He who binds to himself a joy,
Does the winged life destroy,
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
It’s natural to desire good fortune and to want to avoid suffering. But nature is impartial and doesn’t take into consideration human wishes and desires. So suffering comes to us all. Our lack of control over most things can result in heartache, disappointment, outrage, confusion or even trauma.
Because we can’t avoid – and tend to fear – what we don’t know and can’t control, we create or adopt both helpful and not-so-helpful strategies for coping with the anxiety that comes with being alive and human.
For me, meditation has proven a healthy and helpful approach for navigating the uncertainties of existence and reframing the idea of “suffering.”
The Buddhist Tradition
In my experience, Buddhism is the most sophisticated, practical and effective system of thought for day-to-day living. For example, it presents the eight worldly conditions that can be used as a lens for viewing or making sense out of the chaos or randomness of life. Together, they create a means for maintaining equanimity amid perpetual change, which tends to minimize suffering.
The eight worldly conditions are: pleasure and pain; gain and loss; praise and blame; and fame and disrepute. The pairings of opposites are intended to normalize our expectations so when either “good” or “bad” things happen we don’t hang onto them and pretend they’re permanent, rather than passing.
When we cling too tightly to the pleasant, it can lead to a desperate grasping for certainty, resulting in compulsive, erratic behavior and disappointment. It’s akin to believing a hundred-foot anchor is going to create stability in an ocean that’s miles deep. On the flip side, expecting to avoid all unpleasant experiences because you sidestepped one is like believing you can sail around the world in a dingy because the water is calm on the day of your departure.
Letting Go of Suffering as “Good”
To recap, I’m suggesting suffering is a universal condition caused by a wish for life to be something other than what it is. It’s an attempt to control the uncontrollable, a refusal to adjust our expectations concerning events over which we quite literally have no control. It comes to us unannounced and uninvited, is usually unpleasant and is prolonged by denial or avoidance.
Of course, suffering also can create depth and meaning, be a catalyst for change and promote healing or humility. But there’s no good reason to pursue it for its own sake because it will naturally and inevitably find us. Regrettably, many of us still hold beliefs that suffering is good, perhaps reflecting loyalty, perseverance or strength. For instance, workaholism is esteemed, too much pleasure justifies guilt, blind obedience to authority is considered patriotic and so on. I believe such self-limiting beliefs more closely resemble sickness than goodness.
I’ve been asked, “Is sacrifice the same as suffering?” While both involve a sense of struggle, I see a distinct difference in that sacrifice is often freely chosen. It’s an intentional decision to hold your own needs or wants in abeyance for the sake of something larger than yourself that’s gratifying and can be quite pleasant.
You’ve probably heard many parents say that, while raising children is the most difficult job on the planet (and requires considerable sacrifice), it’s also the most gratifying. They report that, by focusing beyond themselves, they experience feeling a part of something larger and more meaningful that helps smooth out life’s ups and downs. Shorter-term experiences of “sacrifice” – from offering a friendly smile to a stranger, to working on behalf of a charity organization, to reporting news from inside a war zone – also can lead to this sense of grounding and expansion that tends to mitigate suffering.
How Meditation Reduces Suffering
Like sacrifice, meditation can reduce the experience of suffering by altering how we see ourselves. By cultivating a skillful, finely tuned capacity to distinguish between the permanent and the impermanent, we can become more accepting of the latter. That can help us move out of anxiety and fear and away from our socially constructed desires and illusions of separateness.
Because meditation requires an increased capacity to be with yourself directly, without filters, it requires time, patience and discipline. Our society is strongly externally focused, promoting perpetual activity that leaves no time or place for sorting through our internal patterns. As a result, we easily can be mentally hijacked, bridled or unbalanced on many levels.
Meditation practice should not be taken lightly. It will almost certainly lead to moments of frustration, doubt, emotional pain, uncomfortable physical sensations, boredom and even a sense of separation from others not on a similar path. However, suffering is not the point. Rather, it’s matter of sacrifice and priorities to patiently work with the innate selfishness of the self. Fortunately, the payoff in terms of wellbeing and freedom from suffering are well documented. It’s been shown that people who meditate become kinder, more compassionate and more sensitive to being interconnected to all of life. And meditators report the mental training inherent in meditation better equips then to face skillfully the vicissitudes of life.
Other Benefits of Meditation
Many consistent meditators also note a reduced attachment to notoriety, admiration or being the center of attention. Frantic anxiety associated with a fear of loss softens as impermanence is understood and accepted. Obsessing about being in control is reduced when order and disorder are seen as facts to manage, rather than assaults to a fantasy of perfection.
But the benefit of meditation practice most frequently noticed within the push and pull of ordinary life is the change in perception of life’s little hassles, anxieties or annoyances. The traffic jam, the rude salesperson, the child who tests boundaries, the broken electronics equipment, the bad weather, the bills that are due, etc.… are less likely to send us on an emotional roller coaster. Rather, they are just a part of life.
By Bradley Sears