Suffering is Not a Requirement

February 2, 2015

I recently received a glossy catalog from a company selling high-end clothing, shoes and gear for the outdoor enthusiast. The cover photo showed a very fit and perfectly outfitted not-quite-middle-aged man just reaching the crest of a ridge trail on his morning run with the most magnificent view of massive alpine mountains in the background beneath a giant blue sky. The caption read “Suffer Better.”

 

The Buddha was right when he said that in life there is suffering, sometimes inaccurately translated and misunderstood as “life is suffering.” Not so, of course. Life is also full of joy, contentment, surprise, wonder and mystery. The First Noble Truth, and that’s what we’re talking about, says that life includes pain, challenge, stress, and sometimes even suffering, but life itself is not suffering.

 

When I read the caption on the photo, aside from getting a good chuckle and admiring the clever writer, it gave me pause to consider that when pain and difficulty become suffering, how can we ‘suffer better’? Buy more stuff? Be ultra-fit and run extreme trails high in the mountains? Travel to exotic places? I think it’s more immediate and accessible than that. Eat well, sleep well, recognize that we probably already have what we need, meditate, pay attention, be kind, include our grief and sorrow as normal, let go of unnecessary judgments, and perhaps most importantly, notice the good and love ourselves for who and how we are right now.

 

And we know how easy it is to get stuck in the muck. Sometimes it really is a difficult day and we really do feel lousy, but that doesn’t require us to become the suffering itself. Whatever challenges we face, when we can be utterly aware of whatever is happening in this moment, we may find that things aren’t as bad as we imagined. Rick Hanson, the neuropsychologist says “we’re almost always alright right now.” Think about it. Even in the darkest moments, there probably is some part of us that is okay. I find this very hopeful.

 

When we receive the mountains of seductive catalogs pushing us to Suffer Better by Buying More Stuff, there’s an apt teaching from the Buddha that instructs us to live our lives Five Bites from Full. It’s a great instruction for exploring sufficiency and satisfaction, and takes us far beyond eating. What is enough? How do we experience and know for ourselves when enough truly is enough? Five Bites from Full applies to all of the ways we consume; materially, relationally, electronically, everything. But food is a good starting point.

 

At your next meal, try putting your fork down in-between bites and don’t pick it up again until you’ve swallowed each bite. It takes a lot of patience, determination and a sense of humor to do this for even a few bites, let alone an entire meal. By slowing down, you’ll likely taste your food and experience eating in new ways. You may notice the colors, texture and beauty of the food itself, take the time for a more intimate conversation, and get a clearer sense of satisfaction and even sufficiency. And that is certainly plenty.

 

Living Five Bites from Full brings us closer to our fullness and perhaps even helps us suffer, when we do, a little bit better.