Suffering and Happiness

In his book “Ending the pursuit of happiness’ Barry Magid says that most meditators have a ‘curative fantasy’ – a belief that their practice will somehow solve some problem they have, or deal with a part of themselves that they don’t like, and a secret practice which will achieve this. He says:

A curative fantasy is a personal myth that we use to explain what we think is wrong with us (GPD – or the world) and what we imagine is going to make it all better.

His book then shows how one goes beyond this pursuit of happiness into something less personally focused that this ‘secret practice’.

I often find my curative fantasy is showing. I find myself thinking that if I get my meditation right or take the right attitude to less pleasant aspects of daily life I will somehow be protected against certain forms of suffering. If I don’t hold onto them or respond to them they will somehow pass through me and leave me unscathed. It doesn’t work, of course, in fact it sounds downright silly when I say it, but that is the thought is there. So I thought I would use this talk as an opportunity to examine this fantasy, and look afresh at Buddhism has to offer in relation to the relationship between suffering and happiness.

One of the first times I heard a living Buddhist teacher was in the late 1970s. A Tibetan monk was talking at the old Paris theatre, which used to be on Hyde Park. He walked onto the stage, sat down and looked at us for a while. Then he said: ‘Everybody is trying to be happy’ and started to laugh. ‘Everybody wants to be happy’. More laughter. ‘Quite ridiculous’. We started laughing too, without quite knowing why. I came away with two strong impressions. One was that he knew something important, although I had no idea what it was. And the second was that he was happy, whether he was seeking it or not. This talk can be thought of as an attempt to understand his laughter.

Perhaps he was thinking about how we normally respond to suffering. It is something that we are all very familiar with and should know a lot about. We stub our toe and it hurts. We are rejected and feel it keenly. We look back at part of our lives and we feel regret. We see what someone else has achieved and have a stab of jealousy. We spend a lot of our time weaving in and out of this suffering, trying to dodge the blows and minimise the pain. And that is before we face the big three that cannot be dodged: old age, sickness and death.

This response to suffering is quite logical: we try as far as possible to avoid the experience of pain and look for something that will make us feel better. We then keep a wary eye out for situations that may cause similar suffering in the future. So we have a rough day at work; come home to a nice cup of tea, talk about other things and then steer clear of the boss tomorrow. Or we may go the other way and hold onto the pain: it is unpleasant, but at least we know it, and can indulge in self pity and fantasies of revenge. These familiar and entirely sensible approaches help us through the thickets of everyday life. They work in the short term – ‘Phew, escaped that one’ ‘Didn’t really hurt at all that time’ – but in the longer term they are not so effective. The problem is still there, waiting to come out and bite us when we least expect it. We may well be stunting our emotional responses, and developing a cautious or suspicious approach to life. And many of the distractions that we take up to fill the gaps are not particularly healthy fare.

This approach certainly deserves a laugh. And we may even join in, too, because in our better moments we recognise that hedging our bets and wallowing in suffering is no recipe for happiness.

The Buddha took exactly the opposite approach. He asked us first to recognise the enormity of suffering.

“This is suffering:  birth is painful, ageing is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful, encountering what is not dear is painful, separation from what is dear is painful, not getting what one wants is painful.  This psycho-physical condition is painful.”

The last sentence is particularly poignant: ‘life hurts’. And his injunction is not to turn away, but to get to know suffering.

“‘Such is suffering.  It can be fully known.  It has been fully known.’ 

He closes off the path of ignoring or minimising suffering by pointing out how inevitable it is, how deeply it is woven into our lives. No way round. And he is very clear that the pain is real: “this psycho-physical condition is painful”.

If we choose to follow this injunction to know suffering, we may discover that, despite our skill in minimising suffering, we actually don’t understand it very well. What is it that really upsets us? What – and whom - do we really care about? What strategies are we using to avoid hurt, and what are their side effects?

And so the process of investigation begins. 

We begin to recognise the situations that cause us pain, and the needs that lie beneath these. We learn about our wants, about the needs for love and security that were not fully met in childhood and remain just below the surface, waiting to be triggered by some apparently trivial event. You do not show up and I am abandoned again; I make a mistake and know, beyond any reason, that I will be rejected because of it. Someone shows their neediness and I am reminded of my own unspeakable need.

On a smaller scale we become aware of the constant stream of little rewarding or aversive encounters that make up daily life: with bad weather, street signs that are too small to read from the car, shoes that are irresistible but too tight, ambient music, people who are better looking or uglier than we fancy ourselves to be...  Often unnoticed, these create a kind of psychic obstacle course that keeps us from a steady path as we move through the world.

We may get better at recognising how we prolong suffering through our pride or sense of entitlement, and make it worse with our angry reactions. We may see how we have built some of these into our continuing sense of ourselves, and let them become a part of our character. And we may begin to see how we can learn to step back and watch our reactions without identifying ourselves so closely with them.

We are doing well. We are starting to understand the causes of our suffering. We are getting better at managing it. We are becoming skilful. But it still hurts, and the laughter is still there. Being better at managing suffering is good, but this is still a long way to go.

If we are locked up for long enough with our suffering, we may eventually give up trying to manage it and just let it be:  ‘relaxing into the pain’ as Joko Beck called it. She says:

Only when we gently turn to our difficulty and rest in it . . . only when we stay with what is beneath [our illusions of what life should be] and rest there, do we begin to have a clue . . . That goes against everything we want, everything our culture teaches.

What is happening here can be described in many ways. It is the first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become  unmanageable.

It is shifting the focus away from ourselves – ‘pain isn’t really personal, you know’ as a wise person once said. It is moving away from the expectation that the world should accord to our wishes. And it makes it possible for us to see the craving, clinging, attachment that so often goes along with it. The second and third noble truths:

“This is craving:  it is repetitive, it wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that: craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.

“This is cessation:  the traceless fading away and cessation of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.

“’Such is craving.  It can be let go of.  It has been let go of.’ 

“’Such is cessation.  It can be experienced.  It has been experienced.’

Surely we can be happy now? Suffering has been understood, we are starting to let craving go, and have even experienced moments of cessation. Surely this psycho-physical condition can’t be all that painful now. We have outwitted the monk.

But of course the laughter is still there. For we have entirely misunderstood what suffering is about. It is not just that it hurts – it does of course, but pain will always be there. The real problem of suffering is that it leave us unfree. In our attempts to deal with it we circle endlessly around the needs and difficulties that we cannot resolve, follow a thousand thoughtless prejudices and aversions, and lose the will or the ability to move on and away. The real opportunity of suffering is not to learn to manage pain but to turn around and look at where it is pointing. And that of course is towards us, with our unresolved neediness, our lack of wisdom in the face of life’s great challenges, and the lack of compassion for ourselves and others that leaves us suffering alone.

When we address those we can begin to be free. Free to do what? This question points to the great emptiness at the heart of consumer culture. But the Buddha’s answer was clear: to follow the fourth noble truth, which describes an eightfold path within which humans can live and flourish.

“And this is the path: the path with eight branches: appropriate seeing, thinking, talking, acting, working, trying, recollecting, concentrating.

 “’Such is the path.  It can be cultivated.  It has been cultivated.’

We do not need to have overcome all suffering or craving to get there, but this is where we stop focusing on them. Effort now goes not into dealing with these burdens, which are often symptoms of deeper dis-ease, but on the development of a life within which we can flourish. The focus is not on being happy – or even avoiding unhappiness – but on understanding the world, developing a benevolent attitude, speaking and acting constructively, having a satisfying and useful working life, and developing the concentration, mindfulness and meditation which feed the whole process. In other words: join in life. It is a full time job, with very little time to bother about happiness.  Except that, as we know, this is how people become happy.

There is still laughter, but it is more gentle now, and seems to come from alongside us. ‘Everyone wants to be happy ... quite ridiculous’. And this time, we can join in the laughter. We know why it is ridiculous: not because it is not possible to be happy, but because it turns out not to be the point.

Gawaine Powell Davies