36 – Looking Deeply At Suffering

Suffering arises naturally when we crave for life to be other than it is. Knowing this, we can look deeply at our own suffering or the suffering of others and we can work to alleviate the causes and conditions of the suffering. When we experience an instance of suffering, we tend to narrow our view to that specific instance to the point where we are no longer aware of all the instances of non-suffering that are simultaneously present.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello! You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 36. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about looking deeply at suffering. The Secular Buddhism Podcast is made possible by The Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully.

For more information about the foundation or for tools and content to help you live more mindfully, please visit getmindful.org. The Secular Buddhism Podcast focuses on Buddhist Concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. Keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast episode or any of the other podcast episodes. There’s nothing to sell here. There’s nothing to convert to or to convert away from. This is all about trying to give you the tools and the content to help you live more mindfully. If you’re new to secular Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, check out my book Secular Buddhism, Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available on paperback on Amazon, e-book on Kindle and iTunes, and also an audiobook on audible.com. For more information or links to those books, visit secularbuddhism.com.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week I wanted to talk about the idea of looking deeply at our suffering. To do that, first of all, what is suffering? I’ve talked about this in previous podcast episodes quite a bit. The idea is that wanting life to be other than what it is, that is what creates an instance of suffering and this can be major things and it can be minor things. Being stuck at the red light wanting the light to be green because you are late. That creates an instance of suffering. Anytime we are experiencing wanting life to be other than it is, we will experience an instance of suffering. That’s the definition of suffering we’re working with here.

The next part of this is what does it mean to look deeply? This idea of looking deeply in Buddhism comes from the understanding of interdependence and impermanence. Looking deeply, for example, would be the concept of seeing a flower as a flower, independent of everything else, that’s not looking deeply. That’s, I guess you could say, looking superficially or just narrowly. Seeing something in a narrow mindset, you set it as if it were independent and separate from everything else. Looking deeply at a flower would be seeing the flower and recognizing that when you see the flower you are seeing the sun, the clouds, the rain, the soil. Everything that it takes for that flower to exist. When you do this and you spend time analyzing that, you’ll recognize that what it takes for that flower to exist is everything. Everything that exists allows that flower to exist. Looking deeply at the flower, you no longer see the flower. You see the flower and everything else that allows that flowers exist.

This is something that you can do looking at anything. You can look at the table that you are sitting at or the chair that you are sitting on or the device that you are using to listen to this. It doesn’t matter what it is, you can look at it and then look deeply at it and start to see it interdependent with all of the causes and conditions that allow that thing to exist. That’s looking deeply. Looking deeply at our suffering is the same process of taking a look at our instance of suffering and then looking deeply and seeing its interdependencies. Seeing its causes and conditions.

When we see suffering through the lens of impermanence, we recognize that it’s constantly changing. This idea of this too shall pass. This can be helpful when you’re experiencing an instance of suffering because you recognize that it’s impermanent. It’s not going to last forever. You haven’t been experiencing this suffering forever, therefore there was a start and because it has a start, it will be an end. Sometimes recognizing that suffering is impermanent, holding on to that thought of this too shall pass, is enough to start to minimize the pain that we experience during our suffering. The second component, seeing suffering through the lens of interdependence, recognizing that they are causes, can also minimize the pain that we experienced because we recognize we actually have something to work with because there are causes and conditions.

Typically, when we’re talking about suffering, the most basic teaching on suffering from Buddhism is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. That is that first, there is suffering and you can work with that first truth. In life, there is suffering. Difficulties will arise. You can ask yourself, in what ways am I suffering or in what ways are others suffering. Hungry people don’t have water or there’s a lack of human rights or whatever it is that you’re looking at, you look at the instance of suffering and try to acknowledge why that suffering exists. You move onto the second step, which is listing the causes that we can identify for each instance of suffering. It may be people in a certain part of the world are suffering because they don’t have water. They don’t want water because there’s a lack of infrastructure or money or there’s corruption in their government. You get the idea here.

What you’re starting to work with is recognizing there is suffering. This is a personal exercise you can do when you’re experiencing an instance of suffering. Recognize it and then see if you can list the causes that you can identify for that instance of suffering. Why am I experiencing suffering in this moment? Every instance of suffering has a cause. As you go through the list of causes, you can ask yourself, what has to change in order for this particular cause of suffering to cease? At this stage, it’s more theoretical than it is practice, but you want to start listing what has to be different for this to stop. What you’re left with is a list of your suffering and then the causes of your suffering and then many of those causes you can look at and say, is this something that I can change? What has to be different? You sort out from that list what can or cannot be done.

Some things are within reach and they can immediately be changed. Others are a longer process and it may be multiple layers. For this thing to change, that thing has to change, and for that thing to change, this other thing has to change. You start working with this and you may have multiple layers to work with, because one thing may lead to another and so on. What you’re left with is something tangible that you can work with. Sometimes we get really stuck with the instance of suffering itself and in that moment, our view becomes very narrow. This is where mindfulness really comes into play, because people will ask me sometimes, how does mindfulness or how does awareness come into play when you’re talking about dealing with difficult emotions. For example, an instance of suffering.

The idea here is that the mindful view of suffering is a wide view. It’s a deep view and a wide view. Deep in the sense that it recognizes that the suffering isn’t the only thing there. There are causes and conditions. You spend time looking at the causes and conditions and the causes of the causes and so on. That would be the deep view. The wide view is the other component here. Take a minute and just look around. Whatever you’re doing, stop for a minute. Whatever you’re doing, you’re listening to this podcast. Just work with me here for second. Just look up. If you were looking down or whatever you’re doing, just look around for a second and recognize that everything that you can see in your peripheral vision, like just the entire scope of what you can see. If you were to lift your arms up at your sides, like at 90 degrees and slowly move them in, it doesn’t take long before you can recognize in your peripheral vision your left hand and your right hand. They enter into view. They’re not the focus of your view because you’re looking at something straight ahead, but you can recognize that they’re there. They’re in your view.

Typically, when we’re looking at something, the object of our focus, whatever it is you’re focused on, it can be become difficult to notice what’s happening in your field of view. Even though it’s still in your field of view, you may not notice it. You especially won’t notice it if you’re focused heavily on that one thing that you’re looking at. We do this with instances of suffering. When we’re experiencing negative emotions, we tend to narrow our view, almost like if you were to cup your fingers like a telescope and put it over your eye. Just look at whatever it is that you were looking at, now put your hand over your eye like you would a telescope or binoculars and now look at it. You’re certainly not seeing the other things that are in your peripheral vision.

Those things are still there, whether you see them or not. That’s the essence of viewing with mindfulness or awareness. It’s recognizing that yes, I am looking and focusing on this one instance of suffering and this is causing me pain. At the same time, I’m going to widen my view and recognize that simultaneously, while this is going on, something else is also going on and I wasn’t aware of it. For example, I maybe experiencing, at this moment, suffering around the way things are going at work. Maybe it’s not going according to plan. It’s looking like things are difficult. My view narrows in on that one thing in my life. Right now, things are bad at work. You narrow in on that. Mindfulness is like taking your hands from that cupping position of being telescopes and moving them and saying, okay, yeah, that suffering is still there, but I also recognize what’s there is I’m not experiencing the pain of a toothache. I’m not experiencing the pain of a headache. I’m not experiencing the pain of the loss of a loved one. Whatever it is, the point is that in any given moment, even moments where there is suffering, there’s also always non-suffering.

They’re happening simultaneously and because we’re shifting our focus to be a more wider view, we’re not trying to eliminate or pretend like the instance of suffering isn’t there. Don’t make the mistake of trying to compare it or measure it saying, this hurts, but it would be worse if this other thing was happening. Sure, there can be some truth to that. The difficulties going on at work would not be nearly as difficult as coping with the loss of a loved one right now. I can recognize that, but the point of this isn’t to try to minimize or to rationalize away the suffering that is present, which is that things at work aren’t going according to plan. The idea here is to hold space for that while simultaneously holding space for the joy that I’m experiencing because I don’t have a toothache or the joy that I’m experiencing because I’m not dealing with the loss of a loved one.

It’s different to allow that suffering to be what it is, while holding space for all of the non-suffering there. That’s different than trying to do away with my suffering by saying, I shouldn’t evil that because this would be worse or that would be worse. That’s not the point. We don’t need to measure or scale my suffering versus your suffering. I don’t think it’s fair to do that. To say, that’s nothing because there are starving kids in Africa and that’s much worse. While I think there is something to that thought process, I don’t think it’s helpful or beneficial to try to weigh one instance of suffering versus another. Awareness or mindfulness, looking deeply at our suffering, is not about that. It’s more about holding that space of recognition that in this instance of suffering, this other instance of non-suffering is also present.

There is always joy and peace simultaneously present with suffering. The difference is a shift in awareness. That’s how mindfulness or awareness helps us to deal with difficult emotions. It helps us to switch out of that narrow view that can only see the instance of suffering, to a wider view that recognizes yeah, that’s still there, but so are all these other things. These other things are good right now. The toothache reminds us of the joy of not having a toothache, right? At any given moment, we’re enjoying the peace and joy of being free from some sort of pain or suffering. That’s something that we can look at and spend time with in mindfulness.

This idea, I like to call it radical okay-ness. This is something I first heard from a good friend of mine who’s also a teacher, whose name is Christopher Lebo. He runs the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship and really good guy. In one of the presentations I went to where he was talking, he mentioned this concept of radical okay-ness. I had never heard that and I love it. I think I’ve mentioned this on the podcast. The idea around radical okay-ness is that at any given moment in life, right now, regardless of what’s happening, I can experience a sense of radical okay-ness. I can be completely okay with this moment. This is different than, I think, chasing the moment of intense pleasure as opposed to intense pain. That would be radical … I don’t know what we would call that, like goodness or wanting to ride the roller coaster and only have the peaks and not have the valleys can cause us pain. You can’t get to the peak without there being valleys, right? You have to have lows in order for there to be highs. There’s no such thing as a high without reference to a low.

Radical okay-ness is about recognizing that what I have right now in a different scenario could be exactly what I wish I had. For example, if I were to find out tomorrow that a loved one has terminal cancer or I don’t know. It could be almost anything that’s going to be difficult. When I get that news, I could look back to today and think, I would give anything to go back to what it was like yesterday when things were just good. I thought that things weren’t good, but they actually were because now I’m going through something more difficult. The idea here is we’re already in that moment. You’re in that moment right now, regardless of what’s happening, because something could change that moment in the future and you would want to come back to this. Yet, here you are in the present moment, unaware of how radically okay this moment already is. That’s kind of the thinking of radical okay-ness.

I really like that because it’s true. Tomorrow I could look back and think, I though yesterday was hard, now that this or that popped up, I would give anything to go back to yesterday and here we are. Today is always the yesterday or tomorrow. We’re always in the space of being able to experience this radical okay-ness if we can look deeply and if we can look with a wide view instead of a narrow view at our instances of suffering.

I have five steps that I think are helpful for us to be able to look deeply at our suffering, at our emotions. The first one is that we want to recognize what we’re experiencing. If we’re angry, we say I know I’m experiencing anger or I know that there is anger in me right now. We’re recognizing what’s actually there. This is an important step because a lot of times we don’t recognize what we’re experiencing. Sometimes you could be in a bad mood. You could be in a chronic bad mood for a significant portion of your life and to you that’s normal. Someone else might look at you and say yeah, so and so is always grumpy or always angry. You wouldn’t recognize that because to you it’s normal. Recognition is important here. I want to recognize the actual state that I’m experiencing. If I’m angry I don’t want to pretend I’m not angry. If I’m sad I don’t want to pretend and say, I’ll counter this by trying to just be happy, ignoring the fact that I’m sad. We need to actually recognize what we are is what we are. I’ll recognize that this is what I’m experiencing.

Once I recognize it, I can accept that that’s what it is. Step two is acceptance. I’ve mentioned this multiple times, the idea of acceptance versus resignation. It’s not the same thing. Acceptance is that we don’t deny what’s there. We’re not gonna deny what’s present for us. We accept it. We accept that that’s what’s there. For example, if it’s suffering or sadness or anger, I can accept that that’s what I’m feeling. I don’t have to pretend like I’m not. I’m just going to accept that yeah, I am experiencing sadness for this thing I’m going through. The moment you can recognize and accept what’s there, you can go to the third step, which is embracing.

Here we hold space for our emotions, for suffering, in the same way that when my little girl is crying, I can pick her up and hold her. I can embrace her. I can try to comfort her. It’s not different with out own negative emotions. When I’m experiencing sadness or I’m experiencing anger at how something is playing out, I can embrace that emotion and have compassion for it. Compassion for myself for experiencing it, in the same way that I would hold my child who’s crying and I can say okay, I’m experiencing this sadness. I recognize it. I accept it and I’m going to embrace that I’m sad or embrace that I’m angry right now. It’s what I’m feeling.

That leads us to the fourth step. I’m gonna look deeply at this. I want to look really deeply at this emotion I’m experiencing. What has caused this emotion to be here? What has caused this suffering to arise? This is what I mentioned earlier where you can look at the causes and look for the causes of the causes. With that looking deeply, we go to the fifth step, which is insight. When you start to look at something deeply, you can insight by understanding what the causes and conditions are. We know what to do, what not to do. If my instance of suffering is a toothache and I have no insight into the nature of this pain I’m experiencing, I might not know that by continuing to eat a Jolly Rancher or something, it’s hurting my tooth more. I wouldn’t know that unless I was able to recognize I’ve got a toothache. Okay, then that’s what it is. I accept it. I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna look deeply at it. What are the causes? I might recognize the cause could be that I have a cavity and with that recognition and insight I can say, cavities, yeah. Sugar aggravates that. Okay, maybe I should stop eating sugar. Maybe I should go get my cavity filled. That’s a very simple example that I think is easy for all of us to recognize because that example is pretty much common sense.

Sometimes, our suffering isn’t that clear. Recognizing that I’m experiencing suffering and just reacting to it because I have no insight into where that emotion is coming from would be a lot like somebody who has a toothache and they’re just screaming and yelling because their tooth hurts, but they don’t know why. They don’t know why it hurts. They don’t know what’s causing it. They don’t know what would aggravate the pain or what would ease the pain. There’s just no awareness around the instance of suffering. You’re so caught up in the suffering itself. My tooth hurts and that’s it. That’s all I can see. As silly as that would sound, isn’t that exactly what we do with a lot of our other emotions? A lot of our other sources of pain or suffering? They well up and we experience an emotion and we just react to it. We’re not with it. There’s no insight into our emotions. This is where looking deeply really comes into play, because what if we could actually spend time with our emotions. Recognizing, accepting, embracing, looking deeply, and then gaining insight out of what we see when we look deeply.

That’s the idea of looking deeply at our suffering. You can look deeply at anything. I mentioned this before. You can look deeply at the table you’re sitting at. When we were in Africa on our humanitarian trip, during one of our lessons we spent time looking at the wind chimes that were hanging where we were sitting. We de-constructed and looked deeply at the string that was holding the wind chimes. It was crazy to spend time saying, now where does this string come from? Looking at the causes and conditions that allowed that wind chime to exist right there. It was incredible how, within a few minutes, we all felt how it takes everything in existence for that to be right there. That’s inter-dependence.

Don’t make the mistake of judging or comparing your suffering. Don’t conceptualize it. Remember, conceptualizing is when we take something, a reality, and we add a story to it. You’re seeing your suffering, but you’re caught up in the story of the suffering. What you want to do is try to get away from the conceptualization of it. Just see it for what it is. You recognize it, you accept it, you embrace it, you look deeply for the causes and conditions, and then insight arises naturally because you’ve spent time with it. This can be a really powerful exercise. A really powerful process to learn to look deeply at your suffering. When you’re ready, try to switch this. Flip it and look deeply at someone else’s suffering. You may recognize that somebody saying something you, calling you name or something, you don’t react any more, but now you can look beyond that, beyond the action that took place and see the suffering from the same perspective. Looking deeply it in someone else and recognizing something caused this and something caused what caused this and that goes on and on. Insight can arise out of that. Suddenly, you’re not so upset about something, because you have a deeper understanding of why someone may have said something to you.

Remember, in nature, change is incremental. Wisdom or transformation can be gradual, so be patient with yourself. Don’t expect to sit there, ponder on these topics, sit with an instance of suffering, and then that’s it. I’ll never be mad again. It doesn’t work that way, but what does happen is that gradually, incrementally, you’ll notice that the way that you perceive your own suffering changes. You start to experience this radical okay-ness throughout any instance of suffering, because the instance of suffering is never independent. It never exists without its causes and conditions and it’s never permanent. It always exists on the same plane and the same sphere as all these instances of non-suffering. Anytime that you’re experiencing suffering, simply recognizing that you’re also experiencing non-suffering is already a very valuable perspective to have. To be able to do spend time in awareness with your suffering, you can gain a lot of insight.

That’s my invitation to you for this week. To spend time learning to look deeply at your suffering or learning to look deeply at the suffering of someone else. A loved one or just anyone else. Learn to look deeply at suffering and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. Remember, if you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com or the foundation website, getmindful.org. You can click the donate button at the top of the page and that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for your time and until next time.