Is it possible to give up suffering, as if it were a bad habit? Is it possible to give up relationships that cause suffering?
It may be possible. But is it the right way to go?
There are two basic kinds of suffering.
One: the straight pain when something hits you.
Two: the additional resistance to the pain and the internal commentary that keeps you stuck there, perpetuating it.
We could loosen our grip on number two. We might conceivably give it up entirely. It is within our power to realize what we are doing and try to stop it. This kind of suffering has been talked about a lot in spiritual and therapeutic circles, as if it were the only kind there is.
The first kind of suffering, the immediate pain, we can’t give up. There is a misunderstanding when we think that we can, that life should not ever hurt. That we can love without hurt. A worse misunderstanding is when we think that other people are somehow encroaching on our skillful non-suffering state, and if we were to just get rid of them, all would be well.
My own first intimations of feeling awakened, unimpeded, not separate from everything else around me, not suffering, were not associated with any particular religious practice. They were the background state of my childhood, a kind of default setting, which I was jump-started out of at every turn by the demands of the actual other people around me. (Fertile ground for the mistaken belief that it’s other people who inflict suffering!)
I broadly characterize New Age spirituality as having at its core the desire to give up suffering and be one with some larger, brighter, all-powerful energy. In this worldview the basic nature of things is unlimited goodness, and all we need to do is find a way of “plugging in.” Once we recognize our true nature, everything falls into place: the work of our dreams, abundance, health and true love all arrive.
There is a crossover here with the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism (including Zen). These traditions all rest on the concept of Buddha-nature, which is inherently wise and compassionate. Seeing things this way is a simple (but not easy) matter of dropping illusions. Once our illusions, the most persistent of which is that of a separate self, are dropped, we live unimpeded, awakened.
This New Age/Mahayana crossover point can be, I think, misleading. In fact, the two models have quite different foundations, and those foundations matter.
Where do I find a firm foundation when I’m suffering from physical pain, or the pain of feeling abandoned, when I’m seeing injustice, violence and cruelty, or seeing those I love ill and in pain?
This is where for me the New Age philosophy falls short. After it welcomes me in with open arms and understanding, I feel it turns judgmental on me. It tells me that if I were only a little more evolved, I would not be in this situation. If I were doing the right things, the higher power, or energy, would work for me better, would love me more.
While the explicit message is that of unconditional love, it’s a bit like parents saying the “right” things about always loving you, no matter what you do. We can take those words and remember them as a comforting theory. But in practice, we are perfectly aware of what we need to do, or not do, to “get” love.
It seems to work the same way with the higher powers—if you are humble enough, pure enough, if you pray enough, or in the right way, you will be granted deliverance from the blockages that are holding you back. If you pray for others, they will receive blessings. Your asking makes a difference. Why should it? Why should some people be blessed and helped—the popular people, let’s say, who get the most votes—and not others?
This assumes a system where the universe can be manipulated, where you can persuade the higher power, where it can be swayed into giving some people preferential treatment, according to the skills/efforts/quality they, or those praying for them, have.
And this is where, for me, Buddhist practices come into their own. Of course you’re suffering, they say. That’s not an inconvenience; it is the heart of it all. We practice with it, not because the suffering is wrong, but because it is.
The practice is not to judge. Thich Nhat Hanh puts it simply:
Don’t discriminate between the feelings of pleasure and pain. One is not worth more than the other.
Don’t judge yourself for feeling bad. That arises, like everything else. You can’t “give it up” to a higher power to have it taken away. In fact, it is in your power to react to it skillfully.
In this non-discrimination are wisdom, freedom and clear space. In this wisdom, where we know in our guts, not just in our heads, that we are not separate, we can act against injustice. Indeed, we must, because there is no higher power that might dispense favors if we ask nicely enough.
Our goal shouldn’t be manipulating the world. Limited results can always be gotten from manipulating, but the spirit of manipulation is not one which works on the deepest level. On the deepest level, we are not separate and there’s nothing to manipulate, so all the strength we need is there for the taking.
We aren’t separate when we are suffering, either. It’s not a question of being cast out. Everyone is suffering. It’s not morally wrong; it is all allowed, and it will always be here. Not dividing the darkness from the light, not discriminating, but being with things as they are, gives us access to the space of wisdom and interconnection that is always here too.
It sounds like a solemn thing, but this space arises when we laugh at a terrible situation just as often as it does when we earnestly try to be mindful. It arises, because it is true. There is no need to put it “up there” and then ask for help.
It’s just the way things are.
Sarah Luczaj is a poet, person-centred counsellor/therapist and translator from the UK, living in rural Poland, where she runs an online therapy practice and face to face therapy practice (the latter in Polish!). Once a regular writer for the Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life blog, she is now busy focusing, writing a PhD on no-self in therapy, laughing at just about everything and attempting to grow vegetables.
Editor: Jayleigh Lewis