“You cannot save people. You can only love them.” ~ Anais Nin
“We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.
Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke
The Buddha said the first noble truth is that dukkha exists. The word dukkha has many nuanced meanings, dissatisfaction, illbeing, wanting things to be other than they are, not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. Dukkha encompasses the full range of mental and physical states from dissatisfaction and discontent to physical pain and discomfort. The common translation of suffering does seem apt. It covers a lot of ground. For some of us, the very word suffering is reserved for big stuff—cancer, terminal illnesses, extreme poverty, or starvation. Even the word suffering can be problematic, signifying weakness and conjuring images of mothers holding feverish babies in refugee camps. That’s where suffering lives. Those of us living in the first world who are reasonable healthy, comfortable, and able, we don’t suffer. Suffering doesn’t exist in the West. We know better.
A few years ago, I mentioned that everyone suffered to a fellow practitioner. He replied that he didn’t suffer, other people did. Despite his addictions to consumption and working, and despite his feelings of isolation and loneliness, he was not suffering. Clearly, he did not equate suffering with the difficulties present in his own life. Loving kindness teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us that our jealousy, our anger, our judgement, all of those things we consider character flaws, they are all states of suffering. Can we call this stuff by its true name, suffering? What then?
Unacknowledged suffering manifests in all different ways, addictions, unsafe behavior, criticism, rage, stress related illness, and general ill-humor. Our suffering doesn’t stay put in our bodies; it spills out and touches all of us collectively. As a society, we pay millions of dollars yearly for addiction related treatments, medical interventions for stress, lost productivity and incalculable amounts of pain in broken families and relationships. Addiction starts with the desire escape the present situation, whether it contains stress, anxiety, physical pain, agitation, or boredom. What if we called addiction suffering? How would that change our judgement of addicts?
For me, when I call my unhappiness, my remorse, loneliness, or anxiety, suffering, something shifts. And while I may have wanted to squish my resentment and jealousy, found them ugly and shameful, when I see them as suffering, I soften. I tell myself that everyone suffers. Suffering is a part of life. It’s not just bad behavior on my part. My suffering needs to be cared for. My suffering calls out to be understood, not dismissed as a character flaw or a weakness. Suffering requires our attention and our love to soothe it. We all suffer, in the big and small ways that life provides each of us. No one’s suffering is more worthy than another’s. It’s all suffering; it just looks different.
This week you may like to try using the word suffering when you see it arising in yourself. Acknowledging and caring for suffering includes recognizing that it is not a permanent state. It is not a personal affliction, but a call to listen and to understand. Make a vow to be there for your suffering and take good care of it. When we truly care for our suffering, we truly care for others. I am reminded of that old blues song with the line, “when things go wrong, go wrong with you, it hurts me too.” We are responsible for caring for our own suffering and our happiness. We directly add to the amount of suffering in the world. Caring for our unique suffering is the work of living a compassionate life. Our suffering is calling to us; please listen.
May we all trust our light.