As I understand it from the outside of the tradition, one of the central truths of Buddhism is that we are all born into suffering, and will experience pain and loss throughout our lives–it is an unavoidable fact of being human. However, this acceptance is not a passive acceptance of unavoidable punishment; it’s not a call to lie down and just take it. We’re not to capitulate to pain as our due; instead, we are to remain aware of the fact of it, but then seek its causes, and the ways in which suffering can be mitigated or alleviated especially for others. Quite aside from passive acceptance, we are called to be aware of it, then take action to resist it where and when we can.
If pain is a given–and it is, even for those of us who are not Buddhists–the question then is not ‘how come?’, but rather ‘how can we live with it?’, and, ‘what can be done to help others and ourselves when we do suffer?’ Asking, ‘why me?’ is the wrong question too, and the answer is, ‘because no one is exempt from the imperfections of humanity.’
Being aware, being an active agent of positive change, seeking always for the light, are the steps toward the transformed life; but mastering our realities will not eliminate pain, it simply puts it into its proper perspective with all the other aspects of our lives. Joy, satisfaction, peace and pleasure are naturally ours as well–and seeking balance in all things keeps us from being over-powered by the darker sides of life, even if it can not banish them.
I realize that I’ve written in a similar vein and recently, and I think it’s because suffering is on my mind a lot, as it is for so many of us in these so uncertain times. I am regularly seeking ways of understanding and managing the things that I can not avoid. It is literally how I move forward through tough times. I also believe that as I have been seeking, I am making small steps towards transformation.
It is also part of the struggle to recognize that suffering is not personal, however much it seems to be so at times. Nor is it a singular struggle; retreating inward during our worst times is to suffer far more and needlessly alone. We are social beings, we share the most basic human realities and experiences–and we are created to care for each other, I truly believe. We find our strength and survival in unity, not in isolation. This is the hardest new understanding for me. We’re never meant to suffer a lonely life; but to exist within a vast network of connection and interdependence. A web of life that links us all in our common humanity.
I admit that I have spent much of my life trying to be self-contained and self-sufficient, as if that were some sort of “manly” requirement. I don’t know if I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness, but I do know that seeking help was never something I knew how to do. Is it that we are taught that the self-made person is the better person? Or is it that most of us don’t know how to go it any other way than alone?
I suspect that every truly successful person easily acknowledges a debt to others as an intrinsic part of their efforts toward success. We are never truly alone, if we can just grasp that, and we never suffer alone. We can reach out a hand to offer aid, and to accept it. Together, we will navigate the unavoidable storms of human existence, and share the joys that come as well. Transform your life…by accepting what it is and always will be–and building from there.
No one is an island, we’re told. Alone, islands can sink without notice. But, if we are able to recognize our interdependence on each other and connectedness to all of life, maybe we can see ourselves as peninsulas.