What is Suffering?
Today a woman asked me to speak about suffering. Her family doctor was surprised that Buddhism had anything to do with suffering. He had never heard of that. She wanted clarification, especially as she was facing the suffering of serious physical illness.
The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.”
The Pali word dukkha is most commonly translated to English as “suffering.” Dukkha presents in an array of emotions — from happiness to despair. While counterintuitive, suffering is a central concept in the Buddha’s teachings. We will explore what suffering is, how we feel it, and why it is an opportunity to learn and grow- and to have a happier life.
The Buddha’s first teaching was on the Four Noble Truths…
“Oh Bhikhus, there are four noble truths. They are the noble truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering.”
The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.”
Suffering in his teaching does not necessarily mean grave physical pain, but rather the mental suffering we undergo when our tendency to hold onto pleasure encounters the fleeting nature of life, and our experiences become unsatisfying and slip out of our control.
There are times in our lives when we wish we could change the ending of the story. Sometimes we lose what we care about, we are separated from those we love, our bodies fail us as we get older, we feel helpless or hurt, or our lives just seem to be slipping away. These are all aspects of dukkha, one of the principal teachings of the Buddha. Dukkha means suffering, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, hollowness, change.
Dukkha refers to the psychological experience—sometimes conscious, sometimes not conscious—of the profound fact that everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable. On some level, we all understand this. All the things we have, we know we don’t really have. All the things we see, we’re not entirely seeing. This is the nature of things, yet we think the opposite. We think that we can know and possess our lives, our loves, our identities, and even our possessions. We can’t. This leads to an experience of basic anxiety or frustration.
The Buddha said that we suffer because we are projecting the myth of permanence upon a situation that is constantly changing. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. There is nothing substantial and separate that we can lean upon.
Yet, because of our survival instinct, we grasp tightly to what we want, what we love, are attached to. We also like to see ourselves as permanent, un-dying, solid. We like to feel a sense of constancy to our sense of self- to who we think we are or want to be.
In contemplating impermanence, we can see samsara for what it is. Its conditioned quality produces an unstable environment. Our response to that instability is grasping and the solidification of a “self.” The result is suffering, because we are relating to appearances as if they were independent and permanent, when in fact they are exactly the opposite.
The Buddha identified three kinds of suffering: the dukkha of physical and emotional pain… This first kind of dukkha is the obvious suffering caused by physical discomfort, from the minor pain of stubbing a toe, hunger, and lack of sleep, to the agony of chronic disease. It is also the emotional suffering that arises when you become frustrated that things don’t go your way, or upset about life’s injustices, or worried about money or meeting others’ expectations. We could also call this blatant suffering.
The second kind is the suffering caused by the fact that life is constantly changing. It comes from stress that arises in trying to make solid and hold on to what is impermanent and constantly changing. The mind hardly ever finds a place to sit back and enjoy life without fear.
Now the third kind of suffering: Every day, even during the pleasant moments, do you not experience an underlying unease about the future? This worry and anxiety is a manifestation of the third type of suffering the Buddha identified—life’s inherent unsatisfactoriness due to its intrinsic instability.
First, I find it important to see and acknowledge our human condition. It is extremely delicate to work with these basic patterns of our life! Life is difficult, at least often, for most of us.
Some relief comes from accepting that our human condition and conditioning is in fact a tricky one, with survival mechanisms and behavior patterns that are hard to loosen up. Our lives, even though fun and pleasant at times, are interwoven with fear and anxiety.
Knowing and accepting that, while allowing us to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves, is a first step. We feel with the movements of our hearts and that of others, with our stress, anxiety, shame and frustration.
And, yes, the truth of suffering is not a doomsday prediction. It is not expressing an inevitable destiny. On the contrary, it alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of an underlying reality and that we can do something to work with it.
What is that underlying reality?
Life is fluid and changing, everything is interconnected with everything else, life is an expression of an underlying reality of connectedness, of the field of becoming that is ultimately an expression of balance, of wisdom and benevolence. That was the Buddha’s insight after the Buddha had set for 35 days meditating under the Bodhi tree.
How can we bridge this gulf of experiencing, on the one hand between feeling very separate and alone, and on the other hand of being part of and even an expression of this fluid reality of mutual belonging?
We can experience little by little a bit of this this when we are able to be in the present moment. Then worries about past and future collapse into a feeling of now-ness.
Sensory awareness allows us this experience: when we breathe, we breathe; when we walk, we walk; when we eat, we eat; when we feel, we feel. As we are intimately with ourselves in our experiencing, fully aware and fully compassionate, we are in balance.
However, to be in this way of being, little by little, or even most of the time, takes lots of practice, dedication, as well as love for ourselves, the process and for the world, who will benefit from our efforts.
The Buddha talks here about the eight-folded path:
Meditation helps us with its aspects of right concentration, mindfulness, and effort. Concentration helps us to focus, mindfulness helps us to be aware of the arising and falling away of phenomena, thoughts, feelings, images, what we see, hear, feel.
A wise approach to life is supported by right intention and understanding. Intention brings a trajectory to our lives, allows us to be motivated to pursue the direction we want to follow. Understanding the true nature of reality, its mutual belonging and co-arising, allows us to become more wise.
Basic ethics are important, as we will be able to be more at peace within ourselves when we do not harm others and rather do good in our personal and professional lives; when we are wise and compassionate in what we say and do.
The umbrella for this path for me is to think: how can I support a world in which all beings are well taken care of? How can I support the healing of our wounded world? The Buddha began this journey with that intention, to find freedom from suffering for all beings. That gave him a direction for his path, his practice. This is called bodhichitta, our longing for freedom from suffering for all beings. This is the North Star. When we hold this North Star in our mind’s and heart’s eye, then how to walk our path will become clear.
On the Topic of Gratitude
With gratitude, we learn to see our glass not as half empty, but as half full. Maybe we even realize that our glass has been full to begin with and we had just forgotten that.
We might see our life as a tapestry with a lot of many colored threads. There may be many dark threads as well. An attitude of gratitude means to realize that we have a choice to notice the golden threads, even when there are only a few.
If we notice what we already feel love and appreciation for, and we allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling, then we come into the heart-space, into inter-being. Gratitude is an emergent phenomenon of the heart. For example, if I realize the love I have for my daughter in the midst of being also aware of the danger of possible war, and if I allow myself to drop into the feeling of love, then I can become more deeply grounded in my heart.
This allows me to be better present to all there is.
With gratitude, meaning with an open heart and loving awareness, we can also learn to experience adversity as a path to learning and meaning making. Then we can experience adversity as a teacher, which allows growing and wisdom to develop.
Often we can see this only in hindsight. For example, when I look back at my two serious car accidents from a heart place, I recognize now how those seeming misfortunes forced me to make much needed changes. Ultimately, these adversities catapulted me onto a wonderful psychological and spiritual path. I am grateful for that.
My Path to Self-Compassion
I want to share how I came to an interest in and experience of self-compassion, self-forgiveness and gratitude in my own life. In the process of reflection, a feeling of unworthiness, deep shame and guilt came from my collective German as well as my personal family history. I remember the days of being a 12-13 year old and learning about the atrocities my people had committed to Jews, gays and many others. With that knowledge, my childhood ended abruptly. Images of mountains of glasses that belonged to the people that had died in gas chambers, of the children behind barbed wired fences haunted me. I was ashamed of being a German, to be part of a society with awful secrets, which were now covered over by materialism and a post-war economic boom. This painful history felt like a heavy stone on my heart, leaving me with a deep existential sense of meaninglessness.
I knew this feeling of shame and self-reproach also from feeling like the outsider in my family, the awkward one, the one without a father. Given our family’s very strict Catholic beliefs, my mother, upon learning she was pregnant, had hidden me in an orphanage for the first two years of my life. She tried to keep my birth a secret. I felt tormented by the feeling of not being able to undo this awful history, by not being able to save my mother, who was in a lot of pain, and by not being able to untangle these feelings of disgrace.
In 1980, after two major car accidents and two months in hospital I took a break from university and travelled with my boyfriend to Sri Lanka. There I had an unexpected encounter: One day when I walked down the streets in Colombo, a street sign that read “International Buddhist Center Road” caught my eye. Led only by intuition, I entered a narrow alleyway leading to large stone building. Not knowing at all what to expect, I rang a heavy doorbell. A slender young monk in yellow robes opened the door. “What do you want?” he asked. Bewildered, I answered, “I don’t know.” “Very good,” he said with a smile, and with an inviting gesture he pointed, “Follow me.” Up and down the stairs and through corridors we went, deeper and deeper into the belly of a monastery. Finally we ended up in a spacious, darkened room located in the depth of this surprisingly big building. A number of solemn, senior-looking monks in ochre robes were sitting on dark cushions. My young guide stopped in front of the most ancient-looking monk. In fact, this old man, who was sitting with his eyes closed, looked to me like a mummy. He was a tiny little monk, all skin and bones, almost drowning in the bounty of his robes. Taking me by surprise, the ancient monk opened his eyes and looked straight through me. I had never experienced something like that.
When I looked into the eyes of this ancient, wise monk, I glimpsed for the first time the spaciousness and lucidity of liberation, which felt to me like a refuge from this torturous inner place I had been in. Sitting in front of him so unexpectedly, without knowing anything about Buddhism, gave me this deep sense of longing – longing for a wholeness that I had been missing. Even though the practice in this Sri Lankan monastery was excruciatingly hard, we sat for many hours at a time, I finally had found a safe place, a refuge inside myself.
Some years into meditation practice, however, I realized that my propensity for self-criticism as well as feelings of deficiency and guilt sabotaged my learning. I was experiencing my mind as unmanageable and was blaming myself for this; I was feeling that I was falling far short from what I thought would be a good practitioner. I continuously bumped up against my LRPPs. Let me explain what I mean by this. LRPPs, as I call them, are Longstanding-Recurrent-Painful-Patterns, inner psychological formations, which many of us carry around since childhood. Freud called these ancient patterns complexes. For me, these mental and emotional patterns surrounded themes of unworthiness, abandonment and fear, and they felt ancient to me.
In those many years of sitting Vipassana I began to realize that I needed an additional kind of practice to work with my unquiet mind and aching heart. Therapy helped, but I longed for meditation practices that would assist me in quieting this inner conflict. I also sensed that it would be helpful to find a bridge between the work I was doing in therapy and my meditation practice.
In the late 1980s I came across Sharon Salzberg’s book on Loving Kindness. And, even though I liked metta practices, they felt at times too formulaic to me. On the one hand they were very simple, for example: May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free. Yet often their simplicity did not touch my core. I needed them to be more relevant to my own predicament.
With the encouragement of my mentor Jack Kornfield, and after many years of practice with myself and my clients, I began to develop phrases that felt more alive, accessible and relevant to me, that touched my heart. As I was able to identify my LRPPs, e.g. my fear of people, of the potential they raised for criticism and abandonment, along with my dread of failure and of the anger I would feel towards those I felt hurt by, I began to formulate constructive, creative and moving phrases for myself: of compassion for myself and others, forgiveness for myself and others, as well as acceptance and gratitude.
Jack Kornfield taught me a totally new kind of understanding about compassion when he said, “Compassion arises naturally as the quivering of the heart in the face of pain, ours and another’s… When we come to rest in the great Heart of Compassion, we discover a capacity to bear witness to, suffer with, and hold dear with our own vulnerable hearts the sorrows and beauties of the world.”
This practice now was NOT about “self-indulgence,” but instead about a willingness to feel with ourselves and a readiness to experience our sensations and emotions of hurt with non-judgmental kindness.