The Value of Suffering

Growing up I was told many times that I should passionately savor life with all its joys and pains, and that in fact it was both the joy and pain together that made life beautiful and meaningful. The key is to relate to the pain and joy in such a way that allows one to get the most happiness out of life. Many of my friends have also grown up with similar values. On the other hand, as we discussed in class, the first of the four noble truths is that life is suffering and ultimately the goal is to escape the samsaric cycle of rebirth. Are the cultural values I grew up with and these Buddhist tenets conflicting?

At times I have thought that they were indeed completely divergent. However, perhaps this was impart because I was conflating painful emotion with the term suffering. When I have asked Buddhists about how advanced Buddhist practitioners’ experience emotion, they have given me complex and even sometimes conflicting answers. In general they explained that the goal is to experience emotions without having the emotions overwhelm the practitioner. For example, the Dalai Lama reflected upon a death of someone who sought his counsel, “Even though that feeling of regret is still there [for me], it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back” (Cutler 161). Though he felt sadness as well as regret, this did not lead to suffering. Therefore, there is room in Buddhism to feel these emotions fully, but without suffering. Still, I’m curious what that means – how can someone feel deep sadness and pain without suffering? And what does that new relationship with emotion look like?

Though the values I was raised with viewed sadness and anger as inherent in life and part of what makes life meaningful, people never suggested I strive to feel them; I mean people were still trying to teach me how to be happy. Similarly, Buddhism is not only saying we must escape suffering, it also talks about accepting suffering and seeing suffering as part of life. In describing the Dalai Lama’s perspective, Cutler, who wrote a book  about his conversations with the Dalai, writes, “[The Dalai Lama has] a belief in the possibility of freedom from suffering but starts with accepting suffering as a natural fact of human existence” (Cutler 136). While he reaffirms that suffering is natural to the human experience he is also saying that there is something beyond suffering. Furthermore, Buddhism states that life should not be about falling in love, or seeking the adrenaline rush of reaching the top of a mountain. While these are not inherently bad, they will only end up being part of a life of suffering and the focus should instead be on reaching something more, an awakened state with a different relationship to emotions altogether.

While both Buddhism and the values I was raised with stress accepting the painful and happy experiences of life, Buddhism gives a different lens to these emotions. The mission in life is not about striving to feel the passions of life, but rather changing how we relate to these passions, and about actually changing our relationship to ourselves to such an extent that we no longer suffer at all. I am still uncertain how profoundly different this perspective is from the one I grew up with.


Work Cited:

Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, and Howard C. Cutler. The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World. New York: Doubleday, 2009. Print.

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5 Responses to The Value of Suffering

  1. cmlee says:

    I also like reading this post and how you talked about Buddhism offering another lens to processing emotions without suffering from them. The first quote that you brought up, about genuinely feeling your emotions without having them”pulling [me] back” reminds me of this other idea – by not processing your feelings, the soul takes on this duality, of filterless emotions and numbness – numbing your negative emotions slowly closes you off from feeling other emotions as well, like happiness, stress, hunger…

  2. azhou says:

    Thank you for writing such a thought provoking piece. I really enjoyed how you brought your own experiences and voice into it, making the questions you raise feel more personal. I also find it hard to grasp the concept of experiencing an emotion without having it overwhelm you. It reminds me of that mediation practice of separating yourself from your ego, where one simply allows themselves to experience an emotion without putting a “good” or “bad” label to it. So in the end, pain just becomes pain, without any suffering. This ability to transcend your ego and experience emotion is definitely interesting to think about.

  3. Lily says:

    I often wonder whether or not happiness is a kind of suffering because I don’t think it is possible to be happy all of the time; you can be happy for awhile, but eventually, wouldn’t that fade into something that does not feel as good? I think that the idea of experiencing emotion without allowing it to affect oneself is interesting, but I had thought that someone who practices Buddhist traditions would strive to reach a place of neutrality. In finding this state, they would not have to experience suffering through emotion. Does this make sense?

  4. mwright says:

    I enjoyed this post and can identify with the message. I understand the concept of suffering, and can understand how our attachments and ignorance lead to suffering, but it is hard to grasp how to move beyond these attachments. We live in a society that praises living in the moment, and forming relationships that are highly dependent and thus lead to suffering. On the flip side of this many other religions and ideologies such as Christianity also preach against forming worldly attachments. This is an interesting and confusing topic to explore.

  5. mmw92 says:

    I really enjoyed this post, as this has been something that I have been thinking about throughout the class thus far. The culture I grew up in seems to associate happiness and pleasure with relishing and appreciating both the highs and the lows of life (the phrase “hurts so good” comes to mind). We have an entire culture dedicated to it: from highbrow films exploring somber themes of hardship to the ubiquitous pop break up song, suffering seems like something we should learn from, rather than give up.
    I found the author’s explanation of suffering as finding a new relationship with it, rather than completely ignoring it or getting rid of it, informative and refreshing. A different way of understanding these emotions can help us understand what is beyond them, rather than being blockaded by these sensations.

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