Tag: suffering

The Suffering of Everyday Life

During the time that I was married, I subjected my wife to a litany of jokes involving obscure references to my various interests. I am fairly (but not entirely) certain that this was not what caused our marriage to deteriorate. Over the last year or so of our marriage, one of my go-to comments was to utter the phrase, “this is dukkha” in annoying or unpleasant situations, which would invariably elicit a roll of the eyes. Although I employed it as humor, it was always in a situation where I actually recognized the workings of dukkha in a mundane situation.

four noble truths

The first of the Noble Truths is often translated as, “Life is suffering.” The Pali word “dukkha” is somewhat problematically translated as “suffering” in many places. There isn’t really a perfect translation in English for the word dukkha, but I have seen it translated as “stress”, “unsatisfactoriness”, and “anxiety”, as well as the common, “suffering.” All of these definitions seem to have an element of truth to them, but the full sense of the word is complex, and plays out in our daily lives in several different ways. It is also closely tied to another Pali concept, “tanha,” which is often translated as “craving”, “desire”, or “thirst.”

Everybody Hurts

Some things just hurt. Pain and discomfort of all kinds are just part of the package deal that we get with the gift of human existence. We stub our toe and it causes physical pain. Someone treats us unkindly and it makes us feel bad emotionally. We lose someone we care about or watch an important relationship deteriorate, and we feel sorrow. These kinds of experiences are inevitable, and in the moment we will feel a kind of pain or suffering when we are confronted with them. There is no avoiding this kind of pain.

Where we really begin to feel suffering is through our desire that things be other than they are. We crave pleasant experiences, and we feel aversion toward unpleasant ones. When my wife told me that she was unhappy in our marriage, I naturally felt sorrow and pain. This pain was unavoidable. It was when I wallowed in my desire for things to be different than they were or when I chose to try to avoid the reality of my situation through heavy drinking that I really experienced dukkha. When I reached the point of being able to be mindful of my grief, and accept it, that was when I began to see my suffering diminish somewhat.

The Things That Happen (and the Stories We Tell About Those Things)

Another form that dukkha takes – probably my personal poison of choice – is through the stories that we build on top of our lived experiences. The unpleasant experience that we have had just isn’t bad enough, so we pile onto it with self-recriminations, self-pity, and various other forms of self-torture.

Personally, I have long specialized in a form of this that involves feelings of guilt and shame. I do or say something that I regret, and then proceed to replay the incident in my head over and over, telling myself what a fuck up I am, or that I’m a bad person. I have generally liked to mix in obsessions about what other people are thinking about me, despite the fact that nobody is spending as much time thinking about me as I am.

There are a number of different ways that these mental formations can manifest themselves. Thoughts of anxiety, inadequacy, and judgment all add suffering to our daily lives. We relive uncomfortable events that are sometimes years in the past, or build out anxiety laden scenarios set in the future.

As we practice mindfulness, we can learn to recognize these mental formations for what they are, mere illusions created by our minds. Through that recognition, we can learn to observe the arising of the thoughts, let them play out and pass away, rather than giving them energy to run on a constant loop.

reaching out
Photo freely given by David Monje on Unsplash

You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On

Sometimes our suffering isn’t produced by negative experiences, but by our relationship to pleasant ones.

Everything in and around us is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. This can become a cause of dissatisfaction when we experience something that we like, and try to cling to that experience. I’ve written about this a little bit previously.

On some level, we know the experience won’t last, but we try to keep it going anyway, and we suffer when it goes away. Not only that, we generally don’t actually enjoy the experience as much while we are in it, because we are so stressed out about the prospect of it disappearing.

This expression of dukkha can show in both insignificant and more meaningful situations. Sometimes it might be something as mundane as enjoying the warmth of the sun on a fall day, then becoming frustrated when clouds move in. Other situations might be more impactful, such as being in the middle of the euphoria of a romantic relationship, only to suffer as you watch that relationship come to an end.

If we can learn to be present in these situations, we can enjoy them while they last, without clinging to them as they pass away. I can say from personal experience that this isn’t easy, but my meditation practice has definitely helped me be more present moment-to-moment, and to cling less. It also helps me to be aware of the suffering that I experience when I do cling, and to pull out of the nose dive more quickly when I do indulge that clinging.

This is Dukkha

Although I am still very much a baby meditator and mindfulness practitioner, I have seen that there is a path out of the suffering that we experience every day. The most important step for me has been learning to identify dukkha as early as possible. Although I have joked about it, that moment of saying, “this is dukkha” is the important one. Recognizing that we have moved beyond the normal pain of an experience, and have entered into clinging, aversion, or harmful story telling; that is the moment when we have the ability to respond skillfully, rather than simply reacting mindlessly.

Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more aware of our internal temperature. We can see when we are starting to feel things going sideways with our disposition and can examine what is going on. Are we desiring something we don’t have or experiencing something we don’t want? Are we clinging to something that is going away? Are we creating movies in our head that are exacerbating an unpleasant situation? Once we’ve recognized the situation, we can accept things for what they really are and let go of the mental baggage that we are bringing into our experience.

This is all part of a growth process. I am more often able to recognize when I am causing myself unnecessary suffering than I was when I started on this journey, but I still find myself often succumbing to it. The more time I spend practicing the Dharma, the more skillful I become. The important thing is to keep practicing, and when I experience periods that feel like failure, accept those as a part of the path and begin again.

Feeling Gratitude For Suffering

A couple of weeks ago there was a video that was making the rounds on social media from an interview that Anderson Cooper did with Stephen Colbert on CNN. The video was one of the most genuine human interactions that I’ve ever seen on television. Both Cooper and Colbert have had to deal with a lot of pain during their lifetimes, stemming from loss that they suffered when they were young. I was moved to tears as I listened to these two men discuss grief and suffering.

In the video (which I have posted above and recommend you watch,) Anderson Cooper asks Colbert about a quote from a previous interview, in which he said that he had, “learned to love the thing that I most wish had not happened…,” and went on to say, “what punishment of gods are not gifts.” When asked if he really believed that, Colbert answered that he did, and beautifully stated why. “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”

I have had an (almost) daily practice of journaling for a little while now, which I always begin with listing three things that I am grateful for. It feels weird to list a painful experience on a gratitude list, but part of the practice is to increase the scope of our awareness of what we can feel grateful for. One of the things that really stood out to me in the Colbert interview was when he said, “If you are grateful for your life…, you have to be grateful for all of it.” It doesn’t mean that we have to want those things to happen, but it is worth contemplating that it is only by an extraordinarily improbable and fortunate accident that we even exist at all, and a part of that gift of existence is suffering.

Photo freely given by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

There are two specific aspects of this idea of gratitude for our suffering that I have been thinking about recently. One of them is compassion and empathy. Our suffering can add a layer of understanding of what other people are going through. When we are willing and able to discuss our suffering, it can also create a safe place for others to open up about what they are going through. Stephen Colbert puts this really well in the interview –

“What do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”

Stephen Colbert

The second aspect of gratitude for suffering that has been on my mind is the growth that our suffering can bring about. Although I wouldn’t put my experience on the same level as the trauma that Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper are discussing, I have experienced suffering from the loss of my marriage over the last couple of years. As painful as that experience has been, the last year has been the most productive period of growth in my life. I can honestly say that I would not have experienced that growth without the suffering that I endured. My experience lead me to examine my life and to seek insight into what had happened and how I could skillfully deal with my pain.

The act of gratitude toward those experiences that are painful is counterintuitive, and it isn’t easy, especially before we have had time to put some distance between ourselves and the source of our pain. It is, however, a practice of tremendous love toward ourselves and toward others. We acknowledge the miracle of our existence, and the gift of everything that comes with it. We free ourselves to move forward in acceptance. We make ourselves available to serve other people, all of whom share in the suffering inherent in being human.

The Glass is Already Broken

Almost exactly two years ago, my conception of my life as a steady and reliable institution came crashing to the ground when my wife informed me that she was unhappy in our marriage and was ready to call it quits. As is generally the case, this did not come completely out of the blue. There were no extreme motivating factors; no cheating, traumatic events, abuse, or even any significant fights. If you asked either of us, we would say we loved each other and considered the other to be our best friend. We did, however, have some longstanding issues that had slowly operated as a death by a thousand cuts. To use an age-old cliche, we had grown apart. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been aware enough to see how much that was true.

After some anguished late night conversations, we decided not to take any immediate action. I told my wife that I loved her and was committed to doing whatever I could to fix our problems. I told her that this wasn’t something that I wanted, but that I would respect her wishes and follow her lead. Unfortunately, in the wake of our conversations, I found myself lost and without a clue as to how to fix anything. I quickly turned to various mechanisms for numbing the jumble of emotions that were hitting me in crashing waves. I work in the wine and beer industry, and already was a heavier than average drinker. My worst instincts took over and as I began to heavily self-medicate, a sense of creeping despair covered me like a blanket.

About a year after our initial conversation, we were still living together, albeit more as roommates than spouses. Simple economic considerations and inertia are probably the only reason that we maintained the status quo. It was during the summer of 2018 that I picked up the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris on the recommendation of an old friend. As I’ve written previously, this book launched me into a consistent meditation practice, and introduced me to a reading list of books that went on to have a huge impact on my life, the first of which was Dr. Mark Epstein’s book, The Trauma of Everyday Life.

Epstein’s book was eye opening in many ways, and really deepened my interest in Buddhism as a means of coming to understand the suffering that I had experienced my entire life, and was experiencing intensely during that particular stage of my life. There was one specific paragraph of the book that continues to have a huge impact on me today.

Epstein relates a story of a group of students meeting with the great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Chah, and asking him about what he could tell them about the Buddhist mindset that they could take home with them. His response was one of those classic Buddhist illustrations that take an easily relatable situation to show a larger truth about the true nature of reality.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Mark Epstein – The Trauma of Everyday Life

This simple paragraph hit me like a thunderbolt, exposing so many things about my life and about the specific situation I was living through. I had been heedless in my approach to my entire life, not to mention my relationships. Not only that, but I recognized that in my married life, I had combined a lack of attention to my wife and her needs with a dependent clinging to my life with her. When this thing that I had latched onto as a stable and dependable part of my life had demonstrated it’s impermanence, I had crumbled under the shock of the realization.

Photo freely given by KaNajib Khali on Unsplash

In my 20s, I used to quote the oft-used interpretation of the Buddha’s words that states, “life is suffering.” This was literally all I knew about Buddhism, and this quotation had more to do with an angsty interest in Nietzsche and nihilism than any understanding of Buddhist philosophy. It was equivalent to saying, “life is hard, and then you die.” As I’ve undertaken my study into Buddhism, I have learned that this understanding of the Buddha’s words is misleading, to say the least. Many of the teachers that I hear discuss this concept offer the additional translation that life is unsatisfying. Suffering is an appropriate term in a way, but this suffering is due to the fact that we don’t experience the world as it really is, and as such life doesn’t meet our expectations. We futilely cling to things (all of which are impermanent) that we find pleasant and fight so hard to push away things we find unpleasant. In short, we desire for life to be other than it is.

Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on seeing the glass as already being broken. To me, this has meant being more present with both the good and the bad. It means truly being with life as it is, engaging fully and authentically in my relationships, and not seeking out distractions and numbing agents to avoid experiences that I find boring or unpleasant. It means being present to fully experience all the things that I love about the glass, and appreciate each sip that I take from it, knowing full well that the glass is impermanent. This makes each moment more precious.

In the end, this practice doesn’t guarantee that life circumstances will follow the trajectory we want. After trying for a couple of years to repair our relationship, my wife recently told me that she didn’t feel like she could see us ever getting back to where we need to be for her to stay in our marriage. Too much baggage had been accumulated by the time we started to work on things in a meaningful way. This has been a painful experience, but by being fully present for it, this time has been one of tremendous personal growth. I have found a peace in actually giving myself the space to be with my feelings, rather than trying to numb them out of existence. Dealing with difficult emotions isn’t easy but, in my experience, running away from them is impossible.

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