While we were traveling in India we were constantly confronted by how difficult life can be there, over one billion people in 1/3 the size of the US. We would give food to beggars, shoo rats away and saw dead bodies being cremated on the banks of the Ganges.
A monk we met told us the story of a woman who came to the Buddha in tears as her only son had died. She begged him to bring her son back to life; the pain of his death is too much for her to bear. Finally, the Buddha agrees. He says he will bring the boy back to life, but only if the woman can get him a single mustard seed from a house where no one has ever died. The distraught woman rushes off and proceeds to go from door to door trying to find a home that has never experienced a death. Of course, she cannot find a single place.
Has anyone lived a life through without some measure of loss, grief, pain or hardship?
The point here is that suffering is a normal part of being human. Life is also filled with beauty, joy, daffodils in the spring, the dew on a spider’s web, the depth of intimate love. We hang out with happiness as much as we can, but getting to know suffering is not what we normally like to do.
If no one wants to suffer then why do we? We were teaching a workshop in England and we asked the group: Is anyone holding on to pain and suffering? To our surprise, everyone raised their hands! They agreed that they didn’t want to suffer yet they held on to it because it felt so familiar. Indeed, if we are honest, most of our time is spent either pushing suffering away so as to avoid it, or holding onto it and using it as a means of distinction, a way of getting attention and sympathy. Deny or indulge, pretend nothing is wrong or exaggerate the pain.
The word suffering comes from the Pali word dukkha, which means not only suffering but includes all its varied family relations such as discomfort, pain, anguish, dissatisfaction, failure, conflict, hurt. What do we do when one of these comes knocking at our door? How do we relate to it? Do we push it away, cover it up or seek distraction? Denying suffering is what society does all the time. Look at how ads focus on the young and beautiful, ignoring the process of aging; how we insulate ourselves from the weather, from too much cold or too much heat.