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On Human Suffering

The topic of human suffering has always fascinated me.  It wasn’t until about five years ago that I realized that we spend so much of our life’s energy on futile attempts to avoid suffering.  We use drugs and alcohol, denial, dishonesty, and dissociation.  Sometimes it seems like we spend our entire lives trying to avoid suffering and increase pleasure.  What I have come to realize, through different spiritual texts, spiritual practice, and simply my own experience, is that suffering is an inevitable part of human existence.  This we cannot change.  No amount of running or hiding, and certainly no substance can change that fact.  What we can change, through meditation, is our relationship to that suffering.  Maybe the fact that painful events exist in life is not by itself a cause for true suffering.  It is our constant aversive relationship to that pain that creates true suffering.

I am reading a wonderful book by Jack Kornfield in which he writes a great deal about his time in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand.  If he perhaps looked depressed or upset, his teacher, Ajahn Chah, would approach him and say, “Are you suffering?”  And Jack would reply, “Yes I am.”  And Ajahn Chah, with a smile, would say, “Must be quite attached to something,” and scamper off into the woods.  I don’t think one needs to go off to a forest monastery in Thailand to change their relationship to suffering.  The wisdom is in our own experience.  For me, when I look back at my life, the times I suffered the most was when I was running the hardest, when I was hiding from reality.  If I wasn’t hiding from it, I was attached to an idea of reality being a different way.  My way.

This is just not the way it’s supposed to be.  We’re supposed to be together.  He’s not supposed to do that.  I’m not supposed to be in the hospital.  Life isn’t supposed to hurt this much. 

This type of inner dialogue serves to reinforce this false idea that our ability to be okay depends upon conditions being ideal, or at least in our own favor.  And this is delusion.  And this sets you up for a lot of disappointment.  When you realize things are impermanent, unstable, and find your peace even in that place … That is true awakening.  That’s the ability to be okay regardless of conditions.

On a ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, some monks were brought into the temple to chant for us while we sat on the last night after the hauntingly beautiful silence and stillness that is born out of ten days of practice.  The monks mindfully walked up to the front and sat down silently on their cushions.  I waited, eager to hear them sing.  They began to chant in a very low and deep tone in Sanskrit, phrases that I will never forget.

All things are impermanent.  They arise and they pass away.  To live in harmony with this, brings great happiness.  All things are impermanent.  They arise and they pass away.  To live in harmony with this, brings great happiness.

So take a look around your life.  Is there an area where maybe you’re a little attached?  Maybe attached to a certain outcome?  Attached to a certain lifestyle?  Attached to a certain person?  Or people?  Don’t judge, this is not a place for judgment.  Just notice.  What would happen if you let go just a little?  What happens in your body when you even think about letting go just a little?  Start investigating these things.  Because I know that when I’m suffering… I must be quite attached!!

With love,

Dr. Zack Bein

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