The Reality of Suffering

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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?

Maintaining perspective

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. Ethics for the New Millennium

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. Ethics for the New Millennium

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 gain perspective?

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 strength?

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 to know.

On the other hand, many who live with the most wealth and in comfort are the more likely to lose hope.