Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid suffering. We don’t like the idea of it. We don’t much like even the word. Whether it’s trivial inconvenience or major life-changing suffering we want no part of it. But the reality is that for much of our lives we experience some level of dissatisfaction. This was Buddha’s first ‘Noble Truth’ – or as The Dalai Lama puts it, his first ‘fact of life.’
Buddhism has many ways of reframing our experience of reality, to find mental outcomes that better serve us. What is beneficial about suffering?
When we go through a terrible experience – health, financial, legal, relationship or other problems – our empathy for others in the same situation develops quite naturally. We really know how they feel. We feel the same. Because of our suffering, we can relate to them strongly, in a heartfelt way. Our capacity for empathy deepens.
We also learn humility. When everything is going our way, it’s easy to become so caught up in our own busy world that we may overlook or diminish the challenges faced by those who are doing it tough. Some people even become arrogant and judgemental, perhaps believing they are somehow immune to the problems that, in time, we all must face. When we suffer, we know the truth. There is no place to be a big deal. And with humility, we develop gratitude for things we may have overlooked: the kindness of friends and strangers. The happiness to be found in everyday things. As Cicero said ‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.’
Suffering makes us stronger. When, eventually, we get through our ordeal, we are wiser, more experienced and capable than before. Learning from our difficulties, we don’t need to be told to avoid them in the future. We are more confident in dealing with life’s ups and downs. What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.
Suffering motivates our spiritual practice. In Buddhism, turning away from the true causes of our suffering marks the beginning of our journey of inner growth. This is sometimes symbolised in the form of a lotus, a plant which has its root in the muddiest of swamps, but which rises to the surface of the water to blossom in flowers of the most exquisite beauty. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it so succinctly, ‘No mud, not lotus.’ In motivating us to transfer more of our focus from conventional reality to those practices that best serve our experience of ultimate reality, suffering propels us towards the light, and those values which are of enduring benefit to self and others.
Are you sold on suffering? Feel like experiencing more?! The head of the Tibetan Buddhist Society, our kind and precious teacher Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden was often visited by people seeking counsel in times of despair. ‘Do you want my advice on how to deal with suffering?’ he would ask.
‘Oh yes, Geshe-la!’ they would sincerely reply
‘Are you quite sure?’ he used to confirm. (For those in the know, this is a red alert from a lama: you are about to be told something you may not wish to hear, and this is your last chance to get out).
‘Quite sure, Geshe-la.’
‘Then ask for more suffering!’ he would say, bringing his palms to his heart. ‘Please, Universe, give me more suffering and pain and misery. Bring it on! I want more of it!’
Of course, there is no universal donor of pain and suffering. Rather, this is a classic example of powerful, counter-intuitive, Buddhist psychology. Transforming ourselves from a weak and enfeebled victim to someone capable of dealing with much more suffering marks a fundamental shift in our stance. And curiously, the more insistent we are that we can take more suffering, the easier our current burden seems to be.
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