Life is suffering. That’s one of the first teachings of the Buddha. It does not imply that all in life is suffering, but simply states that happiness and suffering are part of one phenomenon, that both are intertwined.
An important implication of this statement is that we do not keep on suffering forever. It implies that if there is suffering, there is a dissatisfaction, a pain. Something’s wrong. We suffer for a reason, and our work, our practice, is to identify properly that cause and act on it.
« This highest aim of Buddhism is not only to break through the suffering of life but to transform this suffering life into a life that has permanent peacefulness, joy, freedom and purity. The Buddha told us the cause of suffering and instructed us to strive towards the goal. » – Common Buddhist Misunderstandings
How can we do so? Let’s take a step back and go over the whole process.
The benefits of pain
I went through some terrible pain recently, as I got my wisdom tooth removed. I did not expect it to hurt that much. The excruciating pain kept me awake at night, leaving me without much rest to handle it throughout the day. Sleep deprived, I didn’t know what to do anymore to content the pain. I tried breathing into my jaw, focusing on it, I tried moving away from the pain, focusing my attention on some distractions, but nothing seemed to work.
I was therefore in great pain for most of the day, and I couldn’t do much about it. Through this experience though, I’ve realized that I hadn’t been that present to my life for a very long time. The pain forced me to be in the moment, to feel my body, to be very attentive to my needs. I had to listen carefully to myself, and do what I believed would relieve some of the pain. Through this suffering, I got more and more connected with my body, discovering it in a new perspective. The moments of pain were terrible, but I was also more able to appreciate the moments of relief. This was indeed a very human experience.
I also had to slow down because of the pain. I just couldn’t keep going through my weekly routine, I wasn’t the one to decide anymore about my schedule and what I would get to do. This opened me to a whole new experience of life, giving me a new perspective on the week days. I had to go hour by hour, day by day, seeing how things were unfolding, waiting at the last minute to make decisions about what I would be doing. I got to see new possibilities, new ways to live my life, being more present on a daily basis instead of waiting for the weekends to « get free » and play around with my schedule.
The benefits I found through this experience were related to a physical pain. Dealing with emotional pain is of course different, but can lead to becoming even wiser.
The thing about emotional pain is that it seems at first sight easier to ignore it, to avoid it using multiple techniques. However, when we decide to face that emotional pain, the benefits are even greater than when we confront physical pain. Acknowledging the cause of emotional pain involves self-awareness and self-knowledge, and allows us to discover more about ourself and the way we experience life. These are teachings that we can then use to get over repetitive situations that are holding us back, as well as moving forward into the direction we want our life to take.
When enough is enough
Based on that reflection, I do believe we can learn many things through suffering. However, I also believe that at some point, the pain has to go away. Once it taught us what there was to be learned, there’s no need to keep on suffering forever. The whole point of this experience is to develop our awareness and identify the cause of our suffering, in order for it to stop eventually so we can go on and enjoy our life.
Moving away from suffering might seem like the easy thing to do. It’s not always. Some of us get caught into thinking that suffering is courageous, that when we are suffering, we are being brave, that we deserve to be respected for the pain we are experiencing. I’m sure you can think of one person in your life that seems almost proud of his pain, that desperatly wants you to understand how miserable his/her life is, that keeps on complaining. That was me over the week with my friends and family. We can easily get trapped in that vicious circle of thinking that pain makes us deserve some compassion, some sympathy. But is it really what we are looking for? We want to be loved, not taken pity.
Confronting pain is courageous; enduring it for no reason is not. Once you’ve acknowledge the pain and found its cause, address it. Take action. I promise, you will be much more useful and appreciated as someone who got through suffering, learned something, and now is available to help others using its wisdom, than as someone who’s still caught into its pain.
When I say take action, I mean really to take action as fast as you can. There is no need to wait if you can do something to relieve the pain. I was reluctant to take the prescribed drugs at the beginning, and I was most of the time waiting at the last minute, until the pain was almost unbearable, to take a pill. Then I had to wait until the pill got effective, which lead me to suffer for another hour.
Life’s already though, don’t make it harder on yourself. Be gentle, have some self-compassion, and relieve the pain as soon as you can.
Ask for help
Sometimes though, it may not be possible to stop suffering in the moment. At some point through the week, I wasn’t able to deal with the pain alone. It was too much for me. Usually a very independent person, I did something counterintuitive: I asked for help. I didn’t think much about it, I simply called the dentist to mention I was really suffering. It felt as if I was on survival mode, simply following my gut feeling without any second thought. I got an appointment the same day, and the dentist found a way to make the pain less intense.
However, there is no pain-killer when we are dealing with emotional pain. Time is the only thing that will help us overcome the suffering. In those moments too though, ask for help. You do not have to suffer alone. When I didn’t know anymore what to do with my hurting jaw, when the pain was unbearable, I reached out to a colleague, to simply let her know that I was suffering. Although she couldn’t do much, simply knowing that she was there for me helped me get through that rough time. The same goes for emotional pain. As an old saying says, « a shared joy is a joy made double, a shared sorrow is a half-sorrow. » Letting others being there for us in those moments of suffering, when we feel vulnerable, is all about opening our heart to this deep experience.
Because no matter how much we desire happiness and joy, we will inevitably encounter pain along the way. The great thing is that we are not alone: we are all suffering in some way. That’s what makes us very human, and that’s what gives us the ability to connect to each other, to relate, to share an authentic and fulfilling life.
« There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. » – Leonard Cohen