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The topic of human suffering has always fascinated me.  It wasn’t until about five years ago that I realized that I had spent so much of my life’s energy on futile attempts to avoid suffering.  Some of the methods I used were drugs and alcohol, denial, dishonesty, and dissociation.  I suppose I made some healthy attempts as well, through writing poetry and attempts at therapy.  But that was less about avoiding suffering and more about just dealing with it, or trying to make it into something beautiful.  Of course, I had a great deal of help from my parents, who basically allowed me to do whatever I wanted in order to decrease my suffering.  Their enabling of my behaviors only reinforced the notion that suffering was to be avoided at all costs.  This was, of course, not their intention.  Nonetheless, I could say that for several years, the entire focus of my life was on avoiding suffering and increasing pleasure.  I didn’t know at the time that the methods I was using were not only self-destructive but also counterproductive.  They only served to mask the suffering, like a band-aid.  But beneath all of my hiding, the suffering was still there.  And it was growing.

What I have come to realize, through different spiritual texts, spiritual practice, and simply my own experience, is that suffering is an inevitable part of human existence.  This we cannot change.  No amount of running or hiding, and certainly no substance can change that fact.  What we can change, hopefully, is our relationship to that suffering.  It is possible to change our relationship to pain and suffering.   Maybe the fact that painful events exist in life is not by itself a cause for true suffering.  It is our constant aversive relationship to that pain that creates true suffering.  I have seen this in my own experience.  As I stated earlier, my attempts to hide from my pain only served to enhance my suffering.

There is also this tendency to want to instantly fix other people’s pain.  We know how it feels to suffer a great amount.  So, when we see someone else’s suffering, our natural instinct is to want to relieve it in some way.  This too leads to suffering for us, because often, an immediate intervention on our part is not the solution.  Is our panicked attempt to relieve someone’s suffering a selfless deed or is it selfish?  Is it because we truly want to help or is it because it hurts us to see them suffer?  These questions are worth exploring.

Often, I have heard comedians tell a similar joke about how people are always asking, “Are you okay?” after a painful moment in someone’s life.  They say sarcastically in response, “Yeah, I’m okay.  I mean, I lost my job, broke my leg, and my wife cheated on me, but yeah, I’m okay.”  They proceed to continue to joke about how people ask such dumb questions.  Obviously that person who lost their job, broke their leg, and was cheated on is not okay.  And the crowd lets out a bellowing laugh of agreement.  We assume that because painful events happen, that someone is not okay, or that they are suffering.  We joke that this is a dumb question.  It seems to be representative of our relationship to pain as a culture; that a crowd of people would be laughing at and relating to this joke, assuming that this person would not be okay.

I am reading a wonderful book by Jack Kornfield in which he writes a great deal about his time in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand.  If he perhaps looked depressed or upset, his teacher, Ajahn Chah, would approach him and say, “Are you suffering?”  And Jack would reply, “Yes I am.”  And Ajahn Chah, with a smile, would say, “Must be quite attached,” and scamper off into the woods.  I don’t think one needs to go off to a forest monastery in Thailand to change their relationship to suffering.  The wisdom is in our own experience.  For me, when I look back at my life, the times I suffered the most was when I was running the hardest, when I was hiding from reality.  If I wasn’t hiding from it, I was attached to an idea of reality being a certain way.  The most painful break-up, the most painful disappointment, the most painful betrayal, all are encompassed with this attachment to it being some other way than it is. This is just not the way it’s supposed to be.  We’re supposed to be together.  He’s not supposed to do that.  I’m not supposed to be in the hospitalLife isn’t supposed to hurt this much. This type of inner dialogue, whether it’s conscious or not, reinforces the notion that we are not okay unless life is a certain way.  We’re not okay unless we have that person, that thing, that job, that amount of money.  The sense of self becomes diluted by external things.  We lose who we really are.  We become reliant on others.  We suffer.

I have had multiple experiences where the same painful events that happened when I was younger, occurred again in my life.  But instead of running from it, instead of being stuck in the delusion of it being some other way than it is, I faced the difficult situation head on, explored it, and saw it for what it is.  And I did it with the same amount of energy I used to give to running from it.  Often, I would become not only at peace with the pain, but grateful for it, because it is the painful moments in life that we grow from most.  It’s a beautiful thing when we can sit with our pain, knowing that it hurts, and not run from it.  It’s in these moments that we truly find out who we are.  We find out that we don’t have to run from life’s pain and challenges, that we can face them head on, with a gentle acceptance that this is just the way things are.


One Comment

  1. I’m really happy I stumbled across this because that was exactly what I needed to read at this moment. 🙂

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