Life is not suffering
Lessons from misquoting the Buddha
I have often defaulted to the quip, "Life is suffering," when confronted with the harsh realities of life. Wasn't this the Buddha's first Noble Truth, after all? Spoiler alert—no.
It made sense to me, though. Tragedy and loss are ubiquitous, and violations of our shared humanity are all too easy to find. Wars dominate current affairs. Every day, people are subjected to barbaric acts of rape, torture, and persecution. Characters like Fritzl and Bundy inevitably walk the streets around us along with perverse religious leaders, all perpetrating horrendous abuses behind the façades of white-picket fences and piety.
It is easy to default to a worldview that assumes the world to be an inherently broken, if not evil, place. Perhaps, like me, you've felt like there's always someone, somewhere, out to get you. This pessimism becomes self-reinforcing. When things inevitably go wrong, it's easy to justify one's cynical stance, and so the spiral into negativity and depression begins.
But what did the Buddha actually say? The first Noble Truth is not "life is suffering," but rather an exploration of the forms of suffering we encounter in life. This is a subtle, but important reframing. In the Buddha's own words, "Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering."
This post is not meant to be an exposition of Buddhist principles. I have no pretenses of being a student of Buddhism, so I'll steer clear of exegesis. However, it is important to acknowledge that the remaining three Noble Truths explore the origins of suffering and assert that there is a way out of suffering. Maybe one day I'll have sufficient personal experience of these truths to write more about them.
But for now, I want to emphasize the importance of this reframing. The Buddha acknowledges suffering as a universal experience, instead of saying that the nature of existence, at its very core, is suffering. If the latter were true, surely it would be better to not "be" at all? This can be a dangerous line of thinking with dire consequences.
I find a philosophical parallel in the work of Albert Camus, who addresses this question in his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus", albeit from a different angle. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to eternally roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Camus uses this as a philosophical metaphor for life; that our pursuits are inherently meaningless and absurd. Given this seemingly negative position, he questions the validity of suicide as a solution. He wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” But Camus does not see absurdity as a negative, and hence suicide is not a valid response. In the preface to his essay, he writes, "Even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate." Instead, he encourages us to imagine Sisyphus as happy, finding a defiant joy in his task. We can similarly confront the absurdity of life courageously and find meaning in our everyday lives.
Just as we can make meaning out of the absurd, we can also make meaning out of our suffering. One of the easiest ways to do this is by connecting with our fellow confounded humans. After all, we are all in this together. This theme is poignantly illustrated in the film, "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once." There's a great line where the antagonist, Jobu Tupaki, highlights the beautiful irony of meaning-making in the middle of a nihilistic diatribe. She speaks of existence as "just a lifetime of fractured moments, contradictions and confusion, with only a few specks of time where anything actually makes any sense." Those "specks of time" are the moments of connection with others, which make the "fractured" remainder all worthwhile. I'd suggest you watch the film to experience the full magic of those words (and to avoid any spoilers from my side.)
But we can do even better than these fleeting "moments of connection." A major antidote to suffering is to be found in changing our relationships with ourselves. To quote Ye (Kanye West) in the song, Jesus Walks, "We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism. But most of all we at war with ourselves". Stopping the warfare within is possibly the most direct path out of suffering, but also the most challenging.
I'm sure many have been told that "they're being too hard on themselves" and to "just love themselves more". Practically speaking, how do you do this? While there may be appropriate guilt to navigate and integrate if you have consciously (or even sometimes unconsciously) wronged others through your actions, these emotions are often neurotic, getting us stuck in endless loops. It's virtually impossible to counter these by playing mental games of affirmation practices, which have limited enduring value. Many outsource their processes or get caught up in spiritual bypassing—the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues.
What we require is a careful examination of our lives; to confront our core wounds and unravel the narratives of guilt and shame that trap us in self-loathing. The Buddha had another teaching that is instructive here, "The Parable of the Second Arrow." Being struck by an arrow is obviously painful. But if a second arrow were to strike in the same place, it would be even worse. The first arrow represents the inevitable suffering of our human experience, and often relates to early childhood wounds. But the second arrow is self-inflicted. It is our mental and emotional reactions to the first arrow: guilt, shame, anger and resentment. The teaching here is to realise that whilst the first arrow is usually out of our control and we need to acknowledge the inherent suffering borne by it, the second (and third and fourth) arrows are usually of our own making.
How then do we stop these further arrows? In a word, awareness. I've spoken elsewhere about my journey with meditation. Meditation allows us to develop the mindful qualities required to become aware of when we are inflicting further arrows upon ourselves, and thereby stop the recursive process of suffering. In addition, metta, or loving-kindness meditation is a helpful practice to actively develop compassion for ourselves as we learn to turn down the volume of our inner critic and self-soothe our inner child.
Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, but life is not an inherent slogfest of suffering. It is up to us to change the way we engage with our suffering. Instead of crawling into the foetal position and assuming a victim mentality, or frenetically trying to control our circumstances to avoid it, we can take the courageous middle path and, like Sisyphus, defiantly engage in the contents of our lives. We can find "specks of time" where it all makes sense by connecting with others and embracing our shared humanity. With skillful awareness, we can limit the unnecessary self-inflicted arrows and stop the war within ourselves.
A final lesson is to be careful of what you choose to believe. Wisdom can quickly turn to poison with even a subtle twist. The Buddha was a wise man; some would even say he was enlightened. But his words of compassion and hope became a mantra of cynicism for me. Addressing this has been an important step on my lifelong journey towards a more compassionate presence for myself and others. It's a reminder to challenge your beliefs, especially when they result in further arrows of negativity and self-inflicted suffering. If you take away one thing from this post, remember to stop at the first arrow.