By Ty H. Phillips
Being sick, sucks.
That’s really all there is to say about it. You feel miserable, long term health issues can cause emotional distress and depression and you are unable to fully enjoy the things and people around you. This being said, I feel it is paramount to address a growing trend in new age and Buddhist lingo; “suffering is optional.” While well meaning, this is both inaccurate as far as Buddhist teachings are concerned but also a sign of a dangerous teacher.
Suffering is inherent in life. We get sick, we lose friends and family, we see swaths of people sick, starving, dying in war and famines and left untreated with curable diseases that slowly eat away at their lives and well being. Suffering is reality, but not all of reality.
Suffering is not optional but our attachment to how we feel about it is somewhat under our control.
Here are the facts of life *que 80’s TV theme music.* You will suffer. You will also laugh, rejoice, mourn, learn, grow, feel indifferent and a large collection of other feelings. Suffering and sadness are not something to be avoided. This aversion to life experiences is also not part of correct Buddhist thinking. Aversion is in fact something to be avoided; it robs us of being within the moment, the present and actually pushes us further into suffering. It runs wild with attachment mentality.
We are attached to the idea of not suffering and because of this fight for freedom from suffering, we end up suffering more. We set ourselves up for expectation failure.
Chogyam Trungpa stated it clearly, “Pleasure is not a reward and pain is not a punishment. They are just ordinary experiences.” Our running from one or toward another is what heightens our suffering and exactly what the Buddha was referring to when he talked of freedom from suffering. He wasn’t saying that we will never experience pain or sickness or depression ever again (he needed periods of seclusion to re-center himself), he was saying that with awareness we can lessen our suffering. We can behave in such a way, understand in such a way as to not make it worse and even make it better.
So no, suffering is not optional, but our level of attachment to it can be.
When we teach or promote this idea that suffering is optional we often inadvertently spit in the face of those who are suffering—those who are sick, those who are abused, those who are poor and all by no fault of their own. They are suffering. By telling them they shouldn’t be or don’t have to be invalidates both their experience and simple reality. It is not skillful means.
Our insistence on spreading this false ideology is more in line with how we are feeling or wish we were feeling than with any legitimate Buddhist teaching. It shouts of our aversion, and it is not helping us or those we are most trying to comfort. The best way to be skillful in this teaching is to offer up our own suffering and how we found skillful means to suffer less; by understanding our attachment to our feelings and allowing them to circle around and around the drain instead of allowing them to go down.
We can understand our attachments and in doing so, we can lessen suffering—both yours and mine.
Editor: Dana Gornall