What is suffering? (Day 31)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In cultivating compassion we’re responding, with kindness, to the suffering we encounter in life — especially others’ suffering. And the essence of compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering.

But what do we mean by suffering?

There’s an unfortunate tendency for us to think of suffering in grand terms: the person with terminal cancer or a broken leg, the refugee, the starving child in a third world country. So suffering seems to be a special event. But actually, all beings suffer. We all suffer, every day.

  • When you’re worrying what people think about you, you’re suffering.
  • When you feel resentful, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re impatient, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re embarrassed, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re irritated, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re feeling sad, you’re suffering.
  • When you have regrets, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re jealous, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re bored, you’re suffering.

If you look closely at your mental states over the course of any given day, you’ll probably notice that you spend a lot of time dipping in and out of suffering of one sort of another.

And if you look around you at the people you see, it’s a fair bet that at that moment half of them are suffering right at that moment. How many of them are showing signs of being happy?

We tend to ignore our own suffering, and often don’t recognize it in others either. But why? One reason might be that we take our suffering for granted, and another might be that we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves. When you’re working on your computer and the machine is running more slowly than you want, you probably feel frustrated. You probably don’t say “I’m suffering, let me have compassion for myself.” You’re probably to busy saying “This computer’s too damn slow!” So you’re caught up in the plot-line of this all being the fault of the computer, and you just take for granted that it’s the computer that’s making you feel bad. You might not assume that you could feel any other way.

When someone else is suffering, we often get caught up in the story lines there as well. When you’re with someone who’s in a bad mood, how often you think, “Ah, this person’s suffering. What can I do to ease her pain?” You probably think something more like, “Jeez, she got out of bed on the wrong side this morning! I’d better steer clear.” We’ll often think of this person’s situation purely in terms of how it affects us. We probably don’t even think of this person as suffering, most times. We might be brusque or obstructive with them, and end up adding to their suffering.

So I’d suggest, as you observe your own experience and notice what’s going on with others around you, that you become more mindful of all the small ways in which we suffer pain.

And if you can keep your awareness in your heart, keep the lovingkindness phrases running through your mind, drop the stories, and see if you can respond to this widespread suffering with compassion.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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