I have to read The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Howard C. Cutler, M.D., for one of my graduate classes. There is a whole chapter on changing our perception of suffering so that we don’t suffer as much from the mishaps of life. However, before we can do that we must face the fact of our suffering.
The First Noble Truth
Life is suffering. It sounds pessimistic to our Western mindset, but it is also quite realistic. The human condition has us completely wrapped up in samsara (illusion) that we generally can’t make heads or tails of our lives. Suffering ensues. However, instead of facing our suffering we tend to run away from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Then we come upon some people who show us how to stand firm in the face of suffering and open our hearts wide so that the suffering causes us to connect more deeply and at a level of compassion that produces healing. Life is suffering, but we don’t have to necessarily suffer. Instead, we can learn how to love through our suffering.
Giving Our Sadness A Wider Perspective
There are multiple ways to help us cope with sad events. Recently, I am facing the fact that a coworker and friend at a volunteer internship I work is in the hospital for brain surgery. There is tremendous sadness that this man is suffering. There is no real solution to problems like this and then we must also face our own loss and mortality. So, we start with our own shock and sadness. And, then we can move this out to encompass all the other suffering beings: my coworker in the hospital, his family, other work associates, all the people he’s touched. Everyone has the same essential desire: to be happy. So, we send them that wish and keep expanding our love out further and further until we encompass the entire world of suffering. This way we can move out from our own self-absorption into a greater experience of compassion.
We are all interwoven strands in a giant web of life. What affects one affects us all. As the Dalai Lama put it, suffering is what connects us one to each other. It is the human experience. Yet, in the West, we’ve lost this perspective and the path to freedom from suffering. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama explains:
There is a possibility of freedom from suffering. By removing the causes of suffering, it is possible to attain a state of Liberation, a state free from suffering. According to Buddhist thought, the root causes of suffering are ignorance, craving, and hatred. (pg. 142)
By paying attention to the causes of our suffering and employing our practice to send loving kindness to other sentient beings in need of love, we can help to eradicate the root causes of suffering.
The Western Aversion to Suffering
The Dalai Lama notes that:
…with growing technology, the general level of physical comfort has improved for Western society. It is at this point that a critical shift in perception takes place; as suffering becomes less visible, it is no longer seen as a fundamental nature of human beings – but rather as an anomaly, a sign that something has gone terribly wrong, a sign of “failure” of some system, an infringement on our guaranteed right to happiness! (pg. 147)
This is evident in how people who are sick are shuffled away from the general population and only close friends and family get to see them. Pretty soon, we believe it’s none of our business if someone we know is suffering unless they’re directly related to us. If it is our own suffering we are dealing with, it is much harder to escape our own discomfort. Then, of course, we start looking for someone to blame and playing the victim, which leads to more suffering, so we don’t have to face our suffering. Instead, the Dalai Lama says to take a look at the root causes of our suffering to be able to live a fuller and happier life.
There are many things I like about being able to take our sadness and help us build compassion with it so we can become happier people and a more sane society. It also bothers me that what the Dalai Lama says about the West tending to hide the suffering in its society would naturally mean it makes us a much more intolerant and uncaring society. So, from this perspective, suffering is natural and our denial of it is unnatural. Life happens, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tease out some meaning and value from it. Taking all of our negatives and transforming them into motivations for positive action is a great step towards becoming spiritually wealthy and happy.
If you are facing a small or traumatic loss this book is a good read to help you make sense out of an unhappy event. You can order a copy of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living here
*Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons license by Sleestak66