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What suffering does

What suffering does

A commentary on the New York Times op-ed article “What Suffering Does” by David Brooks.

  • People desire happiness, yet they feel shaped by suffering
  • Physical or social suffering can give an outsider’s point of view
  • Suffering makes some people think more deeply about the human condition

What suffering does (download)

I wanted to share with you another article I found in the New York Times, on the “Opinion” page. It’s by David Brooks and it’s called What Suffering Does. So he presents a view and I thought I would read it and then make some comments as we go along. He says:

Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one 3-month period last year more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But it’s interesting because psychologists recently have said that they’re always researching suffering and they’ve never really researched happiness, so now they’re starting to research happiness, which is quite interesting. Of course what happiness means in the world and what we mean by happiness are two different ball games. So he says:

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”

And it’s true. We all want happiness of whatever kind, but often it’s the difficulties that really shape us and help us to grow. Isn’t it? People who don’t have many difficulties, like in the god realms, they have so much happiness–sense pleasure happiness–they never think of practicing the Dharma. It’s difficult to grow in that way. Human beings, too, who don’t have difficulty don’t really know how to understand the rest of us. It’s quite difficult for them because they always are expecting to get everything they want and everything to go their way, and when things don’t, you know, very difficult for them. He goes on:

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering.”

Thank you. There IS nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering.

Just as failure is sometimes just failure, suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as soon as possible. But some people are clearly ennobled by it.

And this is very much what comes when we talk about “far-reaching fortitude,” is being ennobled by suffering because we have the fortitude of dealing with criticism and unpleasant things happening to us, the fortitude dealing with physical and mental suffering, and the fortitude of dealing with trying to realize emptiness. And all those experiences can be difficult, but it’s precisely because we practice fortitude during them that then we are able to become fully awakened Buddhas. It’s like what Lama Zopa told me in my “Sam Story,” that Sam is more important than the Buddha because you can’t cultivate fortitude with people who are always kind to you. So sometimes the suffering, the difficulties, really do ennoble us.

Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

And that’s really true. You can see that. When you are in the majority of any kind of situation you don’t see discrimination. It’s when you’re in the minority that then you see it. So of course when you see it and you experience the suffering then you can empathize with people in any minority group that are experiencing suffering from discrimination or persecution. When you haven’t had that experience you don’t even see that there’s injustice, or discrimination, or unfairness. It doesn’t even register on your radar.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

So it’s true. When we think about happiness it’s all about me, I, my and mine. And it can be that way with suffering, too, all we think about is my suffering, my suffering, I want happiness. But what he’s saying is that when we suffer, if we’re smart our suffering can send us in a totally different direction besides this, “Well I’ve got to be happy all the time.” And, “How come other people have it and I don’t?” kind of mentality.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself.

So this is the smart person, not the hedonistic person.

The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be.

Because often in the routines of life we think we are immortal, we think we are infallible, we think that we are in control. When suffering strikes we realize we are not immortal, we are not infallible, we are not in control. And so a wise person, seeing that, becomes really wise. They’re able to meditate and accept the reality of things instead of rejecting the reality.

The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

So this is the smart person. The difficulty they’re suffering takes them deeper into asking, “What is the human condition?” “What is life all about?” “What is the meaning of life?” “What really is suffering?” That’s I think when you realize also the suffering of pervasive conditioning. So the suffering makes you go deep–for the smart person–and really question what’s going on here. What is the human condition? Why does everybody face difficulty? And that kind of questioning will lead somebody to the Dharma. And so very often it’s people suffering that leads them to the Dharma because it smashes through this thing of, “I’m a happy person. Everything’s going good in my life. And everything’s gonna continue to go good.” And it’s like, “Whoa.” You know?

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

Now here’s where Dharma has a little bit different slant. Because here it’s like, “You can’t stop feeling pain. You can’t stop missing the one you love. You just have to stay there in your suffering.” Dharma is saying, “No.” Dharma is saying if you change the way you look at the situation then you can change your experience of it. It’s not that you’re going to come out of the situation saying, “Someone died, I feel so happy.” It’s not that. But it means that you can go into what’s really going on in the situation, accept the reality of it, and by accepting it come to peace inside yourself. Or if you’re suffering because somebody criticized you, or you lost your job and you’re feeling down about yourself, or something like that. You look at the situation from a different view and then you solve your own problem. And again, you can reach a state of acceptance and peace within yourself. And here acceptance does not mean complacency. You still continue to grow. So Dharma has a little bit different take on this situation here.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

So it’s true. If we go in to suffering in a deep way and really understand what samsara is about, what karma is about, how we get out of samsara, what the path to it is, what the result is… We are involved in something transcendent and can really be of great benefit. Abraham Lincoln did it in another way. We’re doing it, too.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless.

This is important. Because when we suffer sometimes we go into this state of, “I am helpless. I am hopeless.” And he’s saying here not masters of it, but you’re not helpless either. There is something you can do.

They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it.

So we may not be able to stop the situation. We may not be able to stop physical pain, for example. But we can certainly respond to pain differently. We can certainly respond to difficult situations differently. So our usual patterns may be self-pity, complaining, whatever it is, getting angry, rejecting the reality… But if we really go deeper we can see that we can respond to difficulties in a different way.

They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it.

“I’ve experienced suffering. I see other people suffering. I have a moral responsibility to respond in a helpful way to it. In a way that doesn’t create more problems for other people, but in a way that solves problems.”

People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

These people are not trying to medicate or ignore their suffering. Lots of times when we suffer, instead of facing the suffering what we do is go to a lot of parties, don’t we? We distract ourselves. We go to parties. We go to movies. We read novels. We watch television. We eat. We take drugs. We self-medicate. Drink alcohol. Do any number of things to avoid the suffering situation. But he’s saying that these people who go deeply, they respond in a different way. They don’t seek hedonistic pleasure as a way of self-medicating pain.

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.

Thought training. Isn’t that the essence of thought training?

Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations.

Don’t they? To benefit other people’s kids.

Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.”

You know, a couple of days ago there was a shooting outside of two Jewish community centers in Kansas City, and ironically the people who were killed were Christians. But it was definitely a hate crime against the Jewish community. On one of these Faith United things that I get there was a rabbi who wrote something so beautiful about that. Because it’s also the eve of Passover. Passover is the holiday where you celebrate coming out of slavery into freedom and so he wrote about this hate crime also awakening us to not just anti-Semitism, but he was saying that a year or two ago it was also at a Sikh temple there was a massacre, and then at Newton Elementary School children of different religions who were slain, and then he spoke about an incident that I don’t know anything about that happened in Chicago about somebody getting killed… And it happens to African Americans, too, you know, you look at [Trayvon Martin] and also that other kid that was killed by playing loud music… So the rabbi took that situation and brought it into what everybody’s experiencing in the world. Instead of it being my personal suffering it’s like, let’s look at everybody’s suffering and respond to everybody’s suffering. Really quite beautiful. I should find it somewhere and print it out.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility [and hedonism] and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them.

They become social activists. They work for the benefit of sentient beings. They seek out ways in which they can be of benefit to others.

Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

Or into their meditation. Into their social engagement projects. Whatever it is.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.

So they come out stronger. And find resources they didn’t know about. And cultivate resources they did know about. And are able to really be of great benefit. We should remember this kind of thing whenever we have any suffering. Even if it’s the small suffering of stubbing your toe, or larger sufferings that happen to us in life, or big sufferings that we experience together with other living beings, to find a way to transform that suffering and become ennobled by it through our Dharma practice. Because if we don’t, the alternative is we become weak, and we make others suffer, don’t we?

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.