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.