Life is suffering. This is the foundation of Buddhist thought. No matter what happens in life, there is one thing that you can be assured of, and that’s suffering.
Buddha wasn’t just a cynical old man, but went on to teach that you can also find the roots of suffering and these can be eradicated to make your way out of the cycle of suffering (enlightenment).
But that’s not what I’m talking about today, because let’s be honest, we’re both very far from enlightenment right now and our main priority is just dealing with the suffering that we’re feeling.
Much of the suffering that you feel you don’t have “direct control” over. They are feelings that just arise (anger, jealousy, etc.) But one of the things that you have a large amount of control over is the narratives that accompany them.
For example we have all been angry with a co-worker for something they did. The initial anger comes in a spike or moment, but then you spend the next three hours replaying a narrative about how much of a dick s/he is.
Stop the narratives that keep reigniting the suffering.
So the first thing that helps to reduce your suffering is simply by stopping the narratives that continue its existence. First you need to be aware that you are telling a narrative, and then you can divert your thoughts elsewhere to prevent it’s repetition.
This is admittedly harder than it sounds, but by practicing meditation you get better at it.
This ancient quote, and the idea behind it, is for me the most helpful things whenever stuck in moments of suffering.
The origins of the quote aren’t really known but the essence behind it is deeply Buddhist.
This too shall pass.
While the idea sounds plain and simple, it has deeper meaning in Buddhist philosophy which is based around the idea that everything in life is impermanent. You can think of this as the equivalent of the conservation of energy; everything comes from something else. Everything grows and decays. Everything is born and dies. Nothing is around forever, but always comes from something else.
This too shall pass is a massive relief when you are suffering because it’s a sort of guarantee that despite the current moment feeling like it will last forever, that this state will be your entire life, in reality, the suffering will pass away just like everything else.
Soon you will be freed from the pain and have either grown from it in some way or another.
Cool, so those help in understanding the temporal nature of suffering, but don’t help the suffering that your feeling now.
If you’re a trained yogi and understand your mind enough you could probably transcend the suffering, but you’re not. So in the meantime, I turn to some non-buddhist thought.
It comes from this fantastic speech by Neil Gaiman which he gave as a commencement speech to the University of the Arts graduating class of 2012 Philadelphia
Make good art.
Much of the art that we appreciate is fuelled by some sort of suffering. It’s the difficulties that happen to us that give us a new perspective on the world, and these novel perspectives are the essence of art.
So when stuck in moments of suffering, and waiting for impermanence to move it along, a thing to do is use the suffering as inspiration towards making good art.
“Husband runs off with the politician; make good art.
Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor; make good art.
IRS on your trail; make good art.
Cat exploded; make good art.
Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before; make good art.” – Neil Gaiman
If you feel like you don’t have an art, then moments of suffering are a great time to explore and find one. You don’t have to be a painter or a writer to be an artist. Your art is whatever you’re passionate about, whatever you can throw yourself into and express yourself through.