“Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.” ~Ram Dass
Suffering by definition: the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship. As humans we typically strive for what we perceive the opposite of suffering, happiness: the state of being happy. Of course why wouldn’t you? Nobody wants to suffer.
For many years I looked at the two as separate states of being. I felt if I was happy I would not suffer. Conversely, if I was suffering I could not be happy. It was a simple focus and one I felt was personally achievable. Easy, right? Choose happiness.
I systematically removed and stepped away from all people and experiences I felt were in some way not happy or causing me suffering. I left jobs and relationships with little notice, under the guise of “sorry, I am just not happy.”
I spent a great deal of time meditating, being mindful, and expressing gratitude. Not bad things to do but in my case perhaps slightly misguided. Filling my bucket, so to speak, with all things “happy.” I paraded myself and my Zen philosophy around like I was untouchable to suffering.
I would sit back and receive compliments on my “evolved” thinking and state of being. I would wake up and plan my day of “being happy.” I mindfully embraced my feelings and thoughts of, “This makes me feel unhappy; therefore, I must remove it from my life.” I did so without hesitation or regard.
This was all very delightful thinking until reality started knocking on my door. Thinking you can avoid suffering is kind of like thinking you control the ocean tide. Just in case you were wondering, you can’t.
I had several people close to me pass away. I tried, I really tried, to release it with happiness. I was sad though. The more I tried to “happy” through it, the more I suffered.
I fell in love, but I thought attachment would lead to suffering, so I denied my feelings and missed out on the possibility of a great relationship. The more I tried to “happy” through it, the more I suffered.
I came under a great deal of professional stress, so I quit everything. Just like that, I chose to “happy” through it. How brave and mindful of me. What happened? The more I tried to “happy” through it, the more I suffered.
I had created a perception to those around me and myself that I was happy, living in the present. So Zen. *So not Zen.*
You know those people who go to yoga every day and glide though life with a calm flow, but then you are driving with them one day and someone cuts them off and they lose their mind, waving their fist and swearing? That was me. I had even started to refer to myself as 80% Buddhist and the other 20% of the time was reserved for “other.”
For all intents and purposes I should have worn a t-shirt that said “happy most often with moments of reactive insanity.” I make light of it today, but it really was an ongoing and uncomfortable feeling of chasing happiness and justifying my unhappiness.
One day I was sitting having my morning coffee and I thought to myself I don’t get it. I try to be happy; I do all the things that are “supposed” to bring happiness. Why do I feel like I am on a pendulum swinging between happy and suffering?
Maybe part of happiness is not avoiding suffering? Maybe to experience happiness we actually have to experience everything else, including suffering. Then it hit me: Maybe my avoidance of suffering is actually causing me to continually suffer.
Maybe I don’t control the tide of the ocean; maybe I am supposed to just go with it.
What would happen if when I felt like I was suffering (hurt, fearful, or sad) I just went with that and stepped toward it rather than away from it? What if I didn’t dump the feelings and try to exchange them for happiness?
So that was what I started doing. I didn’t stop doing all the things that bring me happiness. I didn’t stop being a good person, being thoughtful or mindful. I didn’t stop being me. I suppose I started being more me.
I was learning to accept that suffering isn’t a bad thing, it is just part of life. Sometimes in order to appreciate happiness we have to experience unhappiness. We can’t say we are living if we are only choosing to allow in experiences and feelings that feel safe for us.
As I write this today, I can’t say that I have mastered some special skill or can even offer some great insight in to happiness. This time last year I probably would have told you I did know the answers to it and could have given you a “top ten” list on how to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.
I can offer my own experience. Happiness it isn’t a thing, just like suffering isn’t a thing. They are just feelings we experience. We either step toward them or we step away from them.
I wake up every day and for the most part I would say I am a happy person. I find many things during the day that fill my heart, make me smile and laugh. I also have just as many things that scare me and that make me feel uncomfortable, things that take bravery and make me feel vulnerable. This doesn’t make me anything except human, just like you.
I once viewed myself as a very unhappy and reactive person. I worked very hard to be an unreactive happy person.
There is a place in the middle that respects our entire being.
It is a place where we can be everything and anything.
It is place where we are gentle with ourselves and brave.
It is a place where we can embrace it all, with the understanding that each thread is important in weaving our story.
Rather than chasing happiness or running from suffering there is another place we can go, an action we can take. I almost feel foolish for missing it for so long, as it is simple. It is called being yourself. It is a humble place, a sometimes scary place, a gentle place, and a place full of wonder, love, and opportunity.
All you have to do is simply be yourself.
Sad woman image via Shutterstock