What if the way we’ve been dealing with suffering our whole life is wrong? And what if every action we take to avoid it or repress it ends up doing us more harm than good and drives us into a downward spiral of continuous despair?
Is Life Suffering?
We all, at some point in our lives, suffer:
- Our heart is broken
- We cannot find a job or we get fired from the one we had
- Friends can lie to us
- We realize there’s no more toilet paper left just after we finished doing our thing
It’s just inevitable; suffering feels like an inherent part of our lives, but that might not be the real problem. What if it lies in how we relate to suffering and the mindset that we come from?
From a very early age, we’ve been taught (mostly implicitly) that the best way to deal with suffering is to avoid it, to run away from it. But running away from what specifically?
Wikipedia defines suffering as:
“Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, may be an experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with the perception of harm or threat of harm in an individual (physical or psychological).”
For a matter of convenience, let’s summarize this by saying that suffering is:
“putting up with an unwanted experience.”
Since we were very little, we were and are conditioned to avoid putting up with unwanted experiences… but, isn’t that what most of our lives are about?
Life is Survival
Most of our days go something like this: we wake up in the morning, check our social media accounts, make a cup of coffee and go to work or school. In the afternoon we might do something fun or relaxing like meeting up with our significant other, play some sport or learn to play some instrument.
On some special night, some of us perhaps turn on the TV, check Netflix and find a cool nature documentary. Naturally, we press play.
When the movie rolls and we see those glorious animals, whose life revolves around looking for food and shelter, or running away from a dangerous predator, two distinct feelings arise in us.
On one hand, we find a sense of awe, that springs from the animals’ magnificence: the intelligence they employ to surprise and catch prey or the ingenuity they use to find food.
But on the other hand, there’s a subtle feeling of superiority: although we are animals too, we human beings have outgrown that basic phase in evolution and our lives acquired a different meaning since we are not just running around in the jungle or the forest looking to survive one more day
We want to believe that our motives to do the things we do are noble and even altruistic – that our lives have some sort of higher purpose – or at least higher than the animals we watched in the documentary. But on a closer inspection, how much of what we do daily is intrinsically different from what animals are doing?
- We continuously use Facebook and Instagram to avoid being bored
- We spend hours on Tinder because the mere prospect of being alone terrify us
- We go for a shopping spree to cover this subtle although perceptible feeling of being incomplete
At the end of the day, most of what we do, we do to it to avoid suffering – in whichever form it appears. Not very different from the reality of animals that are trying to escape from their predators. In their case, the suffering is physical, in ours is conceptual or mental. But the dynamic is the same.
And since culture indoctrinated us that that’s the right way to go, we find ourselves doing whatever everyone else is doing – burying our head in the sand and avoiding the issue altogether.
Suffering – or the avoidance of it – in the meantime, keeps affecting everything we think, do, or consider doing in life.
Suffering Guides Our Lives
Think about it, how many decisions we make are based on fear of suffering? How many ideas weren’t acted upon because of fear of failure? How many people we missed meeting because of fear of rejection? How many times we didn’t do something hard and worthy because of the pain that we would endure?
Perhaps there’s a better way to deal with the suffering and pain in our lives than running away from it? Perhaps the only real way out is through.
Consider for a moment what would happen if we shift our relationship to pain and suffering completely over its head? Instead of constantly avoiding it, we embrace it. Instead of running away from it, we run towards it. Instead of wanting an unpleasant experience to go away, we enjoy it.
And I’m not suggesting a kind of masochistic pleasure but a more inclusive way to approach and hold suffering. I know this may sound counterintuitive since we spend all our lives running away. And how could we not if we unconsciously believed that was the way to be happy?
But by going against this automatic response, new possibilities of relating to suffering come into being. If we get our heart broken, or we fail miserably at some project of ours, we can decide to fully experience and enjoy the suffering that comes with it. And by doing this, an interesting thing happens.
Since suffering is “putting up with an unwanted experience”, the second we resolve to enjoy it, by definition it is not suffering anymore since it’s not an unwanted experience. Clearly, this enjoyment is not the same one we experience when we feel loved or are having a good time, but it will be a different kind of enjoyment, nevertheless.
And this flies in the face of the way we dealt with life before. Our decisions, big or small, will not be based that much on trying to avoid pain and will be approached with a new and clearer perspective and our lives will not just be about running away from it – suffering will lose the grip it has on us.
Moreover, painful experiences will stop being that painful, since we are not fighting with ourselves anymore and adding the layers and layers of psychological suffering that we most often add. On top of that, because we are not fighting our negative feelings anymore, the elements of inner resistance and struggle disappear and the possibility of them going away faster becomes real.
Overcoming Suffering and Pain
By changing the way we understand and approach suffering and pain, we begin our journey towards a conscious life of freedom and possibility, not limited to escaping and only craving for positive experiences.
If your heart is broken, If someone betrayed you, if you failed at something, if your dreams haven’t come true yet or if you feel confused and lost, enjoy all of it!
In this way, life, day by day and little by little, becomes something to be enjoyed as a whole, with its ups and downs, without leaving anything left to savor.
To wrap up, I want to share an excerpt from the Indian Mystic Osho. Is says:
“Life has to be lived in all its dimensions, only then life is rich. (…) It contains both; it brings great pain, and it also brings great pleasure. Both are two sides of the same coin. If you exclude one, you have to exclude the other. This has been one of the most fundamental misunderstanding down the ages, that you can get rid of pain and save pleasure.”
“So, enjoy all of it. Go on enriching your life. Can’t you see any beauty in sadness? Meditate over it. Next time when you are sad don’t fight with it – accept it, welcome it, let it be a welcome guest (…) And you will be surprised, sadness has a few beauties that happiness can never have.”
Life is made by happy and sad moments. Only by enjoying both, life becomes full and fulfilled.