There is some pain we cannot avoid and then there is the suffering associated to that pain. The Buddha taught that there are certain inevitabilities we all will encounter in life: birth, old age, sickness and death. These four situations are really about how change is inevitable and will create unavoidable physical pain. It does no good trying to ignore these truths. In most cases, ignoring the reality of pain associated with old age, for example, may cause more harm to ourselves. That pain may be telling us something important like, “Go to the doctor, don’t ignore this.” Whenever an elderly person gets a bad cough I always suggest they get it checked-out because of the prevalence of pneumonia leading to death in old age. I’m not suggesting we try to live forever, but we are fortunate to have a healthy body and life. We should consider how briefly we are in this world and take care of ourselves.
Denial or Acceptance, it’s your Choice
When we neglect the reality of the change that happens to our bodies: birth, old age, sickness and death; it causes us more suffering. This suffering first takes the form in denial of what is occuring. Acceptance of the reality of change allows us to respond directly to the situation. This may look like: going to the doctor if you are sick or talking about feelings around the death of a friend or relative. When we accept what is happening we are no longer caught in a struggle of ignoring or trying to force the situation to change inappropriately which leads to suffering for ourselves and usually others. An example of this happened to a friend of mine recently. She was out walking and fell down, spraining her ankle badly. The ankle injury ended up being the same ankle she sprained several months ago. It occurred to her that the reason she fell was because she never allowed that ankle to heal. Instead, she had taped it up and continued to do all the regular outdoor activities she enjoyed. Her ankle was weak and was not properly rehabilitated. Fortunately, she did not break her ankle and is currently go through a serious physical therapy for her ankle and the connecting tendons. Releasing the struggle through acceptance can allow some space into the situation. This spaciousness can allow for some actual connection to what it happening. When we feel connected, the pain will often suddenly be workable. Workability means we no longer feel trapped but that the situation has offered choices…some that will cause more resistance and others that will continue to allow the situation to open up to more connection. My friend was able to recognize that she needed to change her lifestyle so that she could properly take care of the hurt ankle. This has allowed her to give herself a break from trying to push through and related to her pain properly so that it can heal.
Physical pain isn’t always the culprit of our suffering. Sometimes our suffering is related to not being able to control the fact that things just change. There are three types of suffering that the Buddha identified in this category: coming across what is undesirable, not being able to hold onto what is pleasurable, and not getting what you want. For the most part, these are pretty self explanatory. Things happen in our life that just stink and we have no control over. We may lose our job, the plumbing may back up, it rains on our wedding day, we get a flat tire on the way to work…Murphy’s Law, if it can happen, it will. Humor and a relaxed attitude is a skill set utilized best during these moments. Not being able to hold onto what is pleasurable is a painful reminder to us about how attached we are to things being pleasurable or comfortable. For anyone who has unrequited love, experienced the end of romantic love, or gotten to the end of the best homemade pie ever; this is what not being able to hold onto pleasure is all about. We may repeatedly try to recreate the enjoyable experience only to find frustration and disappointment. Finally, another aspect of suffering is that we may find ourselves searching for a peak experience or ideal situation which is never found. Every time we think “this is it”, it turns out not to be what we thought or lacking in some way. For others, we may not know what we’re searching for but only that we still haven’t found “it.” The bottom line is we have difficulty with change. There are ways that we can relate to change that either cause us to suffer more or suffer less.
- Recognize that change is occurring
- Notice how we are relating to the change
- Accept what you don’t have control over
- Identify your choices
- Try to relax and respond appropriately
- Connect to some appreciation for either yourself or other