I don’t believe the often-quoted adage, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
I think suffering is inevitable.
I think pain and suffering are the same thing. If suffering is the thoughts we have about pain, I believe those are inevitable, too.
I don’t subscribe to the Buddhist idea of transcending suffering by letting go of the attachment to things. And although I find Byron Katie’s The Work quite helpful for alleviating emotional turmoil in the midst of the moment, I also don’t believe that suffering is exclusively due to our beliefs/thoughts, and that something should not be the way it is (and that in letting go of the thought we can let go of any suffering).
I believe suffering is inevitable. I’m with Oscar Wilde when he stated in De Profundis, a letter written in his miserable time in prison, that we must find a way to make our suffering meaningful, even spiritual.
It is a similar viewpoint to that offered by Victor E. Frankl in his famous book Man’s Search For Meaning, which I just finished reading. It describes his experiences and observations as a psychiatrist/psychologist/psychotherapist when he was an inmate in Auschwitz, and other Nazi concentration camps.
Those who survived in these beyond-extreme conditions were those who found meaning in their suffering.
There has always been suffering for the human race, and I believe there always will be.
As our technology has advanced, our suffering has changed (hence the hashtag #firstworldproblems we attach to our sheepish, self-aware tweets complaining about waiting in line for lunch, purchasing a tiny friand only to discover it costs $7.50, or some other inconvenience of modern life).
But, the joke of exorbitantly priced baked goods aside, our suffering in first world nations has moved away from the physical sufferings of hunger, lack of shelter, cold, and manual labour, and towards mental sufferings such as depression, anxiety and other such disorders—or even simple loneliness.
I am not saying that in first world nations we never suffer hunger or similar physical afflictions (I have been a poor university student/musician/small business owner myself), nor am I saying that those in third world countries do not suffer depression, but I am sure you get my drift. What I am saying is, even when one kind of suffering is eased, when we are physically comfortable, other kinds of sufferings will arise.
Lately I have been spending a lot of time alone, breathing, journalling, coming to understand my desires and contemplating my struggles.
Sometimes I enjoy my solitude, sometimes I am so desperately lonely it makes my heart ache. I have spent my time reminding myself to love myself, aiming to be comfortable with my own company (not needing anyone in order to feel whole), while at the same time being honest with myself about my desire for a relationship.
I’ve just realised that all of this has had an unconscious goal to it. I’ve been believing that if I get “zen” enough, if I spend enough time alone, breathing, meditating, burning in the fire of my loneliness and accepting the pain, that eventually it won’t be painful anymore.
I think that’s bullshit. We all move away from pain and towards pleasure; it’s a natural thing to do, it makes sense.
For a lot of people, they get away from their emotional suffering by throwing themselves into their work—mindless internet surfing, watching TV or compulsively refreshing Facebook (guilty). Or maybe they turn to drugs, alcohol, food, porn or sex. None of these things do anything to alleviate the suffering really; they’re just avoidance, ignorance and denial (trying to cover up the pain with pleasure).
We’ve all been there; we all know it doesn’t fix anything
And yet, I’ve come to wonder if “fixing” our suffering is even possible, or even necessary.
I’ve been working on myself tirelessly, digging up my ingrained patterns, peeling back layers of bullshit and trying to expose the truth beneath them, breaking through my resistance to looking after myself, voicing my desires and becoming mentally and physically healthy.
I’ve been working under the assumption that there are many things I was doing “wrong” which were causing my emotional (and physical) suffering, and that if I fixed them the suffering would stop.
But every few weeks there comes a moment when it all seems too much. When breaking through one wall just reveals another, and another, and another. When mindfulness leads to awareness of more pains and more problems. I find myself broken on the floor, thinking “When will this end?”
At a fireside philosophy discussion in a beautiful cave last night, we read Oscar Wilde’s letter from prison, and this concept of “finding meaning in suffering” was offered to me again for the second time this week.
“I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. […] the silence, the solitude, the shame – each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation f the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul.”
~ Oscar Wilde, from De Profundis
I don’t think suffering ever ends. And I think that is the point.
I used to believe that the meaning of life was to experience all the pleasures life has to offer.
But now I see it is about predictably, about balance. (Of course it is.)
The pleasure and the pain, suffering and joy—we must find meaning in both; and that is the Meaning of life.
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Editor: Laura Ashworth
Photo: elephant archives
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