No one likes to suffer. That’s pretty universal among humans and animals, and so naturally we gravitate toward what feels good and push away what doesn’t feel good. Unfortunately, that very natural habit doesn’t solve the problem. Suffering always returns. The Buddha’s genius was that he did something very counterintuitive. Instead of pushing away suffering, he got curious about it and studied closely how it works, just as you might study closely a lock that is stuck. He studied it so closely that he discovered a way out, and he left behind all kinds of clues and tips to help us get our own doors unlocked. Here's the first clue: he noticed that there are three types of suffering. Staying clear about which one we're dealing with at the moment is really useful, because then we have an overview of how they operate and it helps keep us from making our suffering worse. It’s pretty down to earth, really. If you have a basic understanding of how a lock works, you’ll spray the keyhole with WD-40 rather than take a hammer to it.
Nobody likes any of this suffering. We all want to be happy. That’s the one thing we all have in common. Whatever any of us are doing in the moment, however misguided or enlightened, is simply an attempt not to suffer and to be happy instead.
It all seems so obvious when I say it. So why does it matter so much to the Buddha that we pay close attention to this? Because when we truly take this in, we can dispel some of our most painful misunderstandings just by seeing the truth of what we are working with here on the hard ground of life. Recognizing the three kinds of suffering—not just intellectually, but in our own lived experience—brings insights that can heal. Here are a few to try on that came out of my own lived practice:
No true spiritual practice allows us to skip this step of dealing in detail with the rawness and density of our own suffering and confusion. There are different densities to the spiritual life. One is inspiration, which is light and expansive, full of possibility and openness. Another, which includes pain, is heavy and dense, and can feel unbearably constraining, but it is just as spiritual, just as important. The light, expansive place is where we experience the love and joy that is the birthright of every baby. The dense, constraining place is where we make compassion out of suffering. It’s where we dispel darkness and open to greater understanding so that the joy of spirit can incarnate in us and in the world.
This means we have work to do here, and sometimes the only thing we can manage when things are solid and tight and sad and painful is to notice which of the three types of suffering we are experiencing. Just doing that gives us a bit of fresh air, because in that moment we are witnessing our experience instead of being wholly consumed by it. Keep returning to the witness and relief will come, because it is the nature of everything to change, and seeing clearly makes it more likely to change in a positive direction. Witnessing also means that at some point we will likely put down the hammer and consider trying WD-40 on our prison lock. Just don't expect immediate results. Transforming the mind isn't easy. It takes time. The Dalai Lama says it is helpful to think in terms not just of a few weeks or months or years, but be willing for it to take a thousand lives, a million lives, limitless aeons. That's a Buddhist way of thinking.
But we can’t just toil in the dense world of suffering or the whole thing gets grim. We are here for joy — to become joy, to spread joy, to know what it is and how to cultivate it. That is the whole point of our project. And so we need balance. We need to embrace both lightness and heaviness, inspiration and humility, our big self and our small self, so we don’t get stuck in deflation or inflation. To paraphrase Rumi, the hand opens and closes like bird’s wings. If it were a fist or always stretched open, we would be paralyzed.
As we accept this pulsation between openness and contraction, understanding and ignorance, pleasure and pain, and see how it operates in our own life, our heart opens to others — even those we’ve blamed or disliked. It becomes clear through our own work with suffering how hard it is for us to deal with this dense layer of conditioning and ignorance, and when we recognize that others have the same things operating in them but may not even know it, or don't have the tools to work with it, our heart opens in compassion—not because we are trying to be good, but because we genuinely see and understand. And this authentic compassion that arises from our lived experience becomes the fuel for our awakening. It opens up the whole path and in time, becomes the source of tremendous energy and joy.
That's why the hard work of dealing with our own suffering is crucial. To turn toward our suffering with curiosity is to take a momentous step toward bringing the lasting, unconditioned joy of spirit to earth.
And that seems to be what we are here for.
RESOURCES FOR SPIRITUAL PRACTICE IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERING:
--Pema Chodron's new book, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Broken-hearted World, is one of her best—full of practical wisdom for the times we are in. Easy to read and highly recommended.
--For the Dalai Lama's lucid and down-to-earth advice on dealing with suffering, check out Transforming the Mind: Teachings on Generating Compassion, which is immensely helpful if you do more than read. Study it closely and apply it to your own suffering mind and difficult experience with a sense of curiosity and experiment.
--To relieve emotional suffering and transform it into compassion, try this simple, powerful practice.
--For inspiration to find joy in the midst of difficulty, check out The Book of Joy, which is based on conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.
--To cultivate joy, I love to use this easy, enjoyable practice. It can often turn things around quickly: Everything desires you.
--Using writing as a meditation practice can be a big help in getting to know how your mind works. Here's how to get started.
--Need some help in grounding your spiritual practice? Check out this offering: Jumpstart for spiritual practice.