Sep 3, 2023
Michael Haggiag

What's Wrong with Suffering?


The way out of suffering is not all that obvious. Michael Haggiag looks at which direction we need to head towards if we want to find a way out.

This past June, during a brief summer downpour, I lost my footing on a city pavement. My front leg suddenly slipped forward and I ended up on the ground, having performed a perfect split. At 76 I’m not limber anymore and tore my hamstring muscle badly. The pain was excruciating and at one point I blacked out. Yet for all the pain I can’t honestly say that in those first moments I was suffering. The fall was instantaneous and overpowering.  The suffering followed quickly enough, however, as did my need to cope with it, but there was enough of a gap for me to notice the difference between pain and suffering. Soon my entire leg turned a curious shade of yellowish black, and for several weeks I could hardly sit down. The whole experience had the quality of a marathon or a meditation retreat.  I had to give myself into the pain time and again.  Painkillers were only partially helpful. It was also necessary to accept the pain, even in the worst moments when I felt irritable, exhausted, and utterly fed up. From the point of view of Zen practice, it was a primer course in learning to suffer.

Pain and suffering go hand in hand so it’s easy to confuse one with the other. Pain is a sensation. It can range in intensity from slight discomfort to the most torturous extremes. Suffering, on the other hand, is what we do in the presence of pain. There’s an active quality to it. To suffer pain is to bear it, to put up with it, to allow for it. This is true despite all the sadness, misery and gnashing of teeth that may accompany the suffering.

The word “suffering” has a secondary meaning which already contains the idea of allowing for it.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ famously says, “Suffer little children to come unto me”, by which he means allow the children to gather round him. Conversely the sentence, “He was a perfectionist who didn’t suffer fools gladly” refers to someone who is intolerant of those he regards as foolish. It can be very difficult to recognize the difference between pain and suffering, between the pain itself and our ability to bear it, but in this often-indiscernible difference lies the key to dealing with pain: let it come to you; let it be. Our ability to allow for pain, to recognize and accept its presence, lies at the heart of Zen practice.

The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.” He didn’t say, “All I teach is pain and the end of pain.” He didn’t promise that no one who followed his teaching would ever slip on a pavement. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. This was the Buddha’s great insight. There is a way out of suffering, and paradoxically it goes through pain. What the Buddha’s teachings give us is a way to recognize and accept the pain, and then let it go. In other words, the Buddha taught us how to suffer in a way that would release us from suffering.

Wholehearted acceptance is counter-intuitive and difficult for us to accept, even if we assent to it intellectually. We’re virtually programmed by our biology to avoid pain. If our hand gets too close to a fire, it withdraws instinctively without our permission. This is just the way it is.

The body has developed marvellous and elaborate ways of protecting itself over many thousands of years, without which we wouldn’t have survived as species, much less prospered. In following the Dharma, we learn to differentiate between pain and suffering while respecting and caring for our bodily needs. This is the lesson the Buddha is said to have learned from his years as an acetic. To gain liberation from suffering he had to first respect his body’s basic needs. This is why, ending his six years of asceticism, he accepted a bowl of rice pudding from the milkmaid Sujata. This action dismayed his five acetic followers, who misunderstood, but it was a critical turning point that embodied the Buddha’s Way, also known as the Middle Way.

The Middle Way embraces both physical and mental pain. Mental or psychological pain is in fact the cause of most of our suffering.  The Buddha teaches us that mental pain, like physical pain, is to be fully experienced by being present and sitting with it, however uncomfortable this may be. This is done by allowing the pain enough space to be felt before trying to let go of it. In the same way that we’re taught to respect our body, we’re taught to respect our mind. Through meditation we learn to observe the twists and turns and often-overwhelming nature of the mind.

The beginner who has never meditated before is often aghast at the runaway nature of the mind because the ego goes to great lengths to convince itself that it’s in charge of its own thoughts. It’s a shock to discover how little in control we are! Meditation isn’t a panacea for all our ills. It’s a process through which, on a physical level, we learn to bear the little discomforts of sitting still for extended periods and, on a psychological level, we begin to familiarize ourselves with the mind and its many moods. There are certainly moments of great peace when we meditate. The heart longs to be heard through the cacophony of our thoughts and to respond naturally and with ease to its surroundings. The longer we meditate the more we realize how important it is to give space or “house room” to our emotional household. It’s the very basis of our peace of mind. Nevertheless, meditation isn’t a quick fix, nor should it be. Each time we meditate, or give ourselves wholeheartedly to what at this moment is being done, we allow the world in.  Often it involves allowing ourselves to feel the pain and to suffer, but this gradually transforms into the strength and clarity we need to face life’s everyday problems. Life gets easier. This is how we know we’re on the right track.

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