Reality of Suffering
Choosing how to experience suffering
Consider that while some problems that cause suffering
are unavoidable. we can always choose how to
respond to the problem. Consider that one person
who earns a certain salary may be unhappy with
"how little" they have while someone
else would be so very happy to earn the same amount.
Have you ever complained, "There's nothing
to eat in this house!"? Reflect that for someone
your "nothing" could be the source of great happiness.
How we experience suffering is determined by our attitude.
Imagine two people with the same terminal disease.
How might their response to their misfortune affect
how they actually suffer? Consider the distinction
the Dalai Lama makes:
The only difference
between these two patients is their outlook on
it. One sees it as something to be accepted and,
if possible, transformed into an opportunity for
developing inner strength. The other reacts to
his or her circumstances with fear, bitterness,
and anxiety about the future. Now although purely
in terms of physical symptoms there may be no difference
between the two of them in terms of what they are
suffering, in actual fact there is a profound difference
in their experience of this illness. In the case
of the latter, in addition to the physical suffering
itself, there is the added pain of inner suffering.
At the beginning of this lesson, we distinguished
between avoidable and unavoidable suffering. Here the Dalai
Lama is fine-tuning our perceptions so that we can consider how
we do or do not avoid suffering in whatever situations arise.
Some experiences will always be unavoidable, others avoidable,
and being able to distinguish them is of critical importance.
Either way, responding unskillfully, in a way that causes pain,
is always avoidable.
So while some circumstances are avoidable and some
unavoidable, we always can control how we are affected.
Reflect on this in your life. Can you recall situations
in which you were experiencing pain but were able
to not add inner suffering to the pain? Can you
recall situations in which you did add to your
unavoidable pain by creating internal distress?
Another skillful means to moderate the affects
of events that are harmful is to keep a proper perspective on
our experience of suffering.
Even the most unfortunate event has innumerable
aspects and can be approached from many different angles.
Reflect on the Dalai Lama's observation:
When we look at a problem from close
up, it tends to fill our whole field of vision
and look enormous. If, however, we look at the
same problem from a distance, we can start to see
it in relation to other things.
Can you appreciate what a difference such a shift
in perspective can make? Think of an
experience in which you were not able to step back
and get perspective. Was there a painful experience
in which you were able to? If you have a painful
experience now, consider how you might step back
and open up your perspective.
What techniques might you use to
We can maintain perspective by comparing
our current situation with others, comparable to or worse than
what we're experiencing, that we or others have experienced.
Reflect on the role of self-absorption
in your suffering. How might looking beyond yourself
to others' experiences affect your own experience
of suffering? Does worrying about yourself too
much magnify your suffering? If you are focused
on your problems, how does this affect your perspective
on suffering as part of human life?
Shifting our focus from ourselves ("Why me?") to others
can be liberating. And when shifting focus away from ourselves
very often things don't seem quite as catastrophic. The Dalai
Lama gives an example:
I find that
when, for example, I hear bad news from Tibet - and sadly this
is quite often - naturally my immediate response is one of
great sadness. However, by placing it in context and by reminding
myself that the basic human disposition toward affection, freedom,
truth, and justice must eventually prevail, I find I can cope
reasonably well. Feelings of helpless anger, which do nothing
but poison the mind, embitter the heart, and enfeeble the will
seldom arise, even following the worst news.
Suffering can open our eyes
Once we finally recognize the . .
. suffering that the afflictive emotions such as attachment and
anger inflict upon us, we develop a sense of frustration and
disgust with our present predicament. This, in turn, nurtures
the desire to free ourselves from our present state of mind,
the endless cycles of misery and disappointment. When our focus
is on others, on our wish to free them from their misery — this
is compassion. However, only once we have acknowledged our own
state of suffering and developed the wish to free ourselves from
it can we have a truly meaningful wish to free others from their
misery. Our commitment to liberating ourselves . . . must happen
before true compassion is possible.
Can you think of a experience of suffering in
the midst of which you opened to a new wisdom or
Adversity can bring out the strength in us. In
the midst of difficulties we can discover confidence and fortitude.
The Dalai Lama offers an example:
Within our own refugee community among
the survivors of our early years in exile are a number who, though
they suffered terribly, are among the strongest spiritually -
and the most cheerfully carefree individuals - I have the privilege
On the other hand, many who live with the most
wealth and in comfort are the more likely to lose hope.