What is suffering?
It is one of the most common experiences of being human, we suffer, we feel pain and lost. It seems to be so much more common than joy, we cry out at the moment of our births and that primal scream echos through our lives and can feel like the heart beat of our existence. However it does not have to be that way.
The mind is a comparing machine, it compares again and again, and anything that does not measure up to our peak moment, that time when everything felt good and we were the most happy, is in comparison less than, worse and we suffer for it. Despite how unreasonable it is to expect every moment to be better than the last, as life naturally peaks and troughs, but the mind is only happy at the peaks and desperately wants to return to them. We can suffer through anything from bereavement, the loss of love or unrequited love, a bad knee, a hangover and even a red wine stain. We suffer because we compare, and most of all we suffer from our thoughts about our feelings.
That is the crucial component, our thoughts about our feelings causes our suffering and so a change in our thoughts can change their effects. Thoughts lead to feelings and emotions, sometimes those emotions will include sadness, and sadness is natural like a bruise or a scab, whilst there is no doubt that sadness can cut like a knife. That does not mean the sadness has to lead to suffering, sadness in and of itself is information. The common message that we get as a society is that we need to suffer, that it is noble, this thing happened therefore I have loss, I am in a worse position therefore I have suffered a loss.
If that is your logic path, you will suffer, no matter how reasonable it sounds, you are setting yourself up for suffering, you are giving it, the perfect growing conditions, because life has loss built into it. The body you are currently occupying is not eternal, death is a certainty, you are a visitor to this human experience and the ride does not last forever. The rational response would be to enjoy every moment, savour every taste, smell, sight and feeling. However if we did we might wander about in such a blissed out state that nothing would get done, never ask a Buddhist monk to do your taxes, unless you want to be told they do not exist. The IRS demands action and so does life, sadness is information that tells you to act, we can choose whether that is passive suffering or motivation for change.
Though that does not mean that it is not worth spending some time on suffering prevention. That is why stoics use negative visualization, it is our vaccine against suffering, we imagine the losses that we are probably or even just maybe going to suffer from, we imagine the loss of a loved one, a leg, our sight- we lose them all for a moment, this reduces our fear of suffering by having the tiniest dose, we do not dwell on them, we do not act out a whole drama or empathy with our future selves, we note the loss and realize how grateful we are for the thing that we could lose, we appreciate what we have now in this moment, we smile when we see that person again or open our eyes, we have gratitude and we pay attention and listen.
And when we do lose, when it is unavoidable, we then know that we got to appreciate them when they were here which reduces any source of regret, and we remember what was good, instead of getting caught up in the whirlpool of self suffering, that unexpected loss can generate. We find meaning in the time we spend with people and that is perhaps the greatest cure for suffering.
Viktor Frankl found meaning in the suffering of being trapped in a Nazi death camp for years. He found meaning in helping others, he found meaning in not dying in such circumstances and strangely he did not suffer. So follow his example, when you face suffering find the meaning, find the lessons that you are being taught, thank the teacher, and it turns out when you start looking you can always find a lesson in any thing, any loss, in any unfortunate circumstance you can choose to change the narrative and the story of your life.
After all have you ever read a story, where someone was happy at the beginning and the end, and at every point in between the two. It would be a boring story and yet the moment that our personal story is not boring, we suffer rather than prosper, we feel bad rather than rise to the challenge, we mope rather than learn the lessons that life is so keen to teach us. There is a choice, when we find meaning in suffering, we also have the opportunity to put it to the best use possible, we get to use that lesson to solve the opposite and less recognized problem, we get to find meaning in happiness as well. We get to fill the emptiness that so many people find when they have achieved or reached the peak moment of their lives, suffering gives us the practice of finding meaning and there is so much meaning to find in every moment, and if we do not learn it in our happiest moments we slide back to suffering. Suffering will volunteer to be the harsh teacher of our most important lesson, it is there for when the nice teacher fails, when happiness does not teach us to find meaning in what we are doing and for that it has my gratitude for the hard lessons it taught me.