The one thing true of all human beings is that we suffer. Although we may try to avoid it, suffering is almost always on the edge of our experience, if not at the center.
Do you know the sensations of suffering? It is not the same as pain, is it? Suffering may include both physical and mental pain but there is something more…the fact that the distress cannot be evaded. There is no escape, therefore it must be suffered. The old English word ‘sufferance’ contains the original meaning: the capacity to endure pain and hardship.
Have you ever inquired into why you suffer? This was the quest of the Buddha…to understand the cause of suffering and to find a resolution.
Aging and sickness are the classic examples of suffering…observing them reportedly led to Buddha’s quest…but suffering is much more pervasive than that. Can we be honest with ourselves? Suffering arises from unfulfilled expectations, frustrated desires, disappointments both for ourselves and those close to us. We suffer the apparent meaninglessness of ordinary life, injustice in its many forms, alienation and loneliness.
Suffering is not all that we experience. Life offers an extraordinary richness of sensation, feeling and thought as well as many pleasant but temporary diversions to capture our attention. But suffering almost always reasserts itself and becomes the motive force for a genuine spiritual path, as it was for the Buddha. After years of observing the workings of his own mind in meditation, Buddha concluded that the cause of all suffering is desire. His findings were summarized in the Four Noble Truths: (1) Life is suffering; (2) Suffering arises from attachment to desires; (3) Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases; (4) Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path.
Now, to cut to the chase, because we are impatient Westerners, the Eightfold Path ends with liberation from the self that experiences desire. Liberation occurs when it is perceived that the ‘I’ that desires has no independent existence…it is an illusion born of ignorance…a contingent assemblage of impressions and false identities that can be unmasked and swept away, allowing the emergence of unimpeded clarity, compassion and bliss.
How does this relate to our work?
In many ways, Buddha’s insights are compatible with our work. We agree that the correct method is inquiry into self. We agree that the self is illusory and that this can be discovered through observation of self.
But concerning suffering itself, there is another view. To love is to suffer attachment. To seek beauty is to suffer. To value truth is to suffer. In this view, it is not mistaken to wish for the joy of one’s beloved. It is not wrong to suffer the consequences of one’s loyalties. These sufferings are also transformative and liberating if they are undertaken voluntarily. Here, too, the ego is crushed and the self is liberated.
The desires of the personal ego are false and lead nowhere good. But desire is also the motive behind creation, experienced by the universe in its excessive expressions of exuberance which gave us being. In this view, life is not only the karmic consequence of ignorance which must be unwound, it is also the purposeful realization of divine possibilities.
Learn from the Buddha as I have. Take his path if it suits you. But the same mountain he climbed can be scaled from the other side, where the personal is overwhelmed by the greatness of God.