Q: Do you think suffering is inherent to human life?
A: The majority of us believe suffering to be inherent to human life—unavoidable. This gives us a certain self-righteous justification for our attachment to our suffering, and for our identification with it—no matter how painful or undesired that suffering may be. (As a by-product of this stance, many of us also indulge ourselves by permitting ourselves all kinds of insensitive and licentious behaviors, spanning from casual irresponsibility to intentional cruelty.) Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that suffering is infused from the outside. Suffering is not inherent to any particular human experience.
For example, one can be in immense physical pain, but that does not necessarily require that suffering be present. Yet most of us infuse suffering, when physical pain occurs. We are taught and trained that bodily pain includes and requires an experience of personal suffering. But have you ever watched a small child fall down and truly hurt themself, and then get up, without any upset, tears or complaint—just a look of sudden surprise, that turns immediately into a laugh or a giggle? In this very situation, have you also seen how a parent or other adult will sometimes rush in with “Oh my god, don’t worry Johnny; oh I know it hurts but try to be brave; I know it’s awful but try to be a big boy”—and suddenly that same child is crying and screaming? Similarly, you must have also seen sometime how some children will carefully examine a parent’s face and body language before reacting to a possible upset—and only after they’ve read the signals, will they display their emotional response. Whether they laugh with delight, or cry and scream with terror, becomes entirely determined by the implied reaction of the parent. I have watched this phenomenon again and again, and find it quite amazing to watch parents training their children to suffer—giving them clear and intensive lessons in how to infuse suffering—always within the context of a situation where the child is demonstrating non-suffering!
Pain, grief, anger, rage, confusion, sadness, despair, frustration, disappointment, sorrow, agony, physical misery—all of these are part and parcel of the human experience. What we are hardly ever taught, however, is that none of them imply, or need be experienced as, a condition of suffering. Pain or grief or sadness can simply be pain or grief or sadness, without infusing the dimension of suffering. In the simplest sense, suffering is a learned behavior, a habit.
Animals provide yet another great example of how suffering is infused, not really required. Have you ever seen a crippled dog? Have you seen it right after it becomes crippled?—right after it becomes blinded or loses a leg? It cries for a moment or two at most, out of confusion, out of pain, or out of genuine despair—and then it goes on. The acceptance is astoundingly immediate. The animal completely and utterly accepts the situation, and goes on immediately, without looking back. It adapts instantly to 3 legs instead of 4, and makes do. There is no look of complaint in its eye. There is no air of victimhood in its demeanor. It accepts reality, including pain and loss, including agony and limitation and hardship, without infusing suffering.
Even further proof is the fact that some animals are more neurotic than others. Some dogs lose their leg, and insist on suffering; perhaps they have learned it from being so close to humans. They lose their leg and they become depressed and listless. They stop their activity, they lose the gleam in their eye, and they vegetate in self-pity. Even a dog can infuse suffering, if it insists on doing so! This is even more evidence of how suffering is a choice. Most dogs don’t choose suffering, but now and again, a few (perhaps the more human ones) appear to.
The ‘first noble truth’ of Buddhism is that “life is suffering.” Contrary to the usual interpretation of this seminal Buddhist teaching that (literally) defines life as suffering and posits suffering as unavoidable, my actual experience suggests the validity of a more esoteric interpretation: that suffering is unavoidable, until you give up your attachment to suffering. This can be seen, learned and practiced—until that day when suffering ends—because something else has taken over—something that is more basic than suffering.
That ‘something’ is your natural and innate capacity for love and acceptance. Suffering is created in one way and one way only: non-acceptance. Non-acceptance is the only method you have ever used to create any suffering that you have ever experienced. Know this fully, and the secret key has been found. If you drop your identification with the story/drama of any given event, how is suffering possible? If you let go of your attachment to a given set of circumstances, then how could those circumstances ever be spun into a tale of suffering? If you see through your preferences (all learned and artificial) and develop the ability to enjoy all possibilities that occur, rather than just the ones you would prefer, can such a thing as suffering really find a point at which to enter you, and stay?
Become a non-sufferer, and there will be one less place of suffering in this world.
Become willing to be a non-sufferer.
Become willing to define yourself differently than as the sum total of your sufferings. Or even better yet, become willing to not define yourself in any way at all. This is how you ‘save the world’—by ending suffering where you are. It is completely possible, in this very lifetime.