. Some say that both the move from La Guajira to Santa Marta and the Cárdenas family’s entry into the marijuana business were motivated by the start of the war against the Valdeblánquez. The Cárdenas felt they had to fortify themselves in a territory that their enemies were not as familiar with and seek all possible economic resources, even if it meant illegal businesses, to finance their war.

Why would they do something like this? Well, in La Guajira they have a saying that goes “Favors are marked in the sand, but offenses are engraved in stone.” I once heard that the farmers in the area not only seek revenge on the person who offended them, but also on their descendants up to three generations later. When I first heard this saying, I thought it was an exaggeration, but this story has shown me that it is more accurate than I had thought.

On April 11, 1989, a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed in Santa Marta while waiting for the bus to go to school. He was Nelson Cárdenas Cárdenas, the son of Toño Cárdenas and his cousin Libertad Cárdenas. The local newspapers reported the murder as the death of the “Last Cárdenas.” By that time, the Valdeblánquez’s revenge had already claimed the lives of all the other male members of the Cárdenas family, and the Cárdenas’s knew that their young son would be next, but they didn’t believe their enemies could kill a child, that they would at least let him grow up first.

As far as I could find out, Nelson was indeed the last death of that “honor” war, although peace never came to those grieving women, as some of them carried in their womb’s new descendants of the offenders.

The Cárdenas lost the war, among other reasons, because they were not as disciplined and good strategists as the Valdeblánquez, but also because they were the first to break the fragile code of honor of the La Guajira affronts. In addition to aggravating the dishonor of the abandoned bride with the murder of her brother, the Cárdenas killed some women from the Valdeblánquez clan. Something that was considered dishonorable.

It was perhaps for this reason that the only attempt to reach peace between the two families failed. When Roberto, who committed the first offense, accepted the mediation of a common friend to reach an agreement with the Valdeblánquez. This was in May of 1974, at a house in Santa Marta, owned by the mediator, who was also a well-known trafficker in the city. Roberto Cárdenas came to the meeting with a cousin of his, and it is known that they did not manage to exchange words with the representatives of the other family, because as soon as they arrived at the place, they opened fire on the two Cárdenas. Roberto died there but his cousin managed to escape alive, to become another victim, shortly after the failed attempt at dialogue.

The first counterattack of the Cárdenas came three months after Roberto’s funeral, when one of the Cárdenas brothers, along with some friends, massacred two members of the other family as they walked along an important avenue in the city center. The Valdeblánquez’s response was not long in coming, and on the same day, they planned an attack with 12 men that lasted 45 minutes, in the area where the Cárdenas lived. In that shootout, which was the longest of that war, no Cárdenas died, but there was a second innocent victim among many who fell for being in the wrong place.

The beggining of terror

One of the sad anecdotes of those years was that the Valdeblanquez were the first to use the famous car bombs, with which Pablo Escobar would later terrorize the country. In that attack, by the way, none of the Cárdenas died, but the two people who had been hired to take the car bomb to its destination and a passerby did. This event also made the vendetta a national and international news and prompted the then mayor of Santa Marta to order the two families to leave the city. The Valdeblanquez obeyed the order and moved to the nearby city of Barranquilla, but the Cárdenas challenged the ordinance and stayed in the city.

In any case, the war continued and members of both families continued to fall, many of their employees and several civilians. The Valdeblanquez prepared their attacks from Barranquilla and sent hitmen to carry them out. But even so, and 10 years after the confrontations began, Toño Cárdenas was still alive after surviving several attempts.

This luck would not last much longer as the one-by-one slaughter of his brothers, cousins, and friends also meant the decline in the illicit activities of the family and therefore their source of resources. The Valdeblanquez, on the other hand, became stronger and stronger and did not hesitate to increase their revenge when they learned of the financial vulnerability and decline of Toño and his father, whom they increasingly saw as more careless with their security and more devoted to drinking and partying.

Toño Cárdenas was finally killed in front of his home, assassinated by a police lieutenant who had been his friend years ago, but had been bought by the Valdeblánquez family to betray Toño and collect the debt of blood he had avoided for so long. His son, Nelson, would be the one to seal the cruel revenge and thus, the war between the two families came to an end and Santa Marta hoped to regain its former peace.

Unfortunately, this hope would only be an illusion as soon after, a new war would begin when drug lords from the interior arrived to plant coca in the Sierra Nevada and form paramilitary armies known as the “Chamizos”, to defend themselves from guerrilla groups, mainly the ELN, who had arrived attracted by the marijuana boom and were determined not to be left behind in the new cocaine boom.

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Offenses are engraved in stone

This story is full of complexities that are worth exploring. What motivates a whole family to declare war for something as trivial as a love triangle or to avenge a death by killing innocent women and children? Examples of such vendettas can be found throughout history, from the famous Battle of Troy, which was said to be fought over Helen, to modern day mafias such as the Sicilian Camorra or Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.

It is hard to fathom how two families just starting their illegal businesses could sustain a war for so many years. But this is the reality of many countries, including my own, Colombia, where violence has become normalized. We have been at war for two hundred years without finding a definitive solution. Even today, four years after signing peace agreements with the oldest guerrilla group in the world, we are witnessing a resurgence of massacres, political rivals being targeted, and a reign of terror imposed by criminal gangs and drug traffickers.

This is not just the reality of Colombia, but also of the entire human race. Despite making advancements in technology, education, reducing poverty and increasing prosperity, we seem to have lost sight of the most basic human need: inner peace.

From my point of view, after having gone through a period of depression many years ago and more recently one of anxiety, the most important achievement we can reach as human beings is that of emotional balance, inner peace. This may sound a bit cliché, but if you have ever experienced any form of mental health disorder, even if it’s something as mild as stress, loneliness, or frequent sadness, you know that during those times you don’t even aspire to happiness, let alone joy; you just want the possibility of not feeling pain, not suffering.

You might be thinking that aspiring to something as mundane as tranquility instead of something more sublime like happiness is not ambitious enough. You might even feel that you already have tranquility but what you lack is happiness, and that is what would make you put in the effort that the path of initiation requires. Well, then we need to start by defining what happiness is.

Like all the other terms I’ve defined here, happiness is not a universal concept with a single definition, so let’s start with what the dictionary says: “state of pleasant spiritual and physical satisfaction”. The problem is that if we cling to this, it would mean that people who suffer from some disability or illness can’t be happy? Each person has their own idea of what happiness is; for many it’s a state of consciousness in which one feels rejoicing, joy, or delight. For others, it’s a series of ideal internal and external circumstances: having health, money, love, purpose, etc.

Is spirituality the answer?

Spirituality is often not considered a path to happiness because our expectations of what will make us happy tend to fall short or even have the opposite effect. Many people chase dreams they believe will bring them happiness, but when they achieve them, they find themselves feeling just as unfulfilled as before. Or, the happiness they thought they would find turns into a golden cage, trapping them in a cycle of unending longing.

Instead, spirituality offers us peace and harmony of the mind. Happiness is a subjective concept that can differ from person to person, but peace is universal as it is defined as the absence of suffering and balance.

The story I shared about the war between the Cárdenas and the Valdeblánquez is a dramatic example of the effects of suffering. While it may be an unusual situation, it highlights the drama that we, as human beings, experience at various levels in our lives.

It is undeniable that the loss of life and suffering caused by personal vendettas, such as the one between the Cárdenas and Valdeblánquez, is monstrous and unjustifiable. Imagine, 11 years of fear, death, and pain, all caused by a trivial dispute.

The truth is, most great tragedies don’t start with a bang, but rather with small issues that are not addressed in time, and then spiral out of control. This is something that happens to many of us in different aspects of our lives, whether it be losing a job, a toxic relationship, or a dispute with neighbors. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a loan not being handled delicately can cause families to fall apart.

Furthermore, many destructive vices and addictions start from a small act of rebellion, using a substance to fill a lack of love, and even with small actions that we do, many suicide could have been prevented. The point is, we have to be aware of the small things that we might be overlooking, that could end up having a destructive impact on our lives and those around us, and take necessary steps to address them before they spiral out of control.

Imagine, if the Valdeblánquez family had used the opportunity of their son’s abandonment at the altar to end an unhealthy relationship and move on, rather than starting a violent feud. Similarly, it is possible that the abandoned bride moved on and found true love and happiness with someone else.

But, this scenario is not unique to this particular story, it happens to all of us in different forms. Often, our pride, fear and distrust prevent us from being able to let go of things that cause us suffering and move on with our lives. Every day we are presented with opportunities to make wise choices and avoid creating heavy chains of past pain and suffering. It’s essential for us to learn to navigate these situations with mindfulness and wisdom, so we can find the peace and harmony we all desire.

The end of suffering

But then, what is the origin of suffering and how can we avoid creating these chains? There can be many answers depending on each case, but after 12 years of exploring spiritual paths, the most convincing answer I’ve found comes from one of the oldest spiritual traditions: Buddhism.

The story goes that Prince Siddhartha Gautama, born into a life of luxury and privilege, left the palace to discover the world and was confronted with the reality of the suffering of most human beings. On his journey, he encountered sick people, the elderly, holy men, and corpses. These encounters with death, suffering, and transcendence led him to give up his royal life to discover the truth about birth, death, and the peace of mind.

He began practicing yoga with several teachers, but he continued his journey through fields and villages in search of different techniques to find that truth. It is said that for six years, he practiced an extreme ascetic lifestyle; he whipped himself, held his breath until he was about to faint, and fasted until he could almost feel his spine touching his stomach.

During the hallucinations caused by those physical and mental tortures, he remembered a time when he was a child and sat under the shade of a apple tree on a sunny day. It was the first time he felt a state of complete calm and had a spontaneous experience of dhyana, which means “deep state of meditative absorption.” This memory led him to realize that in order to be freed from the limitations of the physical body, instead of punishing himself, he should work on his own nature and practice mental purity to achieve enlightenment.

A girl who was passing by saw him and felt sorry for him being in such a pitiful state, so she offered him a cup of milk and rice (curiously, one of the Colombian desserts that I like the most!). When his followers saw Siddhartha breaking his prolonged fast, they thought he had given up in his quest and abandoned him.

Gautama had realized that the path to awakening was a “middle way” between the extremes of self-restriction he had been practicing with his group of ascetics and the self-indulgence of the life he was born into.

All of this happened in Bodh Gaya, which was located where the state of Bihar in India is today. Siddhartha Gautama sat under a fig tree and began to meditate and, according to some traditions, he attained enlightenment in one day. Others say he sat meditating for three days and three nights and still others say he meditated for 45 days before he was enlightened and became the Buddha, which means “enlightened one.”

For the Buddha, enlightenment was a series of knowledge that appeared clearly in his mind, not delivered by any deity, or received from anywhere, simply revealed within himself. I must say that some of these knowledge, such as reincarnation and past lives, are difficult if not impossible to prove and each person would have to make an act of faith or seek their own enlightenment to confirm them, but the third great knowledge can be put into practice and I personally consider it the best, if not the only way to end suffering.

The knowledge of the truth of suffering is divided into the four noble truths:

  • Life is dissatisfaction.
  • The causes of dissatisfaction.
  • It is possible to end dissatisfaction.
  • The path to end dissatisfaction.

The first revelation tells us that everyday life as we know it is full of dissatisfaction. However, the original word used by the Buddha was dukkha, which has several connotations. One is suffering, but it also means “dissatisfaction.” Personally, I believe that this last one is a more accurate translation than “suffering.” What Buddhism wants to say is that life is not perfect and is full of imperfections, which is the cause of dissatisfaction.

Inaccessible happiness

Yuval Noah Harari states in his book Sapiens that human beings are not programmed to be happy, but rather to seek happiness. Anthropological and philosophical observations of human history show that we are constantly searching for something better: a more satisfying romantic relationship, a better job, more money, a better physical condition, more approval from others. However, these goals are like mirages that move further away as we approach them.

This is what the enlightened one discovered and he says that this constant dissatisfaction and the consequent suffering from not being able to fill this void come from what he called avidya or ignorance, ignorance of our connection with all other human beings and with nature, and ignorance of the true nature of the mind. According to Buddha, this ignorance leads to the two main causes of suffering: attachment and rejection.

In episode “Experiencing Reality,” we already discussed these two causes of suffering. We said that according to Buddhism, the processes of the mind are divided into four phases: Consciousness, Perception, Sensation, and Reaction. The Sensation phase, or vedha-ara, receives the sensations from the previous phase and decides whether each sensation, each stimulus is pleasant or unpleasant. Based on this unconscious decision, the fourth part of the mind, or sank ara, reacts in two ways: attachment or rejection.

The root of suffering is therefore this process of sankara that leads us to react, not always physically, physical reactions can appear minutes, hours or years later, but the constant reaction is attachment to pleasant sensations and rejection of unpleasant ones. Notice that the third stage or vedha ara happens in an instant and disappears. “This is pleasant, that’s good,” or “This is unpleasant, that’s bad,” and it continues its task with the next sensation and so on.

But sankara becomes a demon. At this moment I am not using the religious connotation of the word demon, but the computer meaning. In the Unix operating system, a demon is a process or a small program that runs in memory indefinitely and is there constantly performing some task. So attachment or rejection is not like vedha ara that disappears but stays in the mind and starts to feed on our consciousness.

If it is attachment to something pleasant, then the demon of attachment constantly asks for more of that pleasant sensation. – “Wow, that dessert is delicious, I have to eat that again,” – “I like that car, I have to have it,” or “I feel good with this person, I have to spend more time with them.” On the other hand, the sankara of rejection works constantly to make us avoid that unpleasant sensation at all costs. “I didn’t like this eggplant, so I don’t want to try it again,” or “I didn’t feel good on the first day of work, I think I don’t like this job.”

The movie “Inception” by Christopher Nolan tells the story of a protagonist who says that the most resilient and dangerous kind of parasite is an idea. Once an idea takes root in the brain, it becomes almost impossible to remove it. The same concept applies to sankaras, which are subconscious ideas that can be simple, but powerful. When we become attached or reject something, it can start as something small, but over time it can become a heavy burden and a constant source of suffering.

This is what happened to the Guajira families in our story. They became attached to a traditional code of honor, which was ultimately destructive and useless. They also rejected the feeling of humiliation and fear of revenge from others. This led to a broken love, turning it into a nightmare for an entire city over the course of 11 years.

The end of suffering

As I said before, the case of the Cárdenas and the Valdeblánquez seems like an extreme case, something that would not happen to “normal” people, but from my personal experience I can attest that in my yagé ceremonies and other life experiences, I have had to fight very hard to try to overcome attachments to religion, people, places, projects, ideas, beliefs or habits, and also my rejection of lack of approval, not having everything under control, or the idea of aging and dying.

Always, behind every suffering there is an attachment or rejection. Even if it is attachment to something or someone that we are supposed to attach to: honor, someone in the family, our career, our country, our beliefs. Or even if it is rejection of someone or something that we are supposed to reject: death, loneliness, injustice, or pain. In fact, it is the rejection of pain that is the origin of one of my favorite spiritual phrases: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.”

Look deep inside your heart where suffering or dissatisfaction lies in your life. You will find an attachment or rejection. Then imagine simply letting go of that attachment or accepting that which you reject. This will almost certainly be your reaction to that thought: “How can I let go of this or that if it is something very important in my life” or “How can I accept such a thing if it goes against my principles or who I am.” This is always the first step, there is not a single attachment or rejection that has become suffering that is easy to let go. Our mind will always struggle to maintain the status quo because if there is something common in all humans, it is that we are not willing to accept that our suffering was in vain. We prefer to continue suffering before opening our eyes and recognizing that it all started with a foolishness that we should have let go.

This is the reason why parents of soldiers who have died in pointless wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, continue to vote for the same leaders who sent their children to die. They are not willing to accept under any circumstance that their children died in vain. They would rather send another child to war than recognize that the first one died senselessly.

This is exactly what happened to the Cárdenas and Valdeblánquez who sacrificed dozens of lives, subjected dozens of women to abandonment and a life of pain, killed civilians, women, and children, before letting go of the grudge, accepting they were wrong and moving on.

The good news is that the Buddha also found that it is possible to stop suffering and left a path to do so. It is not an easy path, but it is worth taking and the benefits can save lives, not just in the present but for many generations to come and have a global impact. This message is that important. But we will see it in detail in the next episode of Spirituality & Science. For now, I bid you farewell.


[1] https://historiasdelmagdalena.blogspot.com/2016/09/guerraentre-las-familias-cardenasy.html

[2] https://www.learnreligions.com/the-enlightenment-of-the-buddha-449789

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