When you hear the word “suffering,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For many of us, the response would most likely be something along the lines of enduring a form of physical pain. What we might not realize is that suffering is actually a generic term that encompasses multiple layers of discomfort and oftentimes is not at all the result of a physical malady.
Of course, how we choose to respond to our personal suffering is one of life’s greatest challenges. As I think back to my earlier years, to a time when my most common approach to dealing with any form of discomfort — whether it was anxiety, discontent, frustration and the like — it was to table the issue for another time or attempt to completely ignore it altogether, hoping that it would somehow fade away. Not surprisingly, this particular method rarely if ever worked, and would typically result in a more combustible situation later on, after it had been ignored for some length of time.
From the Eastern perspective, the notion of suffering or “duhkha” as it is known in Sanskrit, tends to be an oversimplification when using this translation. Many scholars believe that it more represents a sense of uneasiness or difficulty, and is very much a part of everyday life. Acknowledging and accepting its existence plays a critical role as the first of four noble truths taught in the Buddhist tradition.
There’s a passage from renowned American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s work titled “The Wisdom of No Escape” where she succinctly addresses the source of such behavior: “Traditionally it’s said that the cause of suffering is clinging to our narrow view. Another way to say the same thing is that resisting our complete unity with all of life, resisting the fact that we change and flow like the weather, that we have the same energy as all living things. Resisting is what’s called ego.”
Indeed, when we place ourselves above all other species and even other members of our own species, a separation or disconnect occurs. By doing so, we’ve in turn formulated an egoic state, whereby a set of needs and wants eventually consumes us to the point of extremes. We create a story of significance and importance that ultimately comes tumbling down, due to the irrational foundation that it was once built upon.
Or as spiritualist Lama Surya Das puts it: “Buddhists say that we suffer as a result of clinging to the belief in a self; we suffer as a result of our believing that things are permanent; we suffer because we believe that things truly, objectively, lastingly exist. We suffer because we think that our opinions and concerns are important and have lasting reality.”
If we are to recognize and accept the notion of impermanence, where feeling discomfort is a natural, human experience, then we are able to put ourselves on a path of non-resistance. It by no means is an easy concept to embrace overnight if we’ve been carrying such heavy loads for most of our lives. Letting go of these fortified, ego-centric entities takes time, but can be achieved using traditional methods such as mindfulness and other forms of meditation.
Personally, the analogy and subsequent routine that I like to use is one of visiting the beach at sunrise, especially for the first time after a long, cold winter. We remove our confining boots; we toss away our socks and roll up our jeans. We step into the cool, coarse sand, observing the thousands of multi-colored grains enveloping our feet until we can no longer see them. Eventually, we make our way to the water’s edge, whereby we wade into the ocean, allowing the ebb and flow of the surf to occur with little impediment.
Slowly but surely, as we allow what is to simply exist without judgment, without clinging to old behaviors and opinions, we begin to free ourselves from a life based in ego, one in which we have to ask while staring out at the horizon before us: “Haven’t we suffered enough?”
Dave Davis is a retired preschool educator for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to the popular educational podcast for elementary school-aged children called “Who Smarted?”