It’s OK When Things Suck

It’s OK When Things Suck

Buddhist practice doesn’t get you out of experiencing, and feeling the pain of, old age, disease, death, change, loss, trauma, and things being different than how you would like them to be. It also does not relieve you of being a limited being who needs to work hard to overcome harmful habits of body and mind. In short, Buddhism does not help you avoid times when things suck. And sometimes they really, really suck.

What Buddhist practice gives you is the ability to stop resisting the suckiness. This may not sound like much, but in reality it is extremely valuable. The ability to stop resisting the suckiness can mean the difference between utter despair and a profound, gracious dignity in the midst of it all.

The ways things can suck are infinite. Eventually everyone understands the ways our lives are touched by the Big Sufferings like death, physical pain, illness, loss and trauma. Less obvious but often just as difficult are the sufferings like depression, anxiety, boredom, fear, guilt and doubt. We also suffer from being trapped in patterns we can’t seem to change, from being unable to find harmony in our relationships, and from being unable to fulfill our aspirations. Human life is difficult; it’s one of the basic Buddhist teachings.

Just to get one thing clear: when we stop resisting all this difficulty it does not mean that we stop trying to end the suckiness in any way we can. The effort to help ourselves and others be free from difficulties, to make positive changes in our lives and in the world, to support ease and lasting happiness – these are the basic activities of a good human life.

What does it mean to stop resisting the suckiness? We let go of any idea that it shouldn’t be like this. Or, alternatively, I/he/she/they/we shouldn’t be like this. As long as we hold on to that kind of idea it’s like our small self is digging its heels in to stop the earth from turning, screaming, “Noooooooo!”

No, we think, this is not how I want to be. I should not be experiencing anxiety/ anger/ fear/ judgment/etc. This is not the life I was meant to be living. This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. This person should not be obstructing me. That person should not have misunderstood/ judged/ betrayed/ abandoned me. Evil should not prevail in the world the way it does. Bad things should not happen to innocent people. I am stuck in this dysfunctional relationship. It seems like I will never be financially secure/ loved/ able to…

As we lodge our protest against the suckiness in obvious and subtle ways, it takes its toll on our minds and bodies. Our efforts to make changes become colored by a desperate imperative – things must change, or else! We carry around a ball of tenseness in our gut or heart where we push against the suckiness whenever we remember it.

Finally, what is the good of dropping our resistance to the suckiness? Instantly our life feels whole again; it is no longer about “me” over here resisting the difficulty and pain over there.  It is just our life, which can be embraced with tenderness and acceptance despite all of its shortcomings. Instantly we feel relief as we drop the intense effort to stop things from being as they are, which in any case is utterly fruitless. Instantly we – and others – are transformed from beings to be scorned, judged or pitied into beings who gain great dignity in enduring this difficult human life. Ironically, dropping our resistance to things being as they are frees us up to take much more effective action than we could otherwise.

Once we have a spiritual practice, we can feel very defeated by experiencing negative thoughts, emotions and mind-states when we encounter suckiness. It may sound silly, but many of us hope that through spiritual work, or some other kind of practice, we will be able to remain untouched by suckiness. This hope only adds to the sense that things should not be like this, because even if we manage to accept our external circumstances we are still resisting our internal experiences and reactions. The sooner we can include even ourselves and our reactions in "the way things are" and drop our resistance, the sooner we can come home to ourselves again.

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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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