I think about suffering a lot.
It may sound morbid to think about suffering frequently. But some sadness, painful emotions, and general suffering is a normal part of life.
So, thinking about suffering and how to deal with it effectively is a survival skill.
The Buddha certainly thought so.
The Buddha was a prince who was born around 563 B.C. into a royal family in a kingdom on the border between India and Nepal.
He had a series of spiritual awakenings that led him to renounce his wealth and privilege and live his life in search of truth.
Specifically, he was very concerned with how humans can learn to deal with suffering in an effective manner.
His quest to solve this problem led him to develop the Four Noble Truths:
One: The fact of suffering.
Two: The cause of suffering
Three: The realization that suffering has an end.
Four: The path out of suffering.
All drawings, paintings, and photos in this post are courtesy of me.
You can read more about the Buddha’s biography and the Four Noble Truths here: The Ethics of Compassion.
The Buddha certainly acknowledges that painful external things like sickness or injustice happen to us and cause us suffering.
However, one of the primary causes of suffering, the Buddha suggests, are are own thoughts.
The Buddha says, “The wise train the mind to give complete attention to one thing at a time, here and now . . .”
When I first ran across this idea in the Buddha’s teaching, I thought it was strange. What is it, I wondered, about giving my attention to the here and now that is so wise?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the Buddha is right.
When I am not paying attention to the here and now, I am usually fretting about something that happened in the past or worrying about something that might happen in the future.
And of course, neither of these habits is helpful. After all, I usually can’t change the past. And 99% of what I worry about in the future never comes true.
Or if it does come true, I have the resources to deal with it effectively by the time it happens.
And that’s why training my mind to stay in the here and now, and to deal with one thing at a time, is so helpful.
When I pay attention to how I am doing right now, I can usually figure out what I need. And then I can figure out how to respond in a loving way to my needs.
The Buddha suggests as much when he says,
Whatever is positive, what benefits others, what conduces to kindness or peace of mind, those states of mind lead to progress; give them full attention.
Whatever is negative, whatever is self-centered, what feeds malicious thoughts or stirs up the mind, those states of mind draw one downward; turn your attention away.
For example, as I am writing this blog post, I am worried about a project that I have been working on for a long time that I can’t seem to make much progress on.
I feel anxious and crabby. To be honest, I am suffering a bit.
But as I think about my feelings, I realize that much of my suffering comes from thinking about my future and telling myself things like this:
“I’m never going to get this done. I’m going to be a failure.”
Such anxiety paralyzes me. And it makes it even harder to start my project. And my anxious, crabby feelings worsen.
On the other hand, when I stop thinking about the future and just think about today, I can show compassion to myself, which I do by saying something like this:
“I know you feel stressed right now. I’m sorry, that feels painful. You’ve made it through times like this before, and you are going to be okay.”
And when I just stay in today, beginning my project feels much more manageable.
In fact, if I just think about today, I think thoughts like this: “I can do a little bit today. It’s easy. And it will be fun.”
Also, when I stay in this moment, I look around at my office in which I am writing. I think about how cozy it is and that I am grateful to be here.
This doesn’t completely resolve my crabby, anxious feelings, but it does help.
Keeping my mind on the here and now also helps when I start worrying about things in the world. These are things like the various conflicts around the world, as well as the political turmoil we face here in the U.S.
Usually when I start thinking about world conflict, I worry about all the terrible things that could happen in the future. But there is nothing I can do about future possibilities.
And this makes me feel anxious and helpless.
However, if I keep my mind in the here and now, I can show compassion to myself as I suffer my painful feelings.
Usually, I do this by saying something to myself like, “I know this is hard. Major world conflicts are scary. It’s okay to be afraid.”
And I can think about one loving thing I could do to help with conflict around the world or at home.
Sometimes, all I can do is create peace in myself.
Other days, I can think about writing a blog post, praying for an end to conflict, or sending money to organizations or people helping with the problem.
To be honest, doing things like this seems like such small potatoes.
And sometimes I feel like none of it does any good.
But then I think of the modern-day Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who says,
Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse.
Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so.
Hanh’s quote reminds me that worrying rarely, if ever, helps us solve any of our personal or global problems.
Unfortunately, sometimes we feel like worrying somehow makes us more responsible. But in fact, worrying often makes things worse.
It causes us to become unrealistically pessimistic; to freeze up; and to feel hopeless.
On the other hand, keeping our mind in the present moment and thinking loving, compassionate thoughts helps to create peace inside of us. It helps us relax.
And that is great news because research suggests that the more positive emotions we cultivate, the more successful we are in solving problems and accomplishing things we want to accomplish.
You can read more about this here: Can Cultivating Positive Emotions Help You Succeed?
So, the Buddha’s writings help us recognize several important things about our thoughts, anxiety, and suffering.
The quotes from the Buddha in this post are from the Dhammapada. I really like Eknath Easwaran’s translation of this ancient text. You can find it at your local bookstore or at Amazon here: The Dhammapada
We can’t control everything going on around us. However, at least to some degree, we can control how we think about what happens to us and about our life in general.
As such, we can stay with ourselves in both our happiness and our suffering.
And when we stay with ourselves in the moment, we can decide how to respond in a loving, kind way to whatever we experience. We can respond in a way that creates peace inside of us.
When we do this, we are in a much better place to create peace outside of us, too.
The circumstances and people of life are not always loving and kind to us. But we can be loving and kind to ourselves.
You might also like this post:
The Healing Power of Staying in the Moment.
Extra Note: The idea that worrying is counter-productive reminds me of the New Testament verses found in Philippians 4:6-7:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.