Suffering- the Buddha said it was unavoidable. If you’ve lived on this planet long enough to read this, you’ve had at least a taste of suffering. But, what is suffering? Is it the same as pain? Is it really unavoidable?
For me the definition of suffering that works best is when our desires don’t line up with reality; or maybe more accurately when we cannot or do not simply accept what IS. If we reject the reality of what has happened, what our current state is or what we think our future state will be, we suffer. If we dwell on the way life SHOULD be rather than the way life is, we suffer. Pain is inevitable. Things are going to come along that hurt us- physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. No one, not even the most skilled or enlightened person is immune from pain. Suffering occurs when we decide the pain isn’t what is or isn’t what should be. Suffering is optional. The avoidance of suffering is simple. If you want to avoid suffering, just accept what is. But, just like pain is not the same as suffering, simple is not the same as easy.
In American society we are taught to be the masters of our own fates. We are taught to make things happen. We are goal setters. We are doers. We are creators and builders. As a man, I’m expected to be a take charge person. I’m trying to be “successful”. When things don’t go as planned, I am supposed to evaluate why that happened and make a course correction to get back on the path. When my ability to do that isn’t good enough to make it happen, I suffer. For the past 15 years I’ve been working on this, knowing the goal of accepting what is, but it goes against human nature, against American culture and against the way I’ve been indoctrinated as the leader of my family. So, I suffer and I suffer greatly. There is hope however. I am getting better. It’s a difficult thing to admit I’m not in control of my life, but knowing this life is not the be all and end all of my existence helps. Becoming detached from outcomes and only focusing on effort is a long slow process from where I started, but with meditation, prayer, reflection and study, it’s possible to change the programming. Even setting the goal of being “enlightened” of ending suffering can be a cause for suffering if we cannot accept where we are right now. It’s a paradox wrapped in a conundrum. Seeking to end suffering can be a cause of suffering itself.
The other day I saw a bumper sticker that just set me off. “With God All Things Are Possible”. I wanted to pull the guy over and scream at him “No they are not.” God will not change the past. God will not grant you immortality in this body. God will not bring back the dead. Not everything is possible. Step one to eliminating suffering is to accept not all things are possible. You can never accept what is as long as you believe that if you only have enough belief or if God sees fit, He will wave His magic wand and fix it for you.
A friend sent me a very interesting article on how we deal with pain. We can avoid it. We can try to heal from it. Or we can accept it and try to learn from it. The first two approaches can lead to suffering. You can only avoid the pain for so long. Healing from the pain sounds like a good idea, but if you think there’s a quick fix, you’re going to suffer. The third approach will minimize or maybe even eliminate suffering. We can, if we can step back from it, find lessons in pain. Pain can be redemptive. Pain can be a motivator. In fact, I would argue that pain is the best if not the only motivator. We don’t change things until something causes us discomfort or even pain. However, when the pain comes, if we haven’t got the proper perspective, we suffer. Suffering is not redemptive. So, the pain will come. When it does though remember that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.