Suffering is a pretty dramatic word. Most people don’t think the term applies to them. “I’m not suffering,” they say. They imagine children starving in a famine-struck African country or refugees fleeing war in the Middle East or people afflicted with devastating illnesses. We imagine that if we are good and careful, stay positive, play by the rules, and ignore what’s on the news every night, then it won’t happen to us. We think suffering is somewhere else.
But suffering is everywhere. This is one of the most difficult truths of existence.
Over the past thirty years, I have sat on the precipice of death with a few thousand people. Some came to their deaths full of disappointment. Others blossomed and stepped through that door full of wonder. Many of them taught me what it meant to truly understand pain and suffering.
Suffering is falling in love and then becoming complacent. Suffering is not being able to connect with our children. It’s our anxiety about what will happen at work tomorrow. Suffering is knowing your roof will leak in the next rainstorm. It’s finally buying that shiny new smartphone, then seeing an advertisement for an even newer device with incremental improvements. Hoping your company will get rid of your grumpy boss who still has a year to go before his retirement. Thinking that life is moving by too fast or too slow. Not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want, or getting what you want but fearing you will lose it—all of this is suffering. Sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, and so is dying.
In Buddhism, the old Pali word for suffering is dukkha, which is sometimes translated as “anguish” or more simply as “unsatisfactoriness” or even “stress.” Dukkha arises from ignorance, from not understanding that everything is impermanent, unreliable, and ungraspable—and wanting it to be otherwise. We wish to claim our possessions, our relationships, and even our identities as unchanging, but we can’t. All are constantly transforming and slipping right through our fingers.
We think we need the conditions of our lives to reliably give us what we want. We want to construct an ideal future or nostalgically relive a perfect past. We mistakenly believe this will make us happy. But we all can see that even those people who realize extraordinary conditions in life still suffer. Even if we are rich, beautiful, smart, in perfect health, and blessed with wonderful families and friendships, in time these will break down, be destroyed, and change…or we will simply lose interest. On some level, we know this is the case, yet we can’t seem to stop grasping for those “perfect” conditions.
Originally, the word dukkha referred to an axle that didn’t fit quite right into the hub of a wheel on an oxcart. I’ve ridden in those wooden oxcarts in India. Bouncing up and down on dirt roads full of potholes made for a pretty rough journey. When the axle and hub weren’t properly aligned, the ride was extra bumpy.
Let’s say you get fired from your job. That is undoubtedly a stressful event. But the suffering is greatly exaggerated if you refuse to accept what has happened as the current reality. Under such difficult circumstances, we tend to say things to ourselves like, “This isn’t fair. This can’t be true. This isn’t the way it should be,” which only causes us to suffer more. A critical point here is that acceptance doesn’t require agreement. We may still want to work to change our life circumstances. But you can’t make a change until you first accept the truth of what is right in front of you, eyes wide open.
Dukkha comes from the mental and emotional confusion of not seeing and accepting the conditions of life as they actually exist. We always want something. What we have never seems to be enough. We want to ignore the temporality of permanence. And that creates an unsatisfactoriness, a dread, that rumbles beneath our awareness and drives us to behave in ways that exacerbate rather than ease our pain.
What is an alternative way to handle life’s inevitable dukkha?
The first step is to realize that pain and suffering actually are two intimately related yet different experiences. The familiar adage says, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” That about sums it up.
If you are alive, you will experience pain. Everyone has a different pain threshold, and yet we all experience it throughout our lives. Physical pain is the nervous system’s internal alarm, your body reacting to a potentially damaging stimulus. It creates an unpleasant sensory experience, such as hunger, exhaustion, an upset tummy, a pounding headache, or the aches of arthritis. Pain also can take emotional form, such as the crush of heartbreak or the sadness of loss.
So there is pain, from which there is no escaping. And then there is suffering, which we can do something about. Suffering generally occurs as a chain reaction: stimulus-thought-reaction. Many times, we have no control over the stimulus that causes us pain. But we can shift our relationship to the thoughts about and emotional reactions to the pain, which frequently intensify our suffering.
Suffering is about perception and interpretation. It is our mental and emotional relationship to what is first perceived as an unpleasant or undesirable experience. Our stories and beliefs about what is happening or did happen shape our interpretation of it. When things don’t go according to plan, some people believe that they are helpless victims or that they “got what they deserved.” This leads to resignation and apathy. When we get caught in anxiety and worry about what might happen in the future, it can quickly proliferate into a web of fear that is not easily corralled.
Opening to pain in the present moment, we may be able to do something to improve the situation, maybe not, but we can certainly notice how our attitudes toward the experience are impacting what is happening. My reaction to pain, even to the thought of pain, changes everything. It can increase or decrease my suffering. I have always liked the formula:
If we attempt to push away our pain, whether it is physical or emotional, we almost always find ourselves suffering even more. When we open to suffering, inquiring into it instead of trying to deny it, we see how we might make use of it in our lives.
The willingness to be with our suffering gives rise to an internal resourcefulness that we can carry forward into all areas of our lives. We learn that whatever we give space to can move. Our feelings of discomfort or anxiety, frustration or anger are free to open, unfold, and reveal their true causes. Often in allowing our pain to arise, we discover a point of stillness, even peacefulness—right in the middle of the suffering.
Turning toward our suffering is a critical part of welcoming everything and pushing away nothing. This invitation means that no part of ourselves or our experience can be left out: not the joy and wonder, nor the pain and anguish. All are woven throughout the very fabric of our lives. When we embrace that truth, we step more fully into life.
Frank Ostaseski is a co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and the Metta Institute, lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic, and teacher at major spiritual conferences and centers across the globe. His new book, The Five Invitations: Discovering How What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, is now available.