Optional Suffering

The Buddha did not present suffering as the first noble truth just because he had figured out that everybody has a hard time in life. He said that there is something much deeper going on. We suffer because we are projecting the myth of permanence upon a situation that is actually conditioned, selfless, and constantly changing. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. There is nothing substantial and separate that we can lean upon. Samsara, “the cycle of suffering,” is a direct result of our desire for permanence.

~ Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche

Recently, a lot of things which I’ve struggled with for many  years (my entire life?) have come together. For the first time that I can remember, I feel a sense of stability in my career, partner, living situation, and friendships. Most days, I have at least a moment or two of disbelief that I’ve come so far in the last year, and my heart feels as though it might burst with gratitude. In short, life is good.

And yet, underneath my joy there always seems to lurk a current of anxiety, a tensing up in expectation of hardship that *must* be just around the corner. My dreams of both past and imagined distress sometimes startle me awake with fight or flight adrenaline coursing through my veins; the pleasure of gratitude is often spoiled by an underlying sense of unworthiness; there are days when I can’t shake the sensation that everything I have been blessed with is about to be violently ripped away from me.

“Everything’s okay now,” my partner says as he holds me during one of my attacks of inexplicable uneasiness. “All of that is behind you. After a bit more time, you’ll relax and feel safe.” His words, his touch, certainly provide comfort, but a voice in the back of my mind whispers that I know better, that life won’t always be this good.

And the thing is…I know I’m right. My partner’s soothing words are not true. Life undoubtedly will not always be as it is right now. There will be bumps ahead. Whatever stability I relax into will not stay constant–even if I am lucky enough to maintain a stability of sorts, the quality and nature of that “constant” will change in countless micro-adjustments as life continues to unfold. There undoubtedly is pain lurking around the corner in some form or another. And of course, my deepest fear–that I must face all of this alone–is simply one of the conditions of this human existence.

And yet, it’s not the fundamental unreliability of life that is the problem. After all, impermanence is just the state of things. Were I to get my wish and have everything stay exactly the same, my elation would soon fade, a restless impatience with the sameness would set in, and the very situation which I so desperately want to preserve would become a prison of frustration. It is the ever shifting nature of reality which gives life its color, its dynamism, its vibrancy. The problem is actually that I continue to trick myself into believing those well intentioned words, that I am now “safe.” The problem is not that I will never be safe from suffering; it’s that I persist in resting in a false sense of security. It’s that even now, as I write these words, part of me regards the (very reasonable) distrust of stability I’m experiencing as a malady, as the thing which is the cause of my anxiety.

But really, it’s not that I need to quit expecting bumps in the road; rather, it’s that I need to quit clinging to this “myth of impermanence” which obscures and limits the rich, complicated, messy grandeur of existence. There is actually more comfort to be had in accepting life on its own terms than attempting to fit it into a narrative so hopelessly narrow that it cannot contain the expanse of our experience. Is it any wonder that we’re constantly thrown into a panic when we persist in expecting life to play out in ways that are contrary to its most basic nature?

Perhaps more comforting than trying to sustain a feeling safety in an uncertain world is leaning into the uncertainty, dancing with it. That way, when the suffering comes, we’re at least spared the rude awakening, the sensation that we’ve lost control. After all, we never had it in the first place. As Haruki Murakami puts it, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”






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