Is suffering really optional?

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I am pretty sure most of us have found life tough at times and have suffered. Times in our life when we want things to be different from how they are. Then something happens and we gain a different perspective, usually very gradually, though occasionally in an instant. The event or circumstances that caused our tough time has still happened and not changed at all, but now it no longer causes us any suffering. What has changed?

As Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author so beautifully puts it “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” 1 If suffering is truly optional what can we do as lay people, as opposed to monks, gurus and mindful masters to overcome it.

By looking at what some of the world’s greatest thinkers, religions, gurus and philosophies have to say about life this article concisely muses and contemplates how we could live with the minimal amount of suffering and strife.

Together in this post, we will explore;

  • What suffering is.
  • Acceptance and its importance.
  • The power of not knowing.
  • A Taoist perspective of the past and future.

So let’s see if we can unravel a way to reduce or remove suffering from our life in any way. I can think of no better place to start than to discover exactly what suffering is.

What is suffering?

Let’s jump straight in with the best explanation I have and that is “Suffering is wanting reality to be different from how it is” it was inspired by Byron Katie’s quote “I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.”2

If we unpack this, we will see that this sits with the Buddhist perspective of suffering being caused by desire. Whenever I see a child having a tantrum in the supermarket I see the suffering of wanting reality to be different from how it is. i.e wanting sweets. I see the suffering when in the early stage of grief before acceptance of death. I see suffering when a person wished for a different exam result than what reality has given them. I see the suffering when someone wants to be richer than they are.

Suffering is part of life for us all, but does it have to be that way? There are people who, with practice, have significantly reduced or even overcome it. The most famous has to be the story of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk, who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on the 11 June 1963.

Thích Quảng Đức did not make a sound and sat in meditation throughout until the flames had no more fuel to burn and extinguished themselves. Thích Quảng Đức was still sat in the same position as he was at the beginning. No outward reactions, no screams or signs of distress or suffering.

I have been fascinated by this case for a while and have tried to break down how he did it3 because when other monks who were not as highly trained as Thích Quảng Đức tried the same feat they screamed in agony and suffered a lot.

In a very interesting letter, a now-famous monk called Thích Nhất Hạnh and friend & training partner of Thích Quảng Đức’s, wrote to Martin Luther King explaining some of why and how Thích Quảng Đức did what he did. A short section helps explain below:

“The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, say with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.4

Interestingly, Thích Nhất Hạnh uses the word ‘endure the greatest suffering’ which I believe to be somewhat lost I translation because when you look at the meaning of the word ‘endure’ it too means to suffer. To me, and in accordance with the last line ‘The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.’ shows that it’s more a case of overcoming suffering through an acceptance of the current situation and not wanting reality to be different from how it was. Something the other monks who tried the same act failed to achieve.

The main points I take from Thích Nhất Hạnh’s letter are:

  • Thích Quảng Đức saw the situation in a different perspective, not as suicide but as a way to reduce suffering for others.
  • He had not only practised with his mind he had also prepared for the burning and discomfort beforehand.
  • Determination, will and focus were keys to managing the pain.
  • Acceptance and being in the moment was very important. The purpose was to burn, not die.

For me, this shows that we can all learn to overcome our suffering through learning different mental techniques. Like everything, there are levels to the skill and Thích Quảng Đức was a master but there are things we can do reduce our amount of suffering. The first is acceptance.

Acceptance and its importance.

Acceptance fits so nicely with the last section of not wanting reality to be different from how it is. It sounds so simple but, in my opinion, not always so easy to implement.

Acceptance is the foundation on which to build the new. Without a firm foundation we cannot start to move on due to the denial of reality or what is. Timothy Miller, PhD in his book ‘How to want what you have’ states:

“Everything comes down to change it or accept it” 5

This is quite powerful because it takes life right down to two choices, as the Dalai Lama explains:

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying whatsoever.6

So if we can change a situation we still have to accept that the situation is the way, so in both cases acceptance is key. But let’s say the situation is not changeable like for example; we would like a pet that has died to be alive. If we go on living and not accepting the situation has happened or continually wanting the situation to be different from how it is. We will suffer.

Now don’t get me wrong, most of us would still love to have a long lost pet back in our lives, but we have, in most cases, accepted that the pet has gone because acceptance is part of the grieving process.

Shinzen Young a Buddhist monk shared the formula for overcoming suffering as:

Suffering (S) = Resitance(R) x Pain(P)7

This, to me, shows the importance of acceptance because in resisting this moment or situation suffering occurs. If Resistance is ‘0’ it means there is total acceptance of the situation and therefore no suffering, even if the pain or any other negative emotions is maxed out at say 100.

Thích Quảng Đức burning is a perfect example as highlighted by Thích Nhất Hạnh in his letter when he said – ‘The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.’ – There was no resistance and complete acceptance of the situation. Thích Quảng Đức was completely in the moment and experiencing fully the pain and intricate sensations he was feeling, but he was not resisting and as result not suffering.

Let’s link this with something we can probably relate to. The story of a child having a tantrum in the supermarket. The child is suffering and wants reality to be different from how it is. Once the child stops resisting the situation and accepts that they are not getting any sweets they may well still be experiencing the emotion of sadness but they will no longer be suffering.

As you can see we will have to experience the emotion or sensation but we have the choice of how to respond. Author Mark Manson puts it like this: “Emotions are not a choice. Behaviour is.”8

A Buddhist perspective of looking at it is the difference between reacting and responding. Reacting is a knee-jerk action with no pause and consideration of thoughts, feelings and sensations. Responding is giving yourself the freedom to choose after a brief pause to reflect. This is why, in my experience of meeting very spiritual people they tend to pause and consider before speaking, as the graphic below demonstrates:

The power of not knowing.

Rajneesh states “NOW is the only reality. All else is either memory or imagination.” 9

Suffering is a mental construct of imagining a different outcome than expected or remembering something that you wished had turned out differently.

Wei Po-Yang, a Chinese writer and the father of alchemy shared that “We don’t know enough to worry.” 10

When we think of both these quotes we really do begin to see how suffering only happens in our mind. We try to work out why something happened and we try to guess what is going to happen next. When in reality we can never know because as Thích Nhất Hạnh puts it “Because you are alive, everything is possible.” 11

This feels poignant because how can we truly know what is next in life there are just too many variables and we really do not have any idea what could be next. This Zen story about two tigers helps explain:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted! 12

What this story teaches is that the first tiger represents the past, or our memory if you will. The tiger below represents the mental construct of our imagination of what might be. The man hanging around could worry that the tiger above jumps down to kill him or that he could fall and the tiger below could eat him. But in reality, there are just too many variables and possible outcomes to worry for example tigers could;

  • Fall asleep.
  • Get bored and wander off.
  • Be chased off by a heard of elephants, rhinos, bees or any other animal.
  • Be kind and nurture you (like what has happened when a child fell in to a gorilla pen.7)
  • Just want a strawberry snack
  • Be trying to reunite with the tiger at the top.
  • Be frightened away by the two Mice losing their balance and falling

I am sure you can think of many other possibilities. However, the point remains, all that truly exists is the present moment and why the man really appreciates the strawberry for that is all there is and there’s just not enough information for the man to know if the situation he is in is good or bad. For both the best, worst and everything in between are equally possible. The skill comes through thinking in what’s possible, not probable. So he, with wisdom, chooses to appreciate the moment.

The following lovely Taoist story about a farmer helps demonstrate that we really don’t know enough to judge if anything is good or bad:

There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours told him, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you.” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

One day he didn’t latch the gate properly and the horse ran away. “Oh no! This is terrible news!” his neighbours cried. “Such terrible misfortune!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses. “How fantastic! You are so lucky,” his neighbours told him. “Now you will be rich!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The following week the farmer’s son was breaking-in one of the wild horses when it threw him to the ground and broke his leg. “Oh no!” the neighbours cried. “Such bad luck, all over again!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next day soldiers came and took away all the young men to fight in the army. The farmer’s son was left behind. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.13

What we can see is when the farmer says ‘maybe’ it means that anything is possible and we don’t really know enough to judge anybody or any situation because we don’t have enough information.

Shakespeare put it like this. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

When you add to this the fact that we only hear and see less than 1% of both the auditory and visual spectrums. We can really begin to realize that we don’t have a big enough picture to make any judgments or guesses about the future.

A Taoist perspective of the past and future.

As was mentioned earlier, suffering is optional and if this is the case why do so many of us, even inadvertently, choose it? Buddhism believes that desire is the cause of all suffering.

A Taoist philosopher called Chungliang Al Huang shared a theory of past and future which really moved me into a way of seeing life completely differently and to help reduce suffering through the removal or reduction of desire.

In his TED talk12 Chungliang Al Huang states that our future is behind us and our past is in front of us. This is the complete opposite of how we generally see it in industrial western societies. We psychologically have the past behind us and our future in front of us. This causes us to develop drive, determination and most of all a desire to be in the future. The next moment is always more important than this current one. I want to be a millionaire. I want to be free from this job. I want to be good looking. All these desires from having the future in front of us. Always trying to force a certain future to happen, with gritted teeth.

With the past in front of us, Chungliang Al Huang suggests that we can choose, in the now, the best options for us based on our knowledge and experiences. Then whatever action or behaviour we choose to do will line up a different future behind us. A future made up of infinite possibilities.

We may still have goals and dreams but we accept that in each moment we do not know how they’ll happen or even if they will happen.  What this way of looking at the past and future encourages to do is to take action through an acceptance of where we are rather than where we want to be. This causes much less stress and suffering because it enables us to be curious and surprised by the outcomes of our actions instead of having expectations. It mixes the best of the acceptance and not knowing from the previous two sections.

Chungliang Al Huang also says that we have to take action but not to move too quickly, else the correct or best future will not be able to catch up with us. As Arianna Huffington states:

“Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.” 14

This is something that really resonates with me. I am very much a ‘doer’ and am in the process learning to, as the beetles once said, to let it be.

Spiritually I have been taught that life is a mix of ‘Do Be Do Be Do’ meaning we have to take initial action but we also need to give ourselves and the process space to grow and ‘be’. The best example of this is planting a seed in the garden. For it to grow we have to take action (Do) and plant it in a good place, then we have to leave it (be), we may need to water it (Do again). But if we were to Do, Do, Do and to water it all the time or kept digging it up to check on its progress it, more than likely, would not grow.

Do Be Do Be Do involves trusting that everything will work out the way it is meant to be. Author and spiritual teacher Jeff Foster, says it better than I ever could, by stating

“To live is to let go of the story of ‘me’, the story of past and future and status and achievement and progress, and courageously open your heart wide to the living present. To be vulnerable, to trust, to surrender ego into the vastness of life itself. To be an ally of the great unknown.”15

Conclusion/Summary

We have heard different examples from spiritual masters and philosophies to help overcome suffering: Not wanting reality to be different from how it is. Using acceptance as the foundation to build the new. Choosing to respond instead of reacting to stimulus. Do Be Do Be Do – taking action and then trusting in the best outcome. Realizing that by having a future behind us we can live and behave in this moment and let the best future catch up to us. And finally remember that with just so many possible variables for the future we do not enough to guess, worry or suffer.

All of these ways, plus many more not mentioned, of choosing to experience life can have an effect on how much or little we suffer. If I had to say if suffering was truly optional I would yes, with a lot of practice. That said we can definitely reduce it in our day to day lives through gradually implementing new philosophies and perspectives until we, possibly, suffer no more.

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