How Could Suffering Be Healthy? Part One

One of the noble truths of Buddhism is translated as “life is suffering.”

At first, this might sound like a total downer. But as Megan Bruneau explains in her article “3 Buddhist Beliefs That Will Rock Your World (And Make You Much Happier),” it’s not that simple. And a greater understanding of the role of suffering in our lives can help us mitigate it in healthy ways.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “… Into each life some rain must fall.” (And he made it clear how he felt about rain—“My life is cold, and dark, and dreary.”) It’s true that negative things happen at some point in all our lives—there’s no getting around that. But how we deal with the unpleasant feelings that arise (loss, sadness, fatigue, boredom, anxiety) can make a tremendous difference in our experience of suffering.

How many of us try to avoid or suppress unpleasant feelings? Some people stuff their lives so full of activities—they’re so busy—that they never have time to sit alone with their thoughts. Some of us try to fill a feeling of emptiness or a gnawing deep inside ourselves by overeating, or we numb ourselves with drugs or alcohol, or we distract ourselves with gambling or sex (or even a fanatical devotion to exercise).

But hey, doesn’t Buddhism also say that “Pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional”? We think we shouldn’t have to suffer. Life can be easy and pain-free if we simply choose the option of no suffering! Well, it turns out there’s more to that expression than first appears as well.

Bruneau observes that our culture has perpetuated this myth—she writes that this misconception of a perfect life without any suffering is “made popular by the fashion, beauty, and pharmaceutical industries.” I would agree! We are tempted to believe that if we just buy stuff, have procedures, treat ourselves, or take a pill, we can escape the unpleasantness of being human and our lives will be fantastic!

Ironically, the idea that suffering is optional does not stem from simply avoiding the negative or choosing instead to look only on the bright side. Rather, we create more suffering for ourselves by clinging to preconceived ideas and expectations for happiness and positivity, or by clinging to material things hoping they will bring joy or fulfillment. Attachment to stuff or to expectations (expectations like “we shouldn’t have to suffer”) can actually cause more frustration, disappointment and other forms of suffering.

If we don’t deal with our issues—whatever is causing pain and suffering—those issues will keep reappearing in our lives and sometimes even gain strength. Sometimes the lessons keep getting more painful or stressful until we finally have a breakthrough. Sometimes people never have a breakthrough, and they just turn bitter and spend most of their lives suffering and making others miserable as well.

So rather than fearing negativity and avoiding feeling uncomfortable at all costs (either by avoidance strategies or by seeking some quick resolution) this Buddhist truth suggests we can be more at peace by simply recognizing our suffering and accepting it as a normal part of life.

Bruneau has this suggestion, “Try not to buy into the idea that you’re broken. Expect that death, aging, sickness, suffering, and loss are part of life. Practice acceptance in the face of strife. Stop attaching to the idea that life should be easy and pain-free, both emotionally and physically.

“Illness, heartbreak, loss, disappointment, and frustration are parts of life that can be mitigated by practicing ‘non-attachment.’ Try to embrace imperfection, to let go of this belief that life should be a certain way. Open your heart to uncertainty.”

This reminds me of an old friend who believed so completely that she was “broken” and in need of fixing, that she really couldn’t enjoy her life. She likened it to having a flat bicycle tire. You have to stop and fix it before you can ride on.

In my estimation, while we do at times have to focus temporarily on fixing a flat tire, we can’t “stop” life and fix every issue before moving on. And we’d be better off if we let go of the notion that our bicycle has to be in perfect condition before we can enjoy riding it! We all go through life with dents and scrapes and old hurts and “imperfections.” Being “broken” is just part of the human experience. Or as the Buddhist noble truth says, “life is suffering.” Embracing that truth can lead to less suffering!

Since negative stuff and unpleasantness is inevitable, we mustn’t try to run away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. Better to sit with it, think about it, deal with it, ask for help if we need it, process it. And then we have the option of letting go. Because dwelling on it at that point would just invite unnecessary suffering. At that point of healing, suffering is optional.

Next week, in Part Two, I will share more thoughts on suffering, and how acknowledging it’s existence is an integral component of compassion.

Source: You can find Megan Bruneau’s article in a blog entitled MindBodyGreen, on

Photo by Photo Dharma/Flickr

banyan buddha


Category : Blog Posted on February 24, 2016

Leave a Reply