Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Suffering is a word laden with personal meanings, semantic preferences, and emotional connection. Everyone has their own idea - their own understanding - of the term. And everyone could tell you a personal story or share an event in their lives they might label as suffering.

The Buddhist discussion of suffering often emphasizes that all beings suffer. Suffering is an inherent and undeniable aspect of living and being human. Not because we are meant to suffer, or deserve to suffer, or even because it's impossible not to suffer. Rather, because the source of suffering is something with which we all must grapple - because we are human.

What is the source? Attachment.

Many Buddhists from many traditions define suffering as attachment. Attachment to form. Attachment to word. Attachment to what we thought would be, should be, will be - but isn't.

I've seen it defined as desire, craving, expectation. And all those things are accurate and yet somehow not quite accurate and capturing all that may be felt/known/understood. I suppose it's unavoidable, because language is an imperfect form of communication for many things. But in the process of seeking to better know suffering, I still yearn to have a greater grasp on the concept of attachment.

Lately, I see it most strongly in myself as an attempt to live life along an imagined, anticipated, or deeply wanted path - rather than the one that actually exists. This leads to pessimistic emotional states and often-lengthy patterns of negative thoughts when what I wish to be and what is do not align.

Sleep, food, work, play, down time, motherhood, housework, relationships, my body... all offer an opportunity to notice how, where, and why I cling to certain things - and the ways that leads to suffering.

I experience suffering in many forms. Loneliness. Despair. Restlessness. Anger. Impatience. Guilt. Negativity. Oddly enough, this type of suffering so often springs from the silliest and most trivial of things. Seeing no one has responded to something I've posted on Facebook. Noticing all the boxes and jetsom still sitting in our apartment while continuing to leave them untouched. Watching TV instead of reading a book, writing, or working. A night of interrupted sleep after deciding I need 8 hours to feel rested. Music that is too loud in the restaurant. Imagined conversations played out in cyclical detail in my head.

This type of suffering - the self-inflicted, ego-driven, little "i" suffering - is well within my control and directly related to my emotional and cognitive attachments. I so often define myself and my experience though the minute details of my life... particularly the ones that are emotionally charged or involve much thinking. And yet, those aspects of self are but tiny sections of the whole me.

I sometimes wonder, if I allowed myself to experience more of the whole me - unfiltered through attachment and even attachment to suffering - would I enjoy myself more?

Suffering is real. There is real suffering in the world. Plenty of it. One need only read the news or watch and listen to others to know there is great pain in the world. Legitimate and, at times, overwhelming.

What I have begun to glimpse just this week is how to start discerning my true suffering (true sadness, legitimate and authentic pain) from the suffering I have chosen for myself. It's the suffering to which I am attached - perhaps because it is familiar, or because it's been a part of my identity for so long I can no longer distinguish the boundaries. Maybe because it is easier to hurt sometimes than to let go. Strange, but honest.

Sometimes I find it easier to slip into hurting than to truly put in the effort and commitment required to release my attachments and allow myself to become empty. I find emptiness a bit scary. But it might also mean that what fills me next is a genuine response to life - and as life continually changes and moves... so does my knowing of me.

May you separate your true suffering from that which is chosen. May you remove unnecessary burdens from your heart.

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