Suffering and Happiness Are Companions
“To see that life is a joyful participation in a world of sorrows, and that suffering is not the same as unhappiness is one of the singular blessings Japan has to offer.” – Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer is a British-born novelist living in Japan, a country whose citizens have endured apocalyptic tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear bombs and reactor meltdowns. These events are examples of what I call The Givens.
The Givens are the cards you are dealt, the tragedies (and blessings) that occur through no direct act of one’s own. Learning that your home has been swallowed by the earth is an example of a Given. Other examples are losing a job, learning your beloved has Stage 4 cancer, and losing a cherished friend through death, disappointment or betrayal.
Examples of The Givens in my life include being shunned by all members of my family after leaving the religion of my childhood, being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer three months after my husband died from his own brief, intense experience with cancer, and learning that my mother has dementia.
These things weren’t done to me, they just happened. Life does what it does.
And yet, living through all of this, there were moments of fierce joy, laughter and openings for gratitude next to my fear and sadness. Those moments were possible when I managed to relax into the current reality and accept things exactly as they were. Some days were easier than others; I wasn’t able to achieve acceptance every day.
Buddhists have a word for suffering: dukkha. Dukkha can also be translated from Sanskrit as having an underlying sense of un-ease, dis-satisfaction, and disquietude. Dukkha takes three different patterns. The Givens fall into the first pattern: dukkha-dukkha – the suffering of suffering.
Consider dukkha-dukkha to be the garden-variety dukkha that we all experience because we are human. It includes the pain inherent in birth, old age, sickness, death, and any experience we find undesirable. If you are a human being, you experience this. It comes with the territory of being human. It’s a Given.
The other two patterns are the suffering of change (viparinama-dukkha) and all pervasive suffering (sankhara-dukkha). I’ll let the scholars expound on these, but the distinctions refer to our free human agency – how we choose to handle The Givens.
We exacerbate our suffering by holding on (too long) to what is desirable, not getting what we want, not wanting what we have, and reactions we have to circumstances because of our conditioning, mental habits, and unexamined thinking.
When I first learned about dukkha-dukkha, I was relieved to understand that its presence in my daily life didn’t mean I’d done anything wrong or failed a test. It is not self-inflicted, it just IS. We don’t do anything to generate or attract the pain of death, sickness, etc.
Pico Iyer reminds us that suffering and unhappiness do not have to be symbiotic experiences. You can suffer and still be happy. If you have the awareness and courage to open your eyes to everything as it is, you might be surrounded by a world of sorrows, and still find joy in life.
What if happiness is a habit?
You can receive the worst news you’ve ever heard—you’re fired; I want a divorce, we found a growth in your lung; your home has been swallowed by the earth—and you will suffer, no doubt about it. These events shake us loose and remind us of life’s fragility. Openings occur that weren’t there before to deepen our character, discover new things about love, discover how to honor the truth and the beauty of being fully alive.
Then, in between (not after, but before, during and after) the tears, fear and trembling, can you see the clematis blooming on the terrace, the family of birds nesting in that pine tree, and feel the dynamism of life, its insistence to move forward and the invitation for you to come along?
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