Suffering with Purpose

It’s the first noble truth of Buddhism that suffering is universal. But who wants to suffer, right? It’s such a drag!

But the thing is, the suffering is there whether we admit it or not. And if we do acknowledge pain, it can lead to good things, like personal growth, more compassion, and being able to feel positive emotions like joy.

But that’s only if we allow ourselves to really feel it. Many of us, understandably, don’t want to do that. 

So we deny the suffering, both to ourselves and to others. There are many ways to do this. Here are just a few examples:

  • Scrolling through our phones
  • Drinking and using drugs
  • Watching TV
  • Buying stuff
  • Compulsive gambling, sex etc

I know people who employ these strategies to ignore their suffering. I use some of them myself. Maybe you do too. It’s not something to be ashamed of. But it helps if we’re aware that we’re trying to be unaware.

Clearly some of these coping strategies end up causing even more suffering. But even if we avoid becoming alcoholics or compulsive gamblers, we can still cause suffering simply by denying our own pain. We may call it “being tough”. We may accuse those who acknowledge their difficulties as being full of self pity. 

And yes, I do this too. I am not judging! Sometimes my son calls me when he’s upset about his grades and I tell him “just work harder”. Or a friend with mental illness tells me for the umpteenth time about his big plans that he never gets started on, and I say “why don’t you just do it then?” I lose patience. I don’t want to acknowledge my own fears and insecurities, so I can’t deal with other people’s. It scares me. It makes me feel more in control, more “together”, to deny their pain too. But it doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help me either, because it separates me from the people I’m close to.

The consequences of this denial are far reaching. Only a father who denies his own pain can compulsively buy new cars while his children want for basic necessities. And only a leader who denies his own suffering can ignore the preventable deaths of thousands of people.

So how can we acknowledge our own pain, without falling into self-pity and even depression? After all, sometimes we block out our pain because we feel it’s too overwhelming, and it will incapacitate us.

The answer is different for everyone, which I know sounds like a bit of a non-answer. But some of us may be more ready than others to actually feel. If we’ve spent a lifetime denying our emotions, it could be too much to let in all at once. 

I can just tell you what I’ve learned through years of therapy and reading books, and making lots of mistakes. First it helps to quiet your mind, so you can actually feel what’s going on inside. That can be through traditional meditation, or a walk outside, or sipping a cup of coffee on the back porch. But it won’t happen in front of the TV or while looking at your phone. 

You want to be still until you feel what Pema Chodron calls the “soft spot” of tenderness. It may make you want to cry, which could surprise you. How could I be so hard yesterday, yet today I’m weeping? Well, I’ve found there’s usually a direct relationship. The harder I feel, the more pain I’m usually holding inside. 

Crying can be very calming, but you don’t have to cry. But you want to touch that soft spot, and feel yourself open up where you’ve been closed off. Open up to your own pain, and then soon you sense that we’re all going through some shit. You’ll want to treat other people more kindly, because you’re kinder to yourself. 

I read a book by Luigi Barzini where he constantly referred to human beings as “pathetic”. At the time, I remember thinking “What? I’m not pathetic! Is this some kind of Italian thing?” But now I get what he was talking about. We are all pathetic, in the sense that we all suffer, and we all deserve pity and compassion. Not just Italians, but everybody.

Bobby G, How to Be Unsuccessful

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