Understanding and alleviating suffering

Here are a few thoughts on understanding and alleviating suffering – known as dukkha in Buddhism.

One of the Buddha’s principal aims was to alleviate unnecessary suffering – that is, suffering caused by three factors: one, anger and ‘negative’ emotions; two, greed, craving and attachment; and, three, delusion – having a misguided view or understanding of how things are – the nature of reality. Some kinds of suffering are an inevitable aspect of life. Aging, illness, injury and death affect us all, and seeing how these processes affect those we love is also hard to bear. Although we can’t avoid these aspects of life, we can learn how to negotiate them and how to lessen the impact they have on us. By changing our relationship with these experiences, we can be less affected by them.

So how do we reduce suffering? The Buddha proposes three actions that will help. First, to come to a clear and balanced view of how things are – dharma – the realisation that existence has two primary characteristics: one, impermanence and change, and, two, interdependence and causality. All things are in process – they come and go – whether slow or fast all things are subject to change – things are actually events. Also, everything in the universe is related to, and dependent upon, everything else – there is no entity that exists in isolation, separate from the rest of existence. This includes us and all beings. We are interconnected and interdependent, and any action we take has consequences. The principal of cause and effect is always at work, everywhere in the universe.

The second way we can reduce suffering is by learning how to let go of our attachments and cravings. To some extent this is also helped by understanding that attachments and greed are self-propelling and insatiable – one craving leads to another, gaining one reward or possession only leads us to want more – a cycle that repeats itself endlessly. We may want a new car, a delicious meal, more money, more entertainment, more knowledge, more power, more friends, new ideas, a more satisfying way of life, peace of mind or even enlightenment – whatever it may be, it will almost certainly prove to be insufficient, replaceable by yet another craving or attachment. To understand this cyclical insatiable process is, according to the Buddha, vital, if we are to learn to accept what is, and to learn to let go and reduce the power of our attachments to things that are always changing and slipping through our fingers.

The third way to reduce suffering is to be aware of, and to accept and understand, the negative emotions that arise when we feel ourselves to be separate from the rest of existence. Anger, fear, conflict, hatred, envy and other ‘negative’ emotions are, in some way, the product of feelings of isolation, separateness, division, disconnection and alienation. Again, this arises from a misconception about the nature of existence – emotions and attitudes that arise when we can no longer see and feel the interconnectedness of everything and everyone, when we lose sight of the unity of everything and everyone, and can see only enemies, strangers, foreigners and competitors – to be vanquished or feared, beaten or despised – rather than relatives, friends and fellow beings.

Mindful meditation / zazen is a simple and effective method of understanding and alleviating suffering by learning how to achieve a clear, balanced, wise view of how things are – and by lessening the impact of anger, greed and delusion in our lives. By sitting quietly and calmly, observing the embodied mind without commentary and judgment, letting go of passing thoughts, feelings and sensations, we learn to develop understanding, composure and wellbeing. We can reorientate our minds to a more holistic, less egocentric, perspective from which to see ourselves and the world. A kind of benign compassionate disinterest can be practiced – a holistic awareness of all that comes and goes. In this way we can lessen the many forms of suffering that can affect us and, hopefully, enable us to experience more fully the wonder and joy of just being alive, conscious and connected to all of existence.