On Suffering

I teach suffering and the end of suffering.”
                                            The Buddha

As psychotherapists, we might say something roughly similar about suffering: “I work with people who suffer and with the healing of suffering.” At a party recently, someone responded to my occupation with something like “Oh, I could never do that; how can you be with suffering all the time?” Indeed, isn’t happiness, the purpose of life to avoid suffering?  Or at least, like a troublesome pet, to fix it or heal it by taming suffering well enough that it stays quietly in its place and doesn’t bother people so much?

Indeed, I think that one of my many motives for becoming a psychotherapist – and later for entering into my own psychotherapy – was to try to fix my life: to perfect what I imagined to be my self. I wanted to get a handle on what I considered to be my own personal suffering. Things were not working well. I wanted to figure things out. I wanted to not be uncertain; I longed to get rid of my internal states of sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion.  I wanted my disturbing external relationships to all change, settle down. I wanted to feel more organized, more together, more above it all. I imagined that others already had some secret key that I had somehow missed.

In some ways, Siddhartha Gautama’s earliest motives were not so very different. He saw suffering and felt it personally.  He soon realized, however, the humanness of it all: the pleasure and pain, gain and loss, sickness, aging and death that accompany every journey through this human life. Further, he saw that our ordinary human response to this suffering was wholly inadequate. The Pali word for his seeing is samvega, translated as: “the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of one’s own complacency and foolishness in having let oneself live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.”

In samvega, the Buddha sounds a bit like me, like us, like our clients when they come to our offices. We are all in good company.  Unlike us, he had already seen in his early life of comfort that endless pursuit of sensual pleasure did not do the trick. He knew that no gain of worldly delight, accomplishment, recognition or accumulation could stop the relentless assault of change.  He then spent years pursuing the ascetic path of self-mortification and denial. Like anorexics of today, he then further discovered that self-punishment and extremes of denial did not truly lead to release. Finally, he saw the not so obvious middle path: that human pain is inevitable in every human life, but that human suffering occurs in the human mind and is, therefore, optional.

“Monks, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. A well-instructed disciple of the noble ones also feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain…When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.

As he directly investigated his own experience, the Buddha saw that this second arrow of suffering in the human mind can indeed be thoroughly known and, with kindness and wisdom, can be released. For us humans this teaching offers a profound evolutionary leap: the way out of suffering is through.

“I teach suffering: the difficulties of life are to be known and borne.” 

So in the first of his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha “teaches suffering.” Which is to say that there simply is pain and, indeed sometimes great pain in human life on this planet. In this first part of his teaching, he invites a knowing that is beyond the conceptual. He invites us to learn to allow pain to be experienced directly in the body, in the present moment.  He guides us to know its texture directly, its heaviness or lightness, its heat or cool, its fluidity or solidness, its stickiness: “It’s like this just now.”  He invites us to learn to not take it personally, to not imagine that “it’s like this for only me.” He invites us to let go of any sense that it’s like this because we are bad or have failed somehow.  Or that it’s always like this, or that it belongs to us: that this is who we, or others, are.” He invites us to know that it’s “like this just now” simply because of the nature of this life.  For this human body, there is physical discomfort. There is emotional discomfort when things don’t go our way. There is suffering that infinite and fluid causes and conditions – the vast majority outside of our immediate control – have led to the experience of this moment’s human body and mind. The Buddha invites us to learn to use mindfulness to begin to know this directly and, in this first step of the four noble truths, to learn with mindfulness to bear the pain that is just how it is to be human. He uses the analogy of a wagon that bears its load.

At first it can seem quite wrong to imagine learning how to bear pain, especially for us as western psychotherapists. Many of our clients come to us in the rather frantic space of wanting immediate ease, often considering the only source of ease to be the satisfaction of the pleasant. But even if our job were somehow to fix everyone who walks through our door, we first would need to diagnose correctly. We would need to be with the disturbance, the difficulty, to know its nature clearly. In our human and sometimes frantic efforts to move directly to the pleasant, the understood, the clear, the already-resolved, we can miss the important step of simply knowing and respecting the nature of the actual difficulty.

So Buddhist psychology invites us to not move too quickly to fixing, to technique.  As meditators and healers, we are called to release any temptation to see even mindfulness as a technique, a way to control or to fix. We are invited, instead to use Buddhist wisdom to expand our understandings of how life works on this planet. Phillip Moffitt notes that the Buddha invites us “to release our conscious or unconscious bias against the idea that… suffering is noble.” He notes that “It is ironic that this attitude prevails when just the opposite is true: Your suffering presents an opportunity for the most relevant, sophisticated, inspiring, and useful inquiry you could conduct in your life. The Buddha called the Truth of Dukkha “noble” precisely because suffering requires that which is most magnificent in you to come forth.”

As psychotherapists, then, we are called by our spiritual practice to soften our agendas and to bring ease to our sense of urgency and, even, to our usual definition of “success.” In our roles as healers we cultivate kindness, curiosity and investigation. In this, our initial job is to employ our own capacity to bear pain – the pain of others as well as our own. In seeing and feeling our own experience, we learn to help our clients, also, to see and to feel. We sense together how to slow down, to witness what is happening in this human body/mind. We come into a more direct and calm and compassionate relationship with what is.  We discover human difficulty – theirs and ours – as impersonal.  We cultivate over and over again an ever deepening wisdom and compassionate relationship to human suffering. We begin to be less certain and more curious.  This wise and open hearted relationship with suffering offers the way, then, for client and therapist to inquire together into the nature of the difficulty and to see more clearly its cause. We cultivate the capacity to see what is needed and to have deep faith in the healing of what is possible – now.