“One has to accept pain as a condition of existence.” ~Morris West
This may seem sounds counter-intuitive, but this year I want to let go of trying to avoid suffering.
It doesn’t mean that I am a masochist and plan to spend the next year being miserable. It’s more a question of learning to accept life as it is—uncertain, full of surprises, and with its full quota of difficult circumstances.
Our Wish for Happiness
The thing is that we all want to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we fear not being happy, then we have already undermined ourselves. We get so focused on chasing things that we think will make us happy that we forget the bigger picture.
Parents tend to raise their children telling them they want them to be happy. We are surrounded by advertising images of what a happy life looks like. When we feel down and unhappy, we tend to feel that somehow, we are letting people down, that we are failing in some way. No one wants to feel like a failure, and so we double-up on our strategies to avoid suffering.
Our Strategies to Avoid Suffering
We keep ourselves busy so that we don’t have time to sit and reflect. There are a million ways to entertain and distract ourselves. If we get bored, we can surf social media. When we feel down, we can go shopping, watch a movie, go out for a meal—whatever our preferred escape route is.
When suffering gets past the distraction and forces us to pay attention, then our avoidance goes deeper. We push it away. We pretend it’s not there. Suffering becomes the enemy to happiness and something to be avoided as quickly as possible.
When avoidance doesn’t work anymore and the suffering is staring us in the face, then we go for fixing it as soon as possible. We talk about putting things behind us, of moving on. Rarely do we give ourselves the time to lean into our pain, discover what it is showing us, and try to act on that.
Pain is Inevitable
The very nature of life is that we don’t know what is going to happen from one moment to the next. Everything is in a state of flux, however much we try to pin things down and organize them. Our bodies can be damaged. We grow older, get sick, and eventually die. People change, relationships blossom and then fade away.
Look into any aspect of your life and see how it is continuously moving and changing. Think back over the changes that have happened in your community just in the time you have lived there. Go back further in your mind—fifty years, a hundred years—small changes, big upheavals are happening all the time.
In the midst of all this we get hurt. Loss, disappointment, broken hearts, worries, and anxieties are all part of the package. Although we want to be happy and we don’t want to feel pain and suffering, deep down we know it is inevitable. Suffering is part of life however much we don’t want it and what’s more, it happens to everyone.
My Reminders for Changing my Habit
This is the basis for changing my habit of trying to avoid suffering. I want to remember that it is simply part of how life is. It’s not a conspiracy against me; everyone has problems and worries. We are all in the same boat in that respect.
If I spend a lot of time worrying about how something could go wrong or a situation might get worse, then I am already making myself unhappy. What I am worrying about might not even happen. In fact, I could be worrying about one thing and in the meantime another unforeseen problem creeps in.
Like many people, I want my life to count for something. I want it to have meaning and purpose. If I am honest, much of my deepest learning has come through times when things are hard, and I am struggling.
In trying to cope with challenges we can be motivated to look really deeply into ourselves. Our avoidance tactics don’t get us anywhere, so we kind of let go and try to understand what is going on. When we can do this, suffering and pain can be our greatest teachers.
When we are tired and weary with it all, then we can at least try to find a place in ourselves for acceptance. Instead of crying, “Why me?” we simply accept that this is what is happening right now and all we can do is work with it.
Personally, I find this kind of patience very hard, but I am a meditator and so I can put some distance between a situation and my reaction to it. When it works it brings such relief. It is so much more nourishing than fighting against things and trying to hide away.
Lastly, perhaps one of the most precious aspects of facing suffering is the appreciation that we gain of how things are for other people. Just as we suffer, so do they.
If I am struggling to come to terms with a friend who has become increasingly distant, the chances are that there arehundreds, perhaps thousands of other people going through something similar at the very same time. So, with the acceptance and patience come a strengthening of compassion, which can become part of our deeper learning.