“Life is suffering.” Buddha
Are we still suffering?
Suffering has one of two causes:
1. Physical malfunction that produces bodily pain. This is real suffering, but suffering that can be reduced or transmuted.
2. Inadequate explanations by the sufferer for what is going on in his or her life. This is suffering that is created in our minds, by our misinterpretation of what is happening. This suffering can be eliminated, as demonstrated by the masters of awareness.
Clearly, as we seekers of awareness become more and more poised, we are suffering less—probably much less—than we used to. We have developed better explanations for reality than we used to have, so we make fewer mistakes. We are more consistently loving of others and of this beautiful earth.
We have shrunk our egos. We feel sorry for ourselves much less often. We have forgiven others, and we have made amends where needed. We have learned how to sustain our poise much of the time, and we have reaped many gifts that perhaps we blocked in the past.
Still, we suffer sometimes, so this discussion addresses how we might end suffering in our lives once and for all and help the people around us end their suffering.
To begin, let’s assess the suffering in our lives currently. Here’s a checklist to determine what is causing our suffering these days. Check the items below that cause you to suffer. I’ll assess my own suffering as we go, and I’ll invite a master of awareness into the analysis of each cause:
1. Physical health problems: A huge number of us suffer from physical pain and discomfort. The opioid crisis lets us know the extent to which we seek relief from pain and then, unintentionally, create a tortured, addicted body. One third of us are obese, a physical state that causes disease and breakdown. Even those who take good care of their physical health can suffer from all sorts of pain inherited from their genetic predecessors.
My body has held up remarkably well over many decades—especially given my history of self-indulgence—but now it’s showing signs of wear. I take a couple of prescription drugs, but the issues they treat don’t cause me any suffering. The drug that treats high blood pressure makes me dizzy once in a while, although I don’t really suffer when it happens. But gut problems give me some pain and discomfort some of the time. I suffer enough that some days the quality of my life is reduced, and I’ve had to work on my spirit to fend off the effects of this particular physical discomfort. When I suffer, I try to be compassionate with my body, avoiding experiencing it as an enemy. I experiment to find ways to feel good, and I’ve made one great discovery: dancing. Dancing, I feel no pain. I dance a lot.
Here’s advice about how to avoid suffering from Lao Tzu, a master of awareness:
“The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”
What’s the extent of your physical suffering and how are you handling it?
2. A psychic cause: The expectation that I should get what I want. The Buddhists figured this one out a long time ago: expectations—disappointments. We’re vulnerable to never-ending suffering if we’re attached to anything in life. We can legitimately desire specific outcomes or results, but we will have anguish if we demand that we get them. When our desires rise to the level of obsession, we are going to suffer, whether that desire is satisfied or not. Most people get some suffering here, because they feel entitled, a bad explanation about how life works.
I’m in pretty good shape on this one. I can’t think of anything that I’m attached to. As I’ve said here before, I want to be able to lose everything—money, relationships, reputation—and walk away lighthearted. My warrior explanation: my cup is always filled to the brim, and anything you give me is more than I can take.
Krishnamurti said that the greatest accomplishment of his life was that he didn’t mind what happens. He had no attachments.
Another psychic cause: Angst over the the state of human behavior, the behavior of political leaders, and the state of our society.
Most of my progressive friends are admitting to suffering over the behavior of President Trump. They have new shocks of pain with every tweet, every newscast, and every analysis of societal decline. Even his pictures on tv send them into revulsion. They are worried and half-jokingly talk of moving to another country to avoid the disturbing emotional and intellectual reactions they’re having.
I’m pretty free of this suffering: I am able to avoid getting sucked into the ups and downs of my fellow humans. I’m informed and concerned, but I have a warrior’s detachment.
My better explanation of reality: people are crazy, but none of us has to join them in craziness.
Here’s another master of awareness, Ram Dass, on how our inadequate interpretations of reality make us vulnerable to suffering.
“We now recognize that if there is anything at all that can bring us down—anything—our house is built upon sand, and there is fear. And where there is fear, we aren’t free.”
Is the present state of the human community troubling you enough that you are suffering?
Another psychic cause of suffering: The conviction that I’m not as important, able, or good as other people. Most people have self-doubts some of the time—doubts that reduce self-confidence and the capacity to be fully alive and joyful. These self-doubts, often swallowed and digested alone, can poison every aspect of family and work life. It is a silent killer of our potential that is experienced as emotional pain. This faulty analysis of self-worth guarantees suffering.
Like everybody else who grew up in a somewhat dis-functional family, I suffered from self-doubt as a kid and then later as a husband, father, and worker. It took a long time to rid myself of this particular handicap, but now I don’t suffer from it at all. I see that we all have equal value, so I don’t need to compete for status anymore. I see that every life is precious, including mine.
Jesus tried to convince people that god is within each of us, that we are the light of the world, and that we are much more than we suppose.
Are you suffering at all from lack of self-worth?
Another psychic cause of suffering: The conviction that someone is doing something to me. This conviction is nearly universal, held by a preponderance of the people on the earth. Most people suffer from challenging relationships that we wish we didn’t have. Maybe it’s a family member who bugs the hell out of us.
Maybe it’s a co-worker or boss who appears to be quite mad. Maybe it’s a neighbor who seems to want to make our life miserable. The conviction that someone is doing something to us will guarantee that we are projecting our faulty understanding about life onto other people. It guarantees that we will create victim stories and allow our self-pity to push all joy away.
I’ve had plenty of suffering in my relationships with others—all caused by my conviction that others were unfair to me, unfriendly or unloving with me, or directly hostile and dangerous. Happily, I don’t suffer with this cause anymore. I’ve made a major effort to heal painful relationships. I’ve pulled the plug on some unhealthy relationships after I forgave. I’ve made my amends to people who suffered from my behavior with them. As a warrior, I take full responsibility for every relationship I have with others.
Carlos Castaneda bluntly confronts our tendency to blame others for our suffering in relationships:
“Nobody is doing anything to anybody, let alone to a warrior.”
Anybody doing anything to you these days?
Finally: The belief that my life is much harder than other people’s lives. Clearly, some people suffer from circumstances that are horrendous. Parents lose their children in wrenching situations. Tens of millions have suffered terrible deprivation at the hands of tyrants and murderers. The evidence of human history seems to support the idea that severe suffering is unavoidable in our current level of human evolution. The facts of physical and emotional suffering endured at the hands of tyrants, natural disasters, and disease is incontrovertible. But if we think that our suffering is much worse than the suffering of other people, we may give up and miss the opportunity to find joy in our life.
The psychic pain in severe hardship can be lifted with expanded awareness. I have not been tested with severe circumstances in my lifetime, so I feel humble about this one.. But I have studied history in order not to be naive about human brutality, and I have learned that some people are able to maintain their humanity when confronted with the worst evil. If severe hardship comes to me, I hope I will be able to accept it with grace.
Albert Camus said:
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that there is in me invincible summer.”
Where are you on the scale of human suffering?
Must we suffer?
Even if our life has become more and more joyful, we may believe that we should suffer some of the time. We may believe that decent people suffer because they are morally aware, that as compassionate people we must suffer when others suffer.
But suffering is not empathy. Suffering is not compassion. We can care without suffering.
We can hook our lives to the ups and downs of our fellow humans, even though that connection will guarantee that we will suffer. Every time others head for tragedy, we will go with them. This attachment to suffering is where the human species is stuck—mired in self-pity, constantly cooking up victim stories that explain why people are suffering so much. Unlike Krishnamurti, we think that minding what happens correlates with virtue. Minding what happens, we think, means that we are evolved, that we care.
The trouble is that suffering limits our empathy. It’s not a virtue, it’s a handicap, a disability. Suffering, we can’t avoid self-pity. Suffering, we shrink into a martyred self, hobbled and pessimistic. Suffering, we lose some energy, energy we need to transform our experience into joy and awe.
Suffering, we inevitably respond with bad explanations for what is happening in our lives. We miss the opportunities that challenges always bring. Suffering, we circle endlessly in an eddy, going nowhere.
Even if our suffering motivates us to take action to halt the suffering of others, we are limited in the good we might do. How can a person who is suffering help me? We will do more for others who are suffering if we stop suffering ourselves.
The warrior work ahead
I still suffer sometimes, although my suffering is much less demanding than it used to be. When I suffer from physical ailments, for instance, I don’t feel sorry for myself, but I do wish I felt better. Warriors don’t wish, so my wishing and mild complaining are clear proof that I still have work to do.
When I’m tempted to suffer, I can stay in the present, joy’s only location. I can remind myself that I am on a loving path, connected to other people, to this fabulous earth that gives me life, and to my own fate. I can move into gratitude no matter what is happening. I can address my challenges creatively. I can avoid earnestness and keep laughing, embracing what is flowing into my life every moment.
What if we refuse to suffer any longer?
Let’s make the evolutionary leap. Heh, I could turn that leap into a dance!