On Suffering and Healing

I want nothing more than to understand the best way to live my life, and to do my best to live it that way. This has been the driving desire of my life since I was a teenager. Much of my time since then has been spent in the pursuit of understanding, with the intention of living my life as well as possible—that is, as truly and correctly as possible.

What does that mean?

Is there some standard by which I am to conform, as I was taught to believe as a child? Is there a potential for growth (whatever that means) which I should try to achieve—some inner mold I should try to fill to capacity so that I’m fulfilled someday? Or am I truly to enjoy every moment as fully as possible, or perhaps simply to appreciate the gift of being alive, no matter the circumstances?

If so, to whom or what do I direct my appreciation, if anywhere?

I’m moving toward the idea that the ideal is acceptance of life events and circumstances, without fighting the often uncomfortable or painful changes that they bring. This does not imply a powerless attitude and submission to fate, but rather a shortening of the healing process by immediate acceptance of change.

Healing begins with the process of adjusting one’s thoughts to change: realigning one’s concept of reality with reality itself so that there is no conflict, no suffering.

It’s a strange fact that experiences often seem extremely intense and emotional while they’re happening, even though years later we can talk about them without feeling any emotion at all.

Why is this? 

Perhaps with time and experience we are able to put past events into a context and see how the events have affected our lives since then, which takes the “sting” out of the events after the fact. We see later that things weren’t as bad as they seemed at the time. This implies that, at the time we are going through a difficult situation, our negative reaction to the situation is caused by our fear of the possible negative effects that the situation will have on us, rather than by the situation itself.

In other words, in the present extreme circumstance we fear loss, harm, pain, or death—we suffer. Suffering means fearing the loss of our own survival potential, which includes our ability to enjoy our life, since our emotional state is intimately linked to our ability to survive and thrive.

Suffering is the mental and emotional state that results from our belief that we have lost, or will lose, something necessary to our survival potential and/or enjoyment of life.

Is it possible to experience every life event with the same lack of emotional involvement and attachment that we have years after the fact—that is, without suffering? If indeed we suffer because in the midst of difficult circumstances we fear losing our survival potential, and if our fear is itself a reduction in our future survival potential, then what good is suffering in the first place?

It isn’t rational.

Is there a way to thrive, meeting life openly, yet without suffering when difficult events happen? Is this even a desirable goal, or is the process of suffering and healing an integral part of the human experience? Is “suffering-and-healing” the essence of human life, or is it a major problem to be solved and prevented? Answering this question seems to be my next task in unloosing the threads that keep the secrets of life hidden from my view.

The Buddha already answered this question for himself, with his Four Noble Truths about suffering and his Eightfold Path that describes the way to end it. I intend to see if he was right.

(Written in 2008 and freshly edited on December 19, 2016.)
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