A friend of mine recently shared his thoughts about making sense of suffering. “I want to believe there’s a reason for suffering,” he said. “But what if there’s not? What if people suffer for no reason?”
This friend is a Christian. Christians believe God rewards his children with eternal life. We are taught to bear our trials the way Jesus did, trusting that God will redeem our suffering. It seemed my friend had been taught suffering is noble, and if we do enough of it, we will be rewarded.
Making Sense of Suffering
I’m not sure I’m on board with this view of suffering as virtue. Suffering is inevitable, though. Everyone suffers. I can’t look at my own trials and ask, “Why do I have this set of sufferings while someone else has another? Why does that guy seem to have more gifts and blessings than I do? There is no reason I should have to go through life struggling with x or y or z.”
In yoga and other spiritual practices, we learn it’s not suffering but how we react to suffering that makes the difference. Making sense of suffering is not the goal. Accepting it and transforming it is.
If I want to be redeemed from suffering, I must react to it in a redemptive way. I must transform it. First, I need to accept that (a) it exists, and (b) I don’t always get to choose how or how much I suffer (although I certainly can invite unnecessary suffering into my life).
Getting back to my friend’s question, I don’t know the purpose or value of another person’s suffering. I can only experience how I react to things that trouble me. I can’t change the meaning of suffering, give it meaning, or take meaning away from it by thinking about it. In truth, I can’t give meaning to suffering. The best I can do is accept it and do my best to let it transform me in some positive way.
How Mindfulness is Redemptive
One of the best ways I’ve learned to do this with mindful awareness. Who, after all, is suffering? Maybe (I hope) suffering is not part of my true nature. As I’ve learned this practice, a remarkable thing has happened. I’ve become less attached to myself and more aware of my Self with a capital “S.”
This is not a new age mind game. There is profound value and truth in it. I’ve come to agree with spiritual teachers who say we are not our thoughts, our pain, our suffering, or any number of other things, including our thrills, pleasure, accomplishments. and blessings.
We can’t come to this awareness of who we are (and aren’t) by reading about it once or twice or ten or even a hundred times. We must cultivate it and practice it. That’s not easy. But it’s the only way to transcend suffering or at least to transform it and make it bearable.
I’ve learned as I’ve moved through this journey, though I’m sure there’s a swifter path than the one I’ve taken! I’ve come to believe:
- My life is not about me.
- Attachment to what I think I need, want, or deserve causes pain.
- I am not my thoughts.
- I am not my emotions.
- The habits I’ve developed through my unique perspective often cloud my experience.
- No one really knows the truth about most things.
- It’s okay to not know the truth about most things.
- Even though I can’t be sure of what’s true and what’s not, I must still make choices.
- I have made and will continue to make lots of mistakes.
- Believing I should not make mistakes or that it’s possible to be perfect causes a lot of pain.
As a yogi, I try not to dwell on suffering. I continue to practice, and in doing that, the inevitable painful trials of life are transformed.