I’m going to get personal for a moment and it might sound like I’m complaining. In 2013 I lost my grandmother to Pancreatic cancer, my grandfather to unknown causes, our family home of over 60 years, my boyfriend of 2 years, my apartment, and my dog. There were also countless wonderful occurrences in my life, but I am bringing up the hard stuff to make a specific point, to list personal experiences of loss and change as a springboard for further discussion about the ways in which we react to the unexpected changing phenomena in our lives. I am highly aware that my general living conditions and overall happiness levels are much better and higher than most of the world and am certainly not trying to exaggerate my own personal suffering in the face of more extensive global trauma. However, the changes that I went through in 2013 felt significant, scary, tumultuous, and have contributed to an experience that I would describe as being deeply painful. And pain is hard. It can feel lonely, confusing, like I am in my own isolated cocoon of sadness.
However, I think suffering is different and even worse. Suffering, in my opinion, is what arises when we resist the inevitable manifestations of impermanence, such as losing loved ones, jobs, becoming sick, etc. Suffering is like saying ‘bad things shouldn’t happen to me’, or ‘I’m just an unlucky person because I lost some of my family this past year’, or ‘there must be something wrong with me, my life, or the world that would allow such terrible things to occur’. Basically, I’m saying that pain is a completely natural, perhaps even automatic response to the arising of certain causes and conditions, and that suffering is more of a choice.
Even though it feels terrible to lose close family, animals, etc., it’s not bad or wrong, it just happens. It doesn’t mean that the world is a terrible place, or that there is anything wrong with us or our lives, it just means that everyone, including ourselves are impermanent, changeable, in constant transition.
According to Buddhist thought, ALL living creatures will inevitably have ill health, grow old, lose those that they love and all that they hold dear, and die. I know this sounds totally morose, but if we can understand it as being true, perhaps, when we experience the pain of losing a loved one, or go through a rough period for any reason, we can allow ourselves the very natural response of experiencing pain, but can refrain from slipping into a state that feels like suffering. And recognizing how temporary everything really is, we might treat life a bit more preciously, or just enjoy the little stuff more knowing that it’s all temporary.
So, what do we do? How do we separate pain and suffering? How can we allow ourselves to fully experience sadness and pain without becoming depressed and falling into a hole of suffering? For me, I think it has a lot to do with meditation, or with some general ways of contextualizing my experience and shifting my perception that meditative mind states can foster.
If I am going through a rough period, I have often found that when I sit down to meditate, I end up crying. Even if I wasn’t feeling immediately sad before I sat down, there is something about the process of stilling my mind that brings deeper, unaddressed feelings to the surface. I think this is a good thing. During meditation, once sadness has been recognized and allowed, I remind myself that it is a passing mental state just like any other and it is not ‘who I am’, even if I’ve been feeling it pretty consistently for a while.
If I am feeling sad, lonely, missing my grandparents or my former dog, I try to remind myself how utterly universal is the experience ofisn’t my loss, it is ours. And that expansion of self, that inclusion of all of humanity in my own little island of loss is what makes a huge difference. It allows me to move from a state of separation in my own experience of pain to an understanding that all living creatures deal with the same stuff. I’m not alone. I just need to still my mind enough to sense it.