Just as I thought I was finally shaking off my flue, which seemed to be dragging on for weeks, I got hit by another bug. It wiped me out for a couple of days, but fortunately now I seem to be recovering quickly. Sogyal Rinpoche has often told us that when you are unwell it is a good time to try to practice, because it is important to learn how to deal with pain and suffering. For example he has sometimes pointed out very candidly that when we’ll die we will probably not be feeling well. So, when are not well we can see how well our practice is going. Can we just be present in the face of pain and discomfort? I wasn’t very successful with my practice but it made me reflect on suffering a bit.
Buddhism has a unique outlook on suffering. Many people who don’t know Buddhism well believe that it is very pessimistic and all about suffering. It is very true that Buddhism speaks a lot about suffering. The first statement in Buddha’s very first teaching was “the truth of suffering”, the first of the four noble truth. It is often translated as “Life is suffering”. However, if seen in the context all four noble truths the message of the Buddhist teachings is actually very optimistic, similar to a doctor who sees an illness, diagnoses the cause, finds a solution and prescribes a course of treatment. The outcome, complete healing, is undoubtedly very positive!
Actually, the way I have come to understand it, Buddhism is far from just being about suffering. Buddha acknowledged that all beings want to be happy. He is not saying suffering is our fate or that life is all about suffering. He is suggesting a different approach to happiness. Suffering is the flip side of happiness and thus if we want happiness it is crucial to understand suffering.
Usually we try to avoid looking at suffering as much as possible. Instead we focus on happiness only by looking for pleasure, gain, praise, a good reputation and try to avoid their opposites. The Buddhist teachings show us that this approach is bound to fail. First of all we can’t avoid suffering because we will all have to experience the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death. Secondly, it is not possible to create lasting pleasant states of mind because everything that feels good will eventually change. We can’t keep eating ice cream or we’ll get sick. We can’t keep lying in the sun forever or we get sun burned or too hot. Sooner or later every pleasant experience will change. It will stop to be pleasant and we have to chase some thing else for another short lived buzz and pleasure. Thus to chase pleasant experiences becomes an endless endeavor to keep creating happy states of mind. Thirdly, the Buddha said that on a very deep and subtle level suffering permeates all of our present existence. It is built into the fabric of our reality. There is a potential and possibility for it to arise at any moment.
The Buddha pointed out is that our fantasy of a lasting state of happiness is not possible. He spoke a lot about suffering in his teachings not because suffering is all there is but because he is suggesting a different approach to happiness. Looking for happiness in feeling good can not possibly bring a lasting happiness but leads unavoidably to an endless chasing of temporary fleeting experiences. If we want to find lasting happiness we need to begin with facing and getting to know suffering. That is why the first noble truth is explained to mean that “Suffering must be known”
This is quite different to our usual approach to life. We meditate because we want to experience a state of peace and calm. We do yoga to harmonize our physical body and inner energy so we feel good. We chant and pray to feel bliss. This is not Buddha’s main concern. His main concern is to face and understand suffering, see and abandon its causes, be clear how we can become free of it once and for all, and learn and follow a path towards that goal.
It is important to be clear that temporary happiness like peace, pleasure, favorable conditions and feeling good are not bad. We actually need them in the beginning but they are not the main goal of our practice. When we meditate, we need to initially calm or minds and become comfortable in ourselves. However, learning to deal with suffering and finding the natural freedom of mind where we are no longer drawn into suffering is the real goal. I have sometimes have heard this compared to wanting to look at a painting in the dark with a candle. If the candle is flickering too much we won’t be able to see the painting. So initially we need to stabilize the candle and protect it from disturbances. Once we know the painting well we won’t need the candle to be so calm any more.
Seen this way suffering or illness is a good opportunity to practice, that is if you don’t get overwhelmed by the experience so much that you can’t practice. Initially, I also wanted to write about my experience of trying to practice when I was sick in this post, but since I wrote so much on reflecting of suffering I will leave this topic for one of my next posts.