Life is Suffering. Really?
“The emotional storms unfold differently when they are cradled in awareness.”
–Jon Kabat Zinn
I’ve encountered more than enough suffering in the last couple of weeks. At the top of the list is my daughter, Katrina. She had neck fusion surgery three years ago and it has completely collapsed. The donor bone fractured, the screws stripped, and bone spurs have grown dangerously close to her spine. As if this wasn’t enough, she has experienced unpredictable seizures and fainting spells. Before her surgeon will redo her neck fusion, he wants to determine what is causing the seizures. So, I drove back to Northern Virginia this week in order to take her to appointments for various diagnostic tests.
You can just imagine the pain Katrina is enduring. She can’t work and she can’t drive. She spends most of her time sitting with a neck brace and a cold pack on her shoulder. She is in constant pain and understandably, she is depressed and grumpy. It is heart breaking for me and her partner, Scott, to see her suffering. I watched Scott scurrying from one care-taking task to another, stopping only long enough to ask, “How are you feeling now, honey?” or “What can I get you, sweetie?” He is a never-ending fountain of comfort and compassion. But, of course, Scott is suffering, too. His stress, exhaustion, and fear are right there on his face. As for me, I feel scared and helpless. I want to be helpful and strong for Katrina but what I really want is for someone to hug me and say, “She will be fine and you will be fine.” My conclusion is that the Buddha was right – Life is Suffering.
At least, as a new Buddhist, that’s what I thought the Buddha said. I’ve seen that phrase mentioned over and over again in articles and books. When people ask me what Buddhism is all about, I refer to that phase, “Life is suffering.” Yet, as many people have observed, it is a very negative and discouraging idea. It’s understandable that someone looking for spiritual inspiration would not find it in Buddhism, if Buddhism is really based on the concept that life is suffering.
So, I started looking for further insight into what the Buddha meant when he said, “Life is suffering.” I’m glad I did because it turns out that the Buddha said something slightly different, with profound implications for how to deal with suffering. Suffering is not actually the best word in translation from the Buddha’s original wording. The original word in Sanskrit is Dukkha, which does not have an accurate translation in English, hence our distortion of the meaning and the typically incomplete translation to “suffering.” Buddhist teachings break dukkha down into three forms:
- Suffering or pain (dukkha-dukkha)
- Conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha)
- Impermanence or change (viparinama-dukkha)
Let’s look at each of these one at a time.
- Suffering or Pain (Dukkha-dukkha). Ordinary suffering, as defined by the English word, is one form of dukkha. This includes physical, emotional and mental pain.
- Conditioned States (Samkhara-dukkha). Refers to our thoughts and emotions that we create to accompany our negative experiences. For example, we may take on the role of the victim, or a monologue of self-righteousness thereby further limiting our own perspective and indirectly increasing our suffering in the long run. Essentially, this suffering comes from fighting against the law of impermanence: nothing lasts forever.
- Impermanence or Change (Viparinama-dukkha). Anything that is not permanent, that is subject to change, is dukkha. Thus, happiness is dukkha, because it is not permanent. Great success, which fades with the passing of time, is dukkha. Even the purest state of bliss experienced in spiritual practice is dukkha. This doesn’t mean that happiness, success, and bliss are bad, or that it’s wrong to enjoy them. If you feel happy, then enjoy feeling happy. Just don’t cling to it. (http://buddhism.about.com/od/thefournobletruths/a/dukkhaexplain.htm)
From a mindfulness perspective, this 3-part explanation of dukkha helps me to distinguish between pain and suffering. It is important to differentiate pain and suffering because however unavoidable pain is, we have choices when it comes to suffering. The biggest difficulty in working with pain is not the pain itself; it is how we react to it. With mindfulness, we can learn to see how our mental reactions to pain function and how we can avoid being so caught in them. ( http://www.mindful.org/suffering-is-optional/)
Meditation can be very helpful for dealing with different types of pain, including physical pain, emotional pain and environmental stress. It allows us to take a break from rumination (conditioned states) by actively redirecting our thoughts, and provides practice in choosing thoughts, which can help eliminate some emotional stress in the long term. Below is a meditation script designed for Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) that may be helpful for dealing with emotional pain.
A Basic Mindfulness Meditation Script for Social Anxiety Disorder
This script is based on basic meditations, and those for coping with anxiety. Choose a quiet place and time to practice your meditation. You might also wish to set a timer to signal the end of your meditation; anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes is a typical length for practice.
Begin your meditation by choosing a position. Sit in a chair with an alert but comfortable posture, back straight, hands resting in your lap and feet flat on the floor.
Make sure that you’re balanced and not straining. Loosen any tight clothing and close your eyes.
Gradually notice the stillness of your body. Relax your stomach, chest and shoulders, and begin to focus on your breath.
Breathe in deeply through the nose, allowing the air to flow down to your diaphragm, and then release.
Repeat the breath, allowing the air to gently flow through. Notice a sense of calm as you breathe out. Release tension and stress as you gradually find a comfortable rhythm for your breathing.
As you breathe in and out, notice any thoughts or feelings that you have.
You might start to worry about the future or think about the past — it’s normal for your mind to wander. Some feelings and thoughts might be very distressing, but do your best to observe and not judge.
Make a note of the thought or feeling and what it is: maybe you worried about an upcoming social event or thought about a conversation that didn’t go so well.
If a negative thought or feeling grabs your attention, make a note of it and then return to focusing on your breath. It’s natural for your mind to wander to your social and performance fears, but try not to be critical of yourself.
Notice the thought or feeling, but don’t follow it, and don’t let your mind pursue it. Recognize that it’s simply a thought: it’s what your mind does. You can notice it and then let it go.
Picture yourself at the beach, lying on the warm sand.
A refreshing breeze blows in and you feel relaxed. Imagine your thoughts and feelings are like the wind blowing or the waves rolling, and continue with your breathing, letting everything become the wind and the waves.
Feel how the waves come and go. Remain calm, and let your thoughts move and change. Breathe.
Intentionally bring to mind a situation that you fear. Imagine yourself talking to strangers or giving a speech.
Sit with the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that this situation brings, and simply let them be, without resisting.
Relax and let the thoughts and feelings gradually dissolve. Resistance will make the distress stay, while acceptance will allow the negativity to dissipate.
Remember that you will always experience some anxiety; it’s impossible for it to completely disappear. Instead of resisting, learn to welcome your thoughts and feelings, accept them, and then feel how they float away.
When you do find yourself in a moment of happiness during your day, grab hold of it, keeping the feeling in your awareness.
Count to 15 seconds, allowing your brain to start establishing and strengthening new pathways. The more you use these pathways, the deeper the grooves become. Happy thoughts will eventually fill those grooves.
Gradually, when you are ready, bring your attention slowly back to your breath. Then, move to your body and your surroundings. Move gently, open your eyes, and stretch.
My hope is that your suffering, like mine, doesn’t become who you are. Life is not suffering. Life is dukkha.