On Suffering

The fluid contingency of the world pulls us in unforseen directions. As much as we try to cleave to sensations and abstractions, the world constantly overspills our self-created boundaries. Throughout our lives, we create a self-image, exiling what we feel to be “other.” Traumas, socially unacceptable thoughts, and unwanted emotions lurk in the interstices and borderlands of our experience. All of this coalesces into the human experience of suffering.

Buddhism has given birth to one of the most lucid examinations of suffering in human history. This deep investigation of suffering shifts the human organism towards awareness of the ever-present nature and acceptance of suffering. In looking into this matter, our awareness and life bloom even in the shadow of sickness, old age, and death.

In examining his own experience, the Buddha laid out several key concepts outlining his process of self-discovery. They state that humans suffer due to clinging to experiences that cannot possibly stay permanent in the face of constant change. When we focus and place a priority on pursuing pleasure and negating pain, we chain ourselves to this endless wheel of becoming. Humans select a certain set of experiences as desirable and reject others. The Four Noble Truths are thus not only a systematic examination of our desires for sensual pleasure, but of our desire to push unwanted experiences to the margins. In recognizing this aspect of human existence, we cease to needlessly add to our sufferings when our experience is inevitably ruptured by physical and emotional pain, as well as the unknown developments of our lives. We more fully join the stream of life and plunge into its torrential waters. The Buddha finishes by outlining his Noble Eightfold Path, tenets for cultivating this kind of awareness and bringing it into one’s life:

The Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering – in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.

The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.

The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

The importance of looking into one’s own suffering cannot be overstated. We can approach this deep question by a sustained and penetrating inquiry into our experience, to see this question laid bare for ourselves. We also go more fully into each experience of suffering, exploring its environs, probing its contours, its tastes and sensations. Here we discover a complex web of attachment and disavowal that makes up what we feel to be the core of our selves. Instead of perpetually running on the wheel of attempting to stabilize pleasure and avoid pain, and suffering when we inevitably fail to realize this, we begin to make a fundamental shift. This shift is increasingly out of the labyrinth of our own self constructions. This is the realization and possibility of freedom in our lives.

Equally important to the physical dimension of suffering is the conceptual apparatus that we impose on these experiences. The more we fully immerse ourselves in our pain, the more we notice how we change the meaning of that experience through interpreting it in certain ways. While continuing with my sitting practice, I began to notice how difficult it was to sit with my own pain. Upon looking at the experience myself, I not only noticed the physical experience of pain along with feelings of aversion, but also thoughts and concepts that flowed out of and reflected that experience. This includes conceptualizing the situation as negative or unwanted, and then feeding into the situation emotionally. This only makes the situation worse, as we cease to relate to the qualities of that experience and relate to and engage our gradually forming opinion of it. This is a spiral potentially without end as we stoke our emotional responses with our conceptualizing, feeding these aspects into each other.

The more we pay attention to this cycle, the more adept we become at subverting it and letting it go. We realize our complicity in our own suffering, and how our responses to it bleed out and affect the suffering of others. Changing the way we relate to our own suffering is one of the key insights gleaned from our meditative practice. When we can change this for ourselves, feeling each moment, we begin to notice how this shifts the patterns of our lives in new directions of acceptance, healing, and happiness. All our attempts to build rigid boundaries between the world and ourselves are doomed from the start.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When not attached to love or hate,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.
– Seng-ts’an

The freedom and contingency of the world and suffering are inextricably linked. We cannot pin down our experience into certain desired channels and expect it to conform. This is a living, breathing dynamism of which we are a part. Through the simple act of paying attention, we begin to open ourselves to that bottomless wellspring within our own hearts, and we touch the root and ground of our own existence. Through compassion to the rejected parts of ourselves we go more thoroughly and openly into our own suffering.

This compassion pulls us beyond ourselves and into communion with all humanity. This path of understanding the suffering bound up in our existence is the same path to liberation in this moment that we are all capable of walking.

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