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Samsara & Selfhood: Life is Suffering. And That’s Okay.

I think Buddhism often gets a bad reputation because of the Four Noble Truths. People hear the first part about how life is suffering and think, “Man, that Buddha dude was a real pessimist.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ve realized that my own understanding of the Four Noble Truths has shifted. I’m not sure when, or how exactly, but all of a sudden the idea that life is suffering feels really liberating to me.

The word suffering has a specific connotation that has brought many Buddhist scholars to see this translation as a bad one. I think uncomfortable or irritating would be a more accurate description. Sometimes, life really is insufferable, but most generally – especially for those us of living in the so-called “first world” – life is just unsatisfactory. Things don’t go as planned. Or we don’t know how things will turn out. It’s too hot or too cold. People disappoint us.  Or we disappoint ourselves. In both big and small ways, life is far from perfect.

So why do we cling so tightly to this idea that life should always be good and everything should always work out? When you ask that question out loud it sounds absurd. Most people would agree that sometimes life is rough and things often don’t work out. But yet, when we are actually in that moment - when it’s not abstract anymore and we’re actually feeling those tough discomforting feelings - we become incredibly distraught. Our thoughts become “Why is this happening to me? It isn’t supposed to work out like this! I don’t know how I am going to make it! How could they do that to me? Etc., Etc.”

Recently, and most certainly from my meditation practice, I’ve found myself relating to these moments differently. I absolutely still have these thoughts and emotions. They come up so quick and with such intensity. What’s new is that I’ve started to see them for what they are – just thoughts. When we meditate the general instruction is to notice our thoughts, recognize them as such, and watch them pass as we bring our attention back to the breath. This process has started to occur for me off the cushion. When I feel dissatisfaction or distressing thoughts come up I’ve noticed more space between me and my emotionthoughts. With that space I have the room to remember that, “these are just thoughts. And just because I think it doesn’t mean it's true or that I have to believe it.” Then, because my thoughts aren’t myself I can look at them with curiosity. I can “check the facts” if you will and see what truth or validity there might be.

And this is where the Four Noble Truths come to mind and I feel a little less burdened. Most often, there isn’t a great deal of truth to these emotionthoughts that so quickly attempt to consume my being. Almost always, I return to the first Noble Truth and remember that this is just what life is – uncomfortable, unsatisfactory, and far from my personal fantasy of perfection. If this is what life is, then I didn’t necessarily to any thing wrong. This moment of uncomfortability is not some traumatic detour off of my life’s blissful path – it is the path. It is my life. And I can handle it. That's the important part that I’ve only recently begun to believe. Sometimes life stinks, and I can handle that. I can sit with the crappiness of this moment, and I can watch it pass just like my thoughts when I meditate, and I can bring myself back to the rest of my experience more skilled and capable than I was before. Life is suffering, but that doesn’t mean I have to suffer.

This feels so incredibly liberating to me. This is what life is. Nothing is wrong or broken. I don’t fail as human. This is life. Just keep going. How brilliant. And beautiful.

There are two quotes about this that keep bouncing around in my mind this week. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “Life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.” That's exactly right. Our boat will sink. We will die. We can’t stop or change that reality. But once we accept that as true we’ll feel less constraint, and more freedom in our ability to enjoy the sailing and the sea. On a similar note, Susan Piver said something I just love in her January podcast Love, Attachment & Heartbreak. It's a fantastic podcast if you haven’t already listened to it check it out. In it Piver said, “There is no relationships that is not going to end in heartbreak, so you can relax.” I keep coming back to this with myself and in conversation with friends. Heartbreak is a part of life. Suffering is a part of life. It’s inevitable. So relax.

But relaxing with this inevitability doesn’t mean we get to let go of our accountability to ourselves or to others. We don’t get to carelessly go through life unmindful and without (right) effort because we know the ending. No. That will only perpetuate more suffering, hence the significance of the fourth Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path. Relaxing in this sense means to stop worrying and start living. I’d like to paraphrase and expand Piver’s idea from the podcast once more. Speaking about relationships Piver says, “The idea of love is to teach you how to love. To teach you to give your heart away over and over and over again. To continually step out of your comfort zone. “ I think this exactly right for life more broadly speaking. The idea of life is to teach you how to live. That’s it. That's what the all suffering is about. It’s about learning how to live. And to me, that is an exciting and liberating endeavor.

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