Sarah’s Blog

Exploring the Suffering of Suffering

sculptureAs we begin to explore the first noble truth in more detail by examining the ways we personally suffer, we will come up against what the Buddha called the suffering of suffering, also called blatant suffering. This teaching speaks to the inescapable reality of unexpected things happening and how we generate suffering by our interactions with events more than from the events themselves. Rather than simply responding to what needs to be done as soon as difficulty arises with a clear head and open heart, we often provoke more anguish by our resistance and reactions. When we embellish our predicament with anger, hostility, or some form of opposition to our experience – assuming we don’t deserve this, or this should not be happening, we heighten our suffering tremendously, and often unintentionally.

Learning to meet every circumstance with attentive non-reactivity is not how the conventional mind operates. We will need strong intentions to take adversity onto the path, and a commitment to practice patience with all situations that arise. Without cultivating active attention, our dormant potential to meet all of life freshly and spontaneously will not be able to manifest. The fierce momentum of our unskillful mental habits is inextricably interwoven into our survival mechanisms. Discovering how to meet anger and resistance, disappointment and frustration (without either suppressing nor expressing these feelings) is a very skillful art that will require lots of self compassion.

Begin today to be especially interested in noticing when something goes wrong by pausing as it does and seeing if you can meet the feelings directly, as they are pulsing in your body. Without doing anything externally, simply track the myriad of sensations moving through you until they subside, however long that is. Then take 3 deep breaths, and see what your impulse is now.

Later that day, if you feel you were unskillful in your response, invite that part of you that is feeling bad about what you did or did not say or do to be soothed with these words toward yourself, ‘I am sorry this happened like this, another expression of my human-ness. At the level of my inner being I am still clear and kind, and I am now more present. I will make amends if I can, if not, I will let this be a helpful learning experience and now let it go.’

Take 3 fresh full breaths feeling into your belly center while you let your mind rest open like the sky for the next 6 minutes.

If you can’t seem to let it go, bring this issue to a mentor or spiritual friend to help you see it with more clarity and compassion. We all need support in these matters from time to time.

The Suffering of Suffering

As we take in the teachings of the 4 Noble Truths, we can begin to pay attention to the suffering around and in us. The Buddha suggested we hone in on 3 central themes.

  1. The suffering of suffering
  2. The suffering of change
  3. All pervasive suffering

These three encompass the essence of our human predicament.

The first one refers to the inevitable uncertainties of this life, all the things out of our control such as natural disasters, getting sick, losing our loved ones… none of us will avoid these events, but how we integrate them and to what degree we suffer from them depends largely on our view. Our experience of life is always 2 elements: what is arising and how we are meeting what is arising.

Observe yourself today and when something does not go as you expected it would, or should go, notice how you react by checking in with your body. What emotions can you detect pulsing through you? Do you hear yourself saying anything to yourself? It is very important not to try and control your feelings, as they are not what creates suffering. Rather it is our unawareness of how we actually feel and the unconscious behavior that erupts mechanically that generates the struggles. So today simply pause again and again to take a state check and notice how you are feeling from within in relation to what is happening around you.

Investigating Suffering

Buddha StatueThe last mind changing brings up the issue of suffering and refers to the shortcomings of Samsara. It reminds us that living disconnected from an inner life will inevitably be unfulfilling, even if we experience many blessings. The Buddha is known for saying “I teach only two things, about suffering and the end of suffering.” So this ubiquitous Buddhist theme of investigating suffering is in service to the potential to realize genuine happiness, (a quality of contentment that arises from within rather than the kind that is tied to circumstances). It makes sense that, if we want to know the joy of our inner being, we will need to examine all the places where we experience its absence, and learn to relate to them skillfully.

So, coming back to the first teaching the Buddha gave, The Four Noble Truths. The first insight he wanted to highlight about life is, there is suffering here! I have always liked how he did not sugar coat this fact, or pretend otherwise, and instead invites us to sincerely examine suffering, especially our own. He is suggesting here that the compassionate recognition of anguish can be a launching pad toward its relief.

Today, become especially aware of this aspect of existence, both your own and others’. See if you can observe and acknowledge any gross or subtle suffering you feel or witness without turning away and without embellishment, just the raw truth of it, in your belly. Allow the difficult aspects of life to be held with a gentle recognition today, a soft embrace of this unavoidable side of life.

The Fourth Mind Changing

Buddha HandThe fourth and last of the Mind Changings is an insight that arises out of reflections on the first three. Since we have recognized the preciousness of this fleeting life that flows forth from causes and conditions, we now firmly concede to the innumerable disadvantages of wasting this gift of life on reactive, unconscious habits and meaningless distractions which keep us from feeling connected, like being spun around in the washing machine (to be thrust round and round blindly by life is called Samsara, remember?). So, this mind changing is an opportunity for reflecting on the impediments of living without awareness, and all the suffering involved.

The Four Mind Changings together catalyze a wholehearted resolve to wake up out of samsara, into Nirvana. Nirvana is described as the absence of greed, hatred and delusion (reactive habits of mind) and instead, living with Awareness. Contemplated together, they help to re-inspire our commitment to develop and discover pristine awareness, our natural ground of being. These four thoughts are encouraged as conscious placements of mind first thing when we awaken in the morning, and before we practice, as they can help align the heart/mind with insight and inspiration for intentional living, as well as for wisdom and compassion to flourish within us.

Recite the Four Mind Changings together and then sit in a brief Meditation. Take a few moments after to reflect on how you feel after this, versus before.

  1. Life is precious — I am extremely fortunate to have the privilege and leisure to learn and practice.
  2. Everything is Impermanent — this ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. Everyone who is born will die. My death is certain. The exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?
  3. Karmic Consequences — the results of my virtuous and harmful actions are inevitable.
  4. Suffering ensues when I do not recognize my boundless nature.

Now is a good time to practice Mindfulness of breathing with the emphasis on stability of attention. Set your timer for 6 minutes and sit in a comfortable cross legged position. Deeply relax all turbulence of the mind on the out breath and feel into the space of your body. Settle your attention on the abdomen, aware of the natural rising and falling of each breath. Every time your mind wanders, relax even more on the out breath, and commit to being present for the next in breath, seeing if you can feel these moments directly without drifting off, or indulging in commentary. When habitual attention takes over, no problem, just notice excitation and relax again into the belly, or, in the case of laxity, sharpen your interest in being present at the onset of the next in breath, and let your eyes be a bit open when you get dull.

Enjoy being breathed!!!

Compassion Practice

We are all in the midst of living the truth of the third mind changing, which is thinking about how our behavior and reactions shape the life we experience. This teaching suggests there are causal effects from our virtuous and harmful actions, which inevitably ripen into our future reality. In these Tibetan Buddhist teachings on the Four Mind Changings, this is called karmic consequences, the inescapable nature of cause and effect, of skillful or unskillful actions and their positive or negative results. Although so much arises that we can not predict nor fully understand, this insight into personal causality, painful as it is when meeting negative incidents, can be a compelling motivator toward what the Buddha called “intentional living” versus “wandering about in unawareness”. In the spirit of genuine self-care, we can recognize the deep wish to avoid causing more suffering in the future by pausing to contemplate how we might diminish its causes. This self-reflection to align with our awake nature, even for a few breaths, is an important portal into personal power.

If you can, take 5 minutes for a compassion practice. Imagine the essence of your natural goodness as an orb of white light at your heart. With each in breath envision bringing into this light all the dark clouds of any destructive patterns of body, speech or mind that you have experienced lately, while saying to yourself, ‘may I be free of any unskillful or unconscious behavior, especially towards those I am closest to. May I be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.’ Like black cotton thrown into a bon fire, envision these obscurations dissolving into the light at your heart. Imagine this light within you spreading to every inch of your body, while all the clouds of unawareness evaporate. See your self-awareness growing brilliant and clear, filling you from head to toe. Visualize your natural radiance here and now, sending it out to anyone you feel is suffering this moment, with the wish for them, ‘May you be free of any anguish. May you know your inner light of awareness.’

Aspire to spread the brightness of your being towards any painful feelings that may arise today in you or others you meet, that you might be a soft support for yourself, your loved ones, and everyone you encounter today.