The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better
One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.
Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.
So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.
1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life
If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.
2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure
It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.
3. Recognize when you are suffering
When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.
4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it
It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.
5. Recognize that you are not your suffering
We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.
6. Take the drama out of your suffering
Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.
7. See how your thinking affects your feelings
A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.
8. See how your feelings affect your thinking
Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.
9. Learn to reframe
When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.
10. Relate compassionately to your pain
When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.
11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering
Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.
12. Observe the transparency of your feelings
I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.
I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.