Life is suffering. So says the Buddha.
As usual with awesome pieces of wisdom that are expressed in short, pithy sentences like this, it can take 20 years to fully understand 3 words. Or for me it can anyway, you’re probably quicker than me…
It’s taken me a long time to deal with this notion. First to accept it as truth, then to embrace it, and finally to find the freedom it actually gives.
Let me walk you through my thinking on this
For a start: There are a hell of a lot of interested parties out there (self development gurus / religious dogmatics / holiday companies / drug dealers) who are selling this notion of an end to suffering.
You know, like: if you just get this system for life right, then suddenly your creating will be effortless; OR if you behave in a certain way you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife; OR if you go on this holiday you’ll be happy again, OR if you take this pill your pain will go away.
It’s part of the sales pitch. The notion of this perfect place, the “satisfying conclusion” as Eckhart Tolle calls it, where the suffering you are feeling now will finally end. This assumes suffering is wrong somehow, and that when we are free of it, then we will truly be LIVING. This is a very dangerous notion, if you ask me.
For a start, because it causes us to INVALIDATE the life we have, in favor of a fantasy of what our life SHOULD be, if we could only free ourselves of suffering. This creates an emptiness in NOW and an insatiable hunger for the FUTURE that is a terrible basis from which to try and create what you love in life. Creating out of emptiness just leads to more emptiness.
But the second problem it creates is even greater: it causes us to assume that suffering is an indication of something being wrong with what we are doing or going for. Like we say to ourselves: “it hurts, so it mustn’t be right for me to do it”.
This is hugely de-motivating because at some point, every single thing you strive for or do will hurt you. The relationship with the person you love will be seriously challenging and difficult at times. The book you’re writing will drive you crazy. The business you’re building will fail along its way to success.
And if you can’t DEAL WITH THE SUFFERING, you’re screwed. Simple as that. Because no
matter what you go for, you WILL have it.
I don’t know about you, but when I was younger I certainly bought into the notion that I was suffering because I wasn’t doing it right. Because I didn’t have enough courage, or fortitude, or charisma or whatever. That the fault in the system I was using was me, not the system itself. And the signal that I wasn’t getting it right was suffering. If things got hard, that meant I was off track somehow. If I fought with my partner it meant we didn’t have the best relationship. If I struggled with my business I just wasn’t creating properly.
Just recently, it has hit me like a blinding light: there’s nothing wrong with suffering. It’s not an indication that something is wrong, it’s a sign that you’re alive. Because life is suffering. Which is why it is vitally important to choose the RIGHT KIND of suffering for you.
Here’s the point: Whether you choose a life where you stay in your comfort zone OR a life where you challenge yourself and go for what really inspires you, EITHER WAY you will suffer. The nature of the suffering will be different though. And, when you go for your inspiration, of course you do have the consolation, as you suffer, that you are manifesting your hearts’ desire in the world.
Here’s a hypothetical example:
Imagine you have a parent who doesn’t want you to leave home. Also, it’s kind of okay at home. There’s perks, like maybe getting your washing done or not thinking about bills. Imagine you also are afraid of going out there on your own, into the uncaring world. You’re afraid you don’t have what it takes to make a life for yourself.
You don’t want the pain of facing the disapproval of your parent, and learning to look after yourself out there. So you stay. Every year you stay it gets harder to leave. You make up reasons why it’s better here, or why you need to look after others and you can’t have your own life.
But underneath the rationales, it hurts. It hurts because you have a purpose inside you that can be repressed but not denied and it pushes relentlessly up against your consciousness, reminding you, day after day, that you are unfulfilled. That there is a life out there, an independent life, that like it or not you want, and this wanting cannot be assuaged by anything other than you going on your
So now maybe you start drinking to suppress the hurt. And maybe that leads to other issues – bad health, angry outbursts, feeling crap a lot of the time, addiction.
That’s one choice of suffering in this hypothetical life.
The other choice would be to face the conflict and disapprobation of your parent, leave home and endure the learning process of being out in the world and dealing with life first hand. This hurts also. You have to face the pain of being disliked, the pain of not having a handle on life, the pain of loneliness, and the pain of failure, to name a few.
So you will still suffer because life is suffering, but on this side of the fence you have the consolation of working towards full and passionate self-expression, of contributing your purpose to life, of finding the people you want to share your life with and in the end, finding and creating your own direction. All these things are highly satisfying. Every human craves them.
So then, you can just ask yourself, which suffering do I prefer? The suffering of never living my full potential, or the suffering of facing fear and learning and not being good at stuff for a time?
If you look at your choices from the perspective of the suffering they will create, and which suffering you would prefer, the decision of where to go is obvious and easy.
But don’t kid yourself. Either way you will suffer. It’s just a question of which type of pain you
Of course when you accept the inherent pain in life, and that every thing you go for will challenge you and require work, well then, funnily enough, the suffering doesn’t hurt so much after all.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Please comment below.
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