Overcoming Suffering and Our Fear of Change

Suffering, both physical and psychological, cannot be escaped. We can, however, minimize it by not adding to our discomfort.

For Buddhists, much suffering comes from our desire for permanence. In the West, we often refer to this as difficulty adapting to change.

It is hard to think of anything that doesn’t change. The weather, our relationships, and life itself are all temporary. We age and die. Our children grow, create their own families, and become independent — a double-edged modification necessary for their well-being and requiring an adjustment that, at times, is painful for us.

One’s effort to establish a vice-like grip over all the “temporaries” we hold dear can only fail. Our attempts to freeze-dry and maintain ideal moments of perfection are fruitless.

Those who believe in an afterlife often imagine the best parts of this one and hope the future will contain some glorious, magnified, blissful version of these moments. Many believe there will be permanence, for example, in their joyous reunion with departed loved ones.

Others run from thoughts of inevitable loss or nightmare difficulties ahead of them in this life. They seek TV, music, alcohol, drug abuse, or other distractions from such possibilities.

What if we could become impervious to suffering using a magic potion? Imagine further that the rest of the world stayed as it is.

Without any sense of loss, we would become indifferent to the misfortune of others. We would lose ourselves, become unrecognizable, and be unable to understand anyone else’s hardships.

Without the capacity to sustain personal injuries, our lives might be described as robotic, wooden, and hardened — indeed unchangeable. No new learning would be possible.

Doesn’t love require compassion and understanding, put out of reach by the magical drink? Would we even wish for love, be moved by a tender film, beautiful music, or art? Why might such an individual read fiction without caring what happened to the characters? Nor could he capably raise children to become decent human beings.

Given that the suffering connected with an impermanent human state is inescapable, we must come to terms with our lack of control and inability to achieve more than a temporary evasion of external stressors. 

A worthwhile alternative is the transformation of ourselves into creatures who, recognizing life’s inevitable difficulties, hold our knowledge of human transitoriness gently.

Rather than gnashing our teeth over the uncountable unfairnesses befalling the human race, there are alternatives. One might do better to recognize that we pay for love, the appreciation of beauty, and the blissful moments of exhilaration with the suffering and change that make up the other side of the coin of existence.

We can learn to give up the struggle for control of everything except that which is in our power. We can accept the pain and the shortness of our lives and learn how to live with them.

One step is to recognize we will not achieve permanent happiness in an ongoing process of craving much of what we believe will make us happy. We tend to react to purchasing a dream home or finding a desirable mate as if they are Christmas toys: short-lived sources of joy. We take them for granted before long, at least to some degree. As the English author Wordsworth reminds us, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

Homo sapiens do better to shift their focus from the complexity and lack of ease in any life by focusing on self-care, kindness, gratitude, displaying compassion, and listening to and recognizing the true nature of our friends and acquaintances.

We can ask those we care about whether they believe we understand them. And if they say no, tell them we want to do better. An essential feature of such attempts to improve relationships involves working on ourselves and diminishing whatever anger might lead us to hurt them.

Self-knowledge and meditation may lead us along this path. The latter also allows us to live more often in moments of tranquility.

The Buddha told a story about “the second arrow.” The arrows he described referred to the pain from events outside us. Of course, when the first arrow strikes, we feel anguish. We are advised, however, not to wrestle with it. Instead, begin by recognizing it.

One can come to an acceptance of the harm by releasing the tension and embracing our distress. Gentleness with ourselves, meditation, and ensuring not to enlarge our suffering allows the injury to heal to the extent possible.

The agony will grow if we keep struggling with the wound and remain preoccupied with the affliction and how it occurred. As the Buddha tells us, worrying over our pain is like a second arrow we shoot at ourselves.


Both of the images come from Wikimedia Commons. The first is Meditation at Empty Cloud by Rikki. The second is the Buddha.

Why Endless Sadness Usually Has An End


When you are heartbroken, as most of us have been, it feels as though you will never recover. The loss of a parent or friend or lover can feel irreplaceable; indeed, is irreplaceable. The end of a job can be humiliating and frightening. The emotional pain feels that it will go on into infinity. It is hard to remember ever feeling better, and hard to imagine that the pain will ever stop.

But usually it does. Not in a moment and certainly, not soon enough. But things change and one’s mood usually lifts. Life goes on. Other events and people come to occupy the empty space inside of us. Not always, but for most of us, most of the time.

Sadness is especially hard in the dark months and sometimes the result of them for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The world breathes the gleeful air of the holidays while we reach for the last oxygen tank in the store only to see someone else get there first. It is hard to sustain hope when we seem invisible to the world around us. And yet, hope is still there if we have enough time and courage.

I am no Pollyanna in saying this. I have had my own sadness and loss. I have lost both parents and good friends, two of the latter in the last year. I have been betrayed by someone who stole $80,000 from me and my business partners. A college romance once left me bereft. I have treated many people devastated by needless cruelty, black depression, and the blunt force of ill-fate.

Mostly we recover. After all, we are the offspring of a genetic line of our predecessors who survived their own set of calamities, overcame hardship, and produced offspring who eventually led to our own emergence from the womb. We are not, or at least most of us are not, the children of people with little resilience. We come by our survival and recovery quite naturally, even if it remains hard-won.

Still don’t believe me? Then I have an exercise for you. Make a list of all the bad things that have ever happened to you. Try to remember how you felt when you experienced financial loss, betrayal, cruelty, severe accident or injury, the death of someone close to you, and getting dumped by a person you loved. Do not include any event that happened as recently as the last year or so.

Now, as you think back, did these things finish you off? Do you feel as terrible as you did in the first throes of your calamity? Did you kill yourself (obviously not)? Aren’t things at least a little better and, just possibly, much better? Perhaps you even learned something from the experience. Perhaps you even became more understanding, wiser, found a better job, or met someone else to salve your wounded heart. Maybe you discovered that you had more strength and resilience than you imagined.

I am not making light of your suffering. Nor am I suggesting that everyone recovers as I’ve described. And yet, most of us do, most of the time, even without therapy.

Yes, there are scars. But most scars slowly fade with time.

On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because, take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived. (Chris Cleave, from Little Bee)

As Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Perhaps you know the Sufi tale of a great king who asked his wisest advisors to fashion a ring that would make him happier when he was sad and, simultaneously remind him that even good fortune is only temporary. After much consideration these wise men asked an artisan to forge a ring for the regent. What was inscribed on it was very simple:

This too shall pass.

The above image is called Rings in Blue by Giulia Ciappa and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.