This is usually not a term we like to deal with, but nevertheless suffering is a powerful element in our life and very worth thinking about.
Three Kinds of Suffering
We experience pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral moments during our days. This means that there are things we like, things we don’t like, and things we have equanimity towards. If our inner or outer experiences are unpleasant, then generally we would like to avoid them. We all know this, and this is the most basic form of suffering, of unpleasant moments.
Even if we can’t avoid this basic suffering, for heavens sake, challenging experiences end at some point! And yet, we experience that all wonderful moments and situations end at some point, too. This latter experience is it’s own kind of suffering, the suffering of change. It’s subtle, because it can begin with a pleasant moment—but one which will inevitably change.
Unfortunately there’s an even more subtle form of suffering, associated with those neutral moments. Buddhist understanding points out that, even if nothing particularly good or bad is happening, the fact of having a body that is dependent on diverse causes and conditions is a kind of suffering. There’s a lack of freedom there that we can feel, even if it pales in comparison to heavy suffering.
As long as we try not to be conscious of the suffering in our experience we might live in the illusion that it doesn’t exist. But really observing our moment-to-moment experiences and our thoughts can show us that this illusion is not true. The benefit of this illusion is limited: it might be true that we block our sense of the sharpness of pain, displeasure, and dissatisfaction, but we then don’t experience the possible clarity and strength which enable us to respond to suffering in a proactive way.
If we notice how our thoughts circle around stressful and burdensome elements in our experience we can also see how hope and fear are driving us to act or avoid. This noticing is the base that can enable us to act in more conscious and skillful ways. Skillful responses start with the insight that suffering is part of life.
This is a really good ground from which we can find a new way of relating to any kind of suffering in our life in general and also in our experience within each moment. This different approach might focus more on understanding than on avoiding. First we can understand the truth of suffering, and once we see that, curiosity can open about how some particular suffering is happening and maybe also why we are experiencing it in the way we do. We can see what we can discover and learn because of this experience. This helps us to slowly find more meaning within our daily joys and sorrows.
A Different Way
This meaning we can see within every experience is able to change our thoughts, feelings, and emotions towards certain situations. It might not happen right there within the challenging moment, but some time later down the road. Being able to find meaning within a terrible experience can help us to take a different exit, maybe to really start a new path.
If we find ourselves outside within a challenging and painful situation we often also find ourselves internally in a narrow and unfree place. We might be caught in our own judgment and defensiveness about the experience. Maybe the same thoughts are spinning within our mind and are keeping us within a painful emotional state. Then it can feel like a liberating act to try something different.
Just noticing what’s going on, just observing what’s happening can help us to find a space that contains it all. In this way we can find a witnessing position that can allow for a fresh view. With some training and experience we might be able to avoid falling into our habitual reactions and instead remain an interested and observing witness instead. It’s wonderful to move from frustrated to curious. From this new angle we can observe situations and our reactions and find a moment of rest, a new habit, and maybe even a new kind of stability.
In this way we can notice our habitual reactions and make a new, better conscious choice. It really is possible to respond to suffering in this open, curious and compassionate way. In a dangerous situation we would first care for our safety, but after that or in the many daily moments with frustrating experiences, we can experiment with this different, conscious approach.
So what to do if we notice something painful? Do we try to distract ourselves? Try to deny? Circle around within the suffering again and again? Instead we can notice the suffering, acknowledge it, and be a compassionate companion for ourselves in this unpleasant and frustrating situation. Compassion always helps! It connects our experience with a supportive, softening attitude which can relieve stress and give softness and strength.
No matter which of the three kinds of suffering we are facing in given moment, instead of feeling lonely and self-critical we can acknowledge the truth of what is happening. Suffering is a fact, and not our fault. Recognizing this, we can be our own compassionate companion. If we feel warmth, closeness, and understanding while we are in pain, a new approach starts. This positive tendency will lead us further and further away from previous habitual responses every time we apply it.
I hope that this visit with one of the topics we usually don’t like to wrap our minds around was helpful. Enjoy a colorful and still sunny Fall week!
PS: I still have an invitation for you. My new 6-week online course “Joy and Ease, Meditative Skills for Modern Life” started and you are still welcome to join for free. More about this here.