The Buddha pointed out thousands of years ago that suffering is a fact of life. Or, as I sometimes put it:
Some things just hurt.
Our dominant cultural attitude towards pain is that it’s something to be avoided, denied, “treated,” and I’ve found that it can be particularly tough for people — including me — to acknowledge painful emotions in the context of spiritual practice. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the acceptance of suffering, but like many of the misleading expectations we hold about meditation, there is often a lot of self-consciousness about what being “spiritual” should look like. Some of us may feel that the cultivation of compassion should be a practice that keeps us from feeling those “less virtuous” emotions like anger, annoyance, impatience, and disappointment. And, yet, part of the cultivation is simple acceptance, including the acceptance of those things that just hurt.
That’s why the revolutionary statement that there is suffering in the world is so liberating. It doesn’t include the idea of how we should feel in relation to those times when we suffer. In fact, the most radical part of this piece of wisdom is its simplicity — the fact that it is merely a recognition of what is. When I first encountered this idea in an Asian philosophy class in college, I felt instantly comforted, and the comfort was unlike anything I’d experienced before. No one was trying to make sense of my pain or to rationalize it; no one was reassuring me that things would get better, or reminding me to look at the bright side — all things we are conditioned to say and believe in the face of suffering. For the first time, I felt a sense of permission and freedom to feel whatever I was going to feel.
When I teach introductory classes to meditation, one of the first topics I like to cover is what I call “distorted thinking,” which almost inevitably happens in response to all of our experiences. When we experience a physical sensation or feeling, we are conditioned to react, identifying the experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. But that’s not all. If we feel pleasure, for instance, we may spin into a whole number of distortions — we may think we don’t deserve pleasure, or we may fear its impermanence. If something feels unpleasant, we may judge ourselves or feel embarrassed, responsible for our own pain.
Some assert that if we didn’t have distorted thinking, or resistance, or a bad attitude, there would be no pain at all. I refute this. What we don’t need is extra suffering, and therein lies our work.
My friend and colleague Sylvia Boorstein tells a funny story about her granddaughter, Honor. While preparing for their Passover Seder, Sylvia asked then-9-year-old Honor to help set the table, and gave her the following instructions:
“Take a teaspoon of horseradish and put it on top of each piece of Gefilte fish.”
Honor agreed to follow the instructions, but didn’t hesitate to offer her personal reaction to the traditional Seder menu:
“I never knew you could take a truly terrible thing and make it even worse!”
If we can put aside the fact that Sylvia makes delicious homemade Gefilte fish and that I love horseradish, Honor’s honest reaction to her grandmother shows a lot about how most of us deal with difficult feelings.
Often, when we feel like we’re experiencing a truly terrible thing, we don’t let the terrible feelings exist on their own. Instead, we usually make it worse for ourselves. Perhaps we judge ourselves for not being able to let go of the bad feeling; perhaps we ruminate extensively about the past and stew in regret or guilt; perhaps we allow ourselves to start projecting into the future, wondering when the pain will go away. Regardless of the details of the terrible situation or the particulars of how we make it worse for ourselves, this is a common reaction to the sheer force of our cultural conditioning.
This is why meditation can be incredibly healing for suffering. Despite popular myths, meditation doesn’t cleanse us of thoughts and feelings, but it does support us in having a more direct relationship to our experiences. For some, meditation is most helpful simply because it helps us become more aware of the source of our pain. As a result, we rely less on things like denial, self-judgment, or precariously looking for happiness in transitory places. By experiencing suffering more directly, we can learn to respond to our situations thoughtfully, rather than react immediately.
Accepting suffering doesn’t mean that it goes away, or even that it gets better. Too often, we conflate the idea of “being spiritual” or the idea of acceptance with the New Age-y cliché that we can simply say no to suffering. We can learn to feel discomfort in a far more pure and direct way, without the additional burden of distorted thinking. But I still maintain that some things just hurt.
A friend of mine once participated in a healing circle during the early days of the AIDS crisis. During the meeting, one of the volunteers insisted to the group,
“No one can make you suffer if you don’t want to.”
In response, a very sick man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions reacted impetuously, and for good reason. He wanted to attend the healing circle simply to feel a sense of solidarity and community. Instead, being told sugar-coated affirmations made him feel isolated and ignored.
This dynamic is something we see a lot, both interpersonally and with ourselves. A woman who recently suffered a major loss once asked me for advice, as she was feeling pressured by her friends to get better, to let go of the suffering, to heal. Their impatience was making her feel entirely separated from them. “My friends have golden lives,” the woman insisted, convinced that her suffering made her fundamentally different and alienated from her friends.
I didn’t believe that for a moment, knowing how much can go on behind closed doors, and how much pressure there is to present as “perfect.” Hearing this woman’s describe her tough situation, I just heard the words come out of my mouth.
“I think you need new friends. Maybe you need to meet my friends. They’re all a wreck!”
I don’t really think my friends are wrecks. I do think, however, that we tend to talk more directly about our suffering, whether it stems from family issues, work stress, or free-floating anxiety… the list goes on. The add-ons we layer onto pain are really what make us struggle in response to tough situations. This perspective makes an enemy of our suffering, when dealing with the pain itself can already feel like quite a lot to deal with. Without sugar-coating terrible experiences, we can remind ourselves of the sheer power of how we choose to relate to them.