2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught his first followers the Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth stated that life is dukkha. Dukkha is typically translated as “suffering,” but it can more appropriately be understood as “dissatisfaction,” or “unsatisfactoriness.”
Although this may seem pessimistic, the Buddha’s message was to take an honest look at our human life. Inevitably, there will be suffering because we live in an impermanent world where the only unchanging promise is endless change. Grasping on to any of our experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is like trying to grab water from a flowing stream with our bare hands–as soon we think we’re getting a hold of it, it has already seeped through our fingers.
Of course, the Buddha did not end with “life is suffering,” but went on to explain the cause and the end of the dukkha found in our lives. His approach was an all-inclusive one, based heavily on our ability to be “awake,” or rather our ability to cultivate mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion in every situation of our lives–nothing left out. Suffering, he taught, was not a curse or something to be avoided, but rather a natural part our lives to be embraced and fully experienced. By going right through our suffering we are able to drop our resistance to it, see it clearly, and ultimately making peace with it.
As mediation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said when talking about difficult emotions/situations, “…there is nothing to take over if you are not putting up any resistance.” If we can understand our suffering as an impermanent moment in time and patiently endure it, it will flow through us just like a leaf making its journey down a stream.
How Suffering Can Be Used To Cultivate Great Compassion
Any suffering we experience is shared suffering. In other words, there is always someone else out there who shares the same suffering we are experiencing. We are never alone in our suffering. When we experience any form of discomfort or pain in our lives, we can open up to it, wishing that all beings experiencing this suffering (including us) be free from it.
A great way to do this is by taking one hand to our heart and fully feeling our pain and suffering. We can acknowledge, without judgment, our struggles with this difficult time in our lives. For example, if we are experiencing pain from an illness, such as cancer, we can bring our hand to our hearts, fully feel our suffering, and say “I am struggling with the pain from this illness.” This connects us with the truth of our suffering and also acknowledges it in a direct, judgment-free way.
Open Your Heart, and Wish for Freedom
The next step is to wish all beings experiencing similar suffering, to also experience freedom from it. This may look something like this, “May all beings experiencing the pain and struggles of cancer, be free from it.” With this wish we are not only embracing our pain, but also embracing the pain and suffering of the world. Approaching our suffering in this way connects us with our vulnerability, and allows our hearts to stay open–rather than letting life’s difficulties harden us into stone.
Ultimately, all of our lives will include suffering and dissatisfaction. Aging, sickness, and death are all very real aspects of our lives which we can neither deny nor escape. Instead of allowing these difficult times to make us bitter and fearful, the Buddha offers us a new way: Face the suffering in our lives, experience it fully, and allow it to come and go as it will–it is only the movement of life.
Cultivate compassion for all beings experiencing similar suffering, and keep your heart open to life, no matter what circumstances you may find yourself in.
I wish you all well on your journey.