The Good Thing About Suffering

It makes me happy when someone admits they are suffering.

Please don't get me wrong – I don't enjoy the suffering of others. Rather, it brings me something akin to joy when someone who is suffering admits it. This is because the acknowledgement that there is a problem opens up the possibility of change, as well as the profound spiritual adventure that goes along with change. (Please see the footnote about the difference between pain and suffering.)

Most people don't want to admit they are suffering, either to themselves or to others. To feel suffering, even in a mild form like worry, vague dissatisfaction, or numbness, can seem like a failure. As adults we are supposed to be competent and self-reliant. To admit suffering can also seem like opening the door to a world of hurt that could quickly overwhelm us. Why go dredging up painful memories and difficult truths when it seems best to keep the door shut and get on with our lives?

Buddhism is often blamed for having a negative worldview in which everyone is accused of suffering, whether they are aware of it or not. This actually isn't far off the mark in terms of Buddhist teaching, but what is misunderstood is that this view is positive, not negative. Suffering is not something to be ashamed of, or even gotten rid of. Suffering is something to be explored and examined, because it reveals to us where our actions of body, speech and mind are out of harmony with our Buddha-nature, or awakened nature. Like the ability to feel physical pain allows us to avoid situations harmful to our bodies, suffering points us toward actions and views that are harmful to our spiritual nature.

Our context makes all the difference when we dare to admit we are suffering. If we admit our suffering but have no means of addressing it, it is a recipe for depression, anxiety and despair. Of course, the suffering may put us on a search for a way to address it. For people who have a spiritual or religious path they trust, suffering – however painful – is not a problem. They have a method for turning toward the suffering, plucking up the courage to face and examine it, seeking support during this difficult process, unpacking the suffering to better understand its causes, examining those causes to sort out the superficial from the deep, and finding tools to work on changing those deep causes.

When we have a path or a method for addressing suffering, even very difficult problems can take on the flavor of an adventure. This can feel a little disconcerting when we are faced with extreme trauma and loss – when part of us relishes the challenge, and the thought of what new aspect of human experience will be revealed to us in our struggle – but it can be strangely comforting.


Footnote: In this case I am using the word "suffering" to refer to spiritual suffering, not to mental, emotional or physical pain. I use "pain" to refer to our natural response to injury or trauma such as illness or loss. Pain is difficult to say the least, often exhausting, and in the extreme it robs us of everything. Buddhism has no teaching that makes light of pain, and if it did it would undermine the validity of the tradition. Buddhism does, however, say something can be done about suffering, the tension and distress caused by actively resisting things-as-they-are. This is a huge topic I will address in a different post.

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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