“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
When life is difficult and we wonder why unwanted pain seems to befall us, it is easy to question, “Why me?” Most people do not truly want to suffer, and those who seem as though they want to suffer usually want something else much more than their suffering – they just don’t know how to get it. No matter how blessed anyone’s life is, we all experience pain in some form at some point in life. What makes the difference between someone who truly suffers and someone who is without suffering is the way they choose to respond to that pain.
In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, is one of Gautama Buddha‘s earliest teachings, which he delivered soon after his pivotal “awakening” under a bodhi tree. He had spent most of his adult life wandering around the countryside in an attempt to understand the reality of suffering in the world. To do this, he had abandoned his family and all of his material possessions while he meditated, fasted, and pursued the understanding of truth. Once he became enlightened, he taught the Four Noble Truths to shed light on the realities of human suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
Suffering is an inevitable part of life. Life brings about suffering. It is not anybody’s “fault” – it simply is. To push back, fight against, or deny that suffering only brings about more suffering. Human nature and life itself is imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent. We are never able to “hold on” to happiness or that which we strive for because of its impermanence. At some point in life, we will have to endure physical or psychological illness or infirmity. The more that we avoid or fear this inevitable suffering, the more we will suffer. Mindfulness and acceptance bring peace from suffering.
The origin of suffering is attachment. Our suffering is rooted in our need to become attached or fused to our thoughts, feelings, sensations, loved ones, material possessions, sense of identity, and goals. All of these things are temporary… their loss is inevitable. The greater the degree of our attachment to impermanent things, the greater the degree of our suffering. Even attachment to the concept of “self” is an illusion and brings about unnecessary suffering. Ignorance to the ways in which our minds become attached to that which is impermanent also brings suffering. Mindfulness allows us to cultivate an observing self that allows us to become “unfused” from thoughts, feelings, and sensations… this provides a “space” within which we can make the best choices possible.
You don’t have to suffer. Buddha taught that we are able to transform our internal responses to the outside events that we cannot control. This very “old” teaching is present in most counseling practices used today. This means that it is within you personal control to choose how you wish to respond to the pain that life brings. Just because life brings pain, that does not mean that you must become ensnared in suffering and grief. Through letting go your attachment and fusion to needing to control events around you and people around you, you can obtain a greater sense of peace and stillness within. The world is not going to fall apart just because you stop trying to control it.
There is a path out of suffering. Mindfulness allows you to learn to become more accepting of all of your experience, not just the parts that you “like.” It can be frightening to choose to open yourself up to experiencing painful aspects of your present-moment reality. However, you must internalize the belief that the longer you deny that which is painful, the longer it will stick around. It is much like trying to force multiple beach balls to stay under water. They just keep popping up, no matter what you do. Better to welcome all experience, detangle yourself from being fused with that experience, mindfully accept it, and release it. The idea that any of us are unique and alone in our suffering is a human illusion. The more that you are able to break through this illusion and see the interconnectedness of all human felt experience, the more willing you will become to let go of “your” suffering.
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Featured image: sunrise by Sean MacEntee / CC BY 2.0