“Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow.
There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
1. The Art of Transforming Suffering
We all want to be happy and there are many books and teachers in the world that try to help people be happier. Yet we all continue to suffer.
the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well.
When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further and transform our suffering into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others.
If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness. But the art of happiness is also and at the same time the art of knowing how to suffer well. If we know how to use our suffering, we can transform it and suffer much less. Knowing how to suffer well is essential to realizing true happiness.
SUFFERING AND HAPPINESS ARE NOT SEPARATE
When we suffer, we tend to think that suffering is all there is at that moment, and happiness belongs to some other time or place. People often ask, “Why do I have to suffer?” Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side
Cold air can be painful if you aren’t wearing enough warm clothes. But when you’re feeling overheated or you’re walking outside with proper clothing, the bracing sensation of cold air can be a source of feeling joy and aliveness. Suffering isn’t some kind of external, objective source of oppression and pain. There might be things that cause you to suffer, such as loud music or bright lights, which may bring other people joy. There are things that bring you joy that annoy other people. The rainy day that ruins your plans for a picnic is a boon for the farmer whose field is parched.
Some people think that in order to be happy they must avoid all suffering, and so they are constantly vigilant, constantly worrying. They end up sacrificing all their spontaneity, freedom, and joy. This isn’t correct. If you can recognize and accept your pain without running away from it, you will discover that although pain is there, joy can also be there at the same time.
NO MUD, NO LOTUS
they are both transitory; they are always changing. The flower, when it wilts, becomes the compost. The compost can help grow a flower again. Happiness is also organic and impermanent by nature. It can become suffering and suffering can become happiness again.
You don’t have to be a dreamer to see a cloud floating in a flower. It’s really there. Sunlight is also there. Sunlight isn’t flower, but without sunlight no flower is possible.
If we continue to look deeply into the flower, we see many other things, like the earth and the minerals. Without them a flower cannot be. So it’s a fact that a flower is made only of nonflower elements. A flower can’t be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with everything else. You can’t remove the sunlight, the soil, or the cloud from the flower.
The mud doesn’t smell so good, but the lotus flower smells very good. If you don’t have mud, the lotus won’t manifest. You can’t grow lotus flowers on marble. Without mud, there can be no lotus.
It is possible of course to get stuck in the “mud” of life. It’s easy enough to notice mud all over you at times. The hardest thing to practice is not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by despair.
But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness.
If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can produce happiness.
DID THE BUDDHA SUFFER
The Buddha did suffer, because he had a body, feelings, and perceptions, like all of us.
But he had a lot of insight, wisdom, and compassion.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
The very first teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment was about suffering. It’s called the Four Noble Truths.
- there is suffering;
- there is a course of action that generates suffering;
- suffering ceases
- there is a course of action leading to the cessation of suffering
you might wonder what’s so noble about suffering? The Buddha was saying that if we can recognize suffering, and if we embrace it and look deeply into its roots, then we’ll be able to let go of the habits that feed it and, at the same time, find a way to happiness. Suffering has its beneficial aspects. It can be an excellent teacher.
WHAT SUFFERING IS MADE OF
There is the suffering of the body, including the sensations of pain, illness, hunger, and physical injury. Some of this suffering is simply unavoidable. Then there is the suffering of the mind, including anxiety, jealousy, despair, fear, and anger.
While we can’t avoid all the suffering in life, we can suffer much less by not watering the seeds of suffering inside us.
Nonhuman animals instinctively know that stopping is the best way to get healed. They don’t need a doctor, a drugstore, or a pharmacist.
We human beings used to have this kind of wisdom.
Mindfulness is the best way to be with our suffering without being overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness is the capacity to dwell in the present moment, to know what’s happening in the here and now. For example, when we’re lifting our two arms, we’re conscious of the fact that we’re lifting our arms. Our mind is with our lifting of our arms, and we don’t think about the past or the future, because lifting our arms is what’s happening in the present moment.
To be mindful means to be aware. It’s the energy that knows what is happening in the present moment. Lifting our arms and knowing that we’re lifting our arms—that’s mindfulness, mindfulness of our action.
When we breathe in and we know we’re breathing in, that’s mindfulness. When we make a step and we know that the steps are taking place, we are mindful of the steps. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. It’s the energy that helps us be aware of what is happening right now and right here, in our body, in our feelings, in our perceptions.
With mindfulness, you can recognize the presence of the suffering in you and in the world. And it’s with that same energy that you tenderly embrace the suffering.
With mindfulness we are no longer afraid of pain. We can even go further and make good use of suffering to generate the energy of understanding and compassion that heals us and we can help others to heal and be happy as well.
The way we start producing the medicine of mindfulness is by stopping and taking a conscious breath, giving our complete attention to our in-breath and our out-breath.
We are truly alive only when the mind is with the body.
If we take care of the suffering inside us, we have more clarity, energy, and strength to help address the suffering violence, poverty, and inequity of our loved ones as well as the suffering in our community and the world. If, however, we are preoccupied with the fear and despair in us, we can’t help remove the suffering of others.
There is an art to suffering well. If we know how to take care of our suffering, we not only suffer much, much less, we also create more happiness around us and in the world.
2. Saying Hello
We don’t stop to take a breath, to even notice if we’re suffering—until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the suffering overwhelms us.
STOPPING AND ACKNOWLEDGING SUFFERING
When suffering arises, the first thing to do is to stop, follow our breathing, and acknowledge it. Don’t try to deny uncomfortable emotions or push them down.
To take one mindful breath requires the presence of our mind, our body, and our intention.
BODY AND MIND TOGETHER
Each of us has a body, but we aren’t always in touch with it. Maybe our body needs us, our body is calling us, but we don’t hear it.
Every feeling is like our child. Suffering is a hurt child crying out to us. But we ignore the voice of the child within.
When I was a young monk, I believed that it took a long time to get any kind of insight. The truth is, there are insights that can come right away. When you practice mindfulness of breathing, you know right away that you are alive, and that to be alive is a wonder.
If you can be aware that you have a living body, and notice when there’s tension in your body, that’s already an important insight.
THE PULL OF DISTRACTIONS
A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgment.
A bell of mindfulness, whether it is an actual bell or some other sound, is a wonderful reminder to come back to ourselves, to come back to life here in the present moment.
The sound of the bell is the voice of the Buddha within. Every one of us has Buddha nature—the capacity for compassionate, clear, understanding nature—within us. So when we hear the sound of the bell, if we like practicing mindfulness, we can respond to that intervention with respect and appreciation. In my tradition, every time we hear the bell, we pause. We stop moving, talking, and thinking, and we listen to the voice of the heart.
Having embraced a child for some minutes, a caring, attentive parent often discovers the cause for his baby’s suffering. Maybe the baby was hungry or had a little fever. The same is true with our suffering. After we’ve cradled and embraced our suffering for some time, we can look deeply into it and begin to understand what has caused it and what has been feeding it. Understanding the nature of the situation makes it much easier to transform it.
UNDERSTANDING THE PAIN
A human being without understanding is a human being without compassion, utterly alone, cut off, and isolated. To connect with others, however, we first have to be willing to look deeply into ourselves.
THE PAIN OF OUR ANCESTORS
Just as the plant of corn is the continuation of the seed of corn, you are the continuation of your parents.
I can see the hand of my mother in my hand. I can see the arms of my father in my arms. I am my parents continuation.
You may believe that your father is outside of you, but your father is also inside of you. Your father is present in every cell of your body. You can’t remove your father from you. It’s impossible. When he suffered, you suffered, and when you suffer, he suffers. Getting angry with your father, you’re getting angry with yourself.
So part of looking deeply into our suffering is to know that it is not ours alone. When we’re able to embrace our suffering, we’re also embracing our ancestors, and the healing goes back through the generations.
EXPLORING OUR FEAR
So many of us walk around with the pain and agitation of useless fear, whether that is the fear of dying, fear of hunger, injury or loss, fear of what might happen if we do the wrong thing, or fear of being hurt by or of hurting someone we care about.
You think that you will die in a few years, or twenty years, or thirty years. That’s not true. You are dying now. You have been dying all the time.
Fifty to seventy billion cells die each day in the average human adult.
If old cells don’t die, there’s no chance for new cells to be born. So death is a very good thing. It’s very crucial for birth. You are undergoing birth and death in this very moment.
There is no birth and death; everything dies and renews itself all the time. When you get that kind of insight, you no longer tire yourself out with anxiety and aversion.
YOUR TRUE ASPIRATION
Many of us live in communities where everyone has a roof over their head and enough food to eat, and no one is scared of bombs dropping on them, yet people are still suffering. This is because we have forgotten or misplaced our deepest aspiration.
Many of us slog through life without conscious awareness or intention. We set ourselves a course and we barrel ahead, without stopping to ask whether this path is fulfilling our most important goals.
So we postpone happiness and try to run into the future and attain the conditions of happiness that we don’t have now.
You can look deeply at your true aspiration and get the insight, “I don’t need to run into the future in order to be happy.” We all have the habit of running, every one of us. That habit creates tension, not only in the body but in the mind, and it’s a major source of our suffering.
If we haven’t taken the time to stop, come home to ourselves, and look deeply, we may not know what brings us our deepest happiness. Perhaps we are working hard at success in one area, but our deepest aspiration is to work in another field or to help people in another way. We need to stop and ask, “Can I realize my deepest aspiration if I pursue this path?” “What is really preventing me from taking the path I most deeply desire?”
DEVELOPING UNDERSTANDING AND COMPASSION
The way to understanding is first to listen to yourself, because the roots of our suffering are deep and connected with the roots of the suffering of others.
Usually we think that other people, such as our parents, our partner, or people at work, are to blame for our hurt. But looking more deeply, we can see the true sources of our own suffering, and we also can see that the person who we think is out to get us is a victim of his or her own suffering.
Understanding our own hurt allows us to see and understand the suffering of others. Looking without judgment, we can understand, and compassion is born. Transformation is possible.
That is why he suffers so much and makes the people around him suffer. What he needs is help, not punishment.
If you stay with this practice, the sufffering of anger or jealousy in you will dissipate and the flower of compassion will be born.
When there is no more blame or criticism in your eyes, when you are able to look at others with compassion, you see things very differently. You speak differently. The other person can sense you are truly seeing her and understanding her, and that already eases her pain significantly.
And when compassion is born in your heart, you naturally want to reach out, to help others suffer less.
Without compassion and understanding, You can’t relate to any other human being.
I wouldn’t want to be in a world without any suffering, because then there would be no compassion and understanding either. If you haven’t suffered hunger, you can’t appreciate having something to eat. If you haven’t gone through a war, you don’t know the value of peace.
Our most basic difficulty is that sometimes we lack good communication inside ourselves. We don’t understand ourselves. In our body there are conflicts and tensions, and we can’t resolve them. Instead of stopping and looking deeply, we are running as far away as possible from the loneliness, grief, sadness, anger, and emptiness that we feel we can’t bear.
If we’re in this situation and we find ourselves unable to communicate well with others, that’s normal. They aren’t communicating with themselves, and we aren’t communicating with ourselves, so is it any wonder we have difficulty communicating with each other? The situation doesn’t call for blame or punishment; it calls for understanding and compassion.
We ourselves need help. The other person also needs help. Nobody needs punishment.
The most effective way to show compassion to another is to listen, rather than talk. You have an opportunity to practice deep, compassionate listening.
BEING A MINDFULNESS BELL FOR A LOVED ONE
Some of the situations and accidents that cause us the greatest suffering, when seen objectively, do not look very big. But because we don’t know how to manage them, they feel enormous.
RELEASING THE ARROW
if a second arrow comes and strikes exactly at the same spot, the pain will not be only double, it will become at least ten times more intense.
The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life—being rejected, losing a valuable object, failing a test, getting injured in an accident—are analogous to the first arrow. They cause some pain. The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety.