“Just as a map isn’t the same as the journey it illuminates, neither is meditation, mindfulness, or compassionate kindness the same as enlightenment.” -Barry
Meditation alone cannot eliminate suffering. Neither can the practice of mindfulness, or the active process of enacting compassionate kindness. But when practiced together, they can.
I know this sounds far-fetched and you’re most likely a little skeptical. That’s OK. Let’s dive a little deeper into the subject, shall we?
The nature of suffering
Suffering is a universal phenomenon amongst sentient beings. On the human level, and although I cannot speak from experience, I imagine it’s also true on the animal level, suffering is always with us in one form or another.
We feel physical and emotional pain; we experience mood swings and the judgment of others; we also have a tumultuous inner conflict with who we are, how we look, and what we have or have not achieved in life.
This sense that life isn’t perfect, that it is somehow never quite what we want it to be is what the Buddha called dukkah. He likened dukkah to traveling in a wagon with one wheel out-of-kilter. The uncomfortable nature of the ride in such a wagon is similar to the out-of-kilter feeling we have about life.
On the flip side, we also experience happiness, joy, and laughter. We appreciate humor and enjoy life a lot of the time. We express love for others and feel pleasure in being appreciated and loved by others.
Just as we experience physical pain and emotional discontent, so we also experience their counterparts of physical ease and contentedness – but both are forms of suffering.
How happiness can be a form of suffering
What? I’m happy as a clam at the beach! What do you mean happiness is suffering? Happiness can also be a form of suffering because, as we all can attest, it is as fleeting as the wind. One minute we are feeling on top of the world and the next we are in the depths of despair. Not that we all operate in from such polar opposites, but our lives are indeed characterized by such fluctuations from time to time.
Suffering is a part of our lives because we become attached to the outcomes such experiences bring us. It is our attachment to the outcomes of our experiences such as relaxation, fulfillment, laughter, and comfort that create a false expectation.
When our expectations aren’t met, we suffer.
Who among us doesn’t anticipate the emotional rush of a romantic experience or the catharsis of a good cry? Who among us doesn’t get off on being admired and paid a compliment on our appearance or ability?
Attachments to outcome creates expectations; when expectations aren’t met, we suffer.
If you eliminate attachment, you can eliminate suffering
But this is way easier said than done. The Buddha knew this. You and I know this and we aren’t Buddhas. We know that if we were to remove the attachment we feel about a possible new job that we know would be perfect for us, or our preference for who will win the World Cup next year, we wouldn’t be disappointed by the inevitable results of either situation.
In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha taught that attachment is the source of all suffering. If you’ve read this far, you know it to be true in your own life. In the Third Noble Truth, he taught that it was possible to eliminate suffering.
3 simple practices and their effect on suffering
In my experience, even though life is impermanent, transitory, and passing by at ever-increasing speeds, I suffer very little. I am not wealthy, enjoy good health but am still mildly overweight and have occasional aches and pains. Both my daughter and middle son have moved or are moving away from California and taking their children with them and this doesn’t please me. My youngest son is 17 and in full hormone-rage stage.
Yet I suffer very little.
The reason I don’t suffer is that I’ve learned through the discipline of meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate kindness to curb my attachment to preconceived outcomes. In the case of my older children moving out of state, I don’t like that they are moving but realize their lives are their own and not under my control nor subject to my expectations. In the case of my youngest son, his occasional disrespectful behavior is addressed immediately, but I move on knowing it is a part of his development; I have no unmet need that would induce suffering.
By not having the expectation that my children will always live near me, I won’t experience an unmet need in this area of my life.
My parents are both alive and in moderately good health and of course, I want them to enjoy life for a long time to come. But my experience teaches me that this is an unrealistic expectation. If my expectation is that they will both experience failing health and eventually pass away, while a morbid expectation, it will result in less suffering when the time comes.
Practical Buddhism helps me eliminate suffering
- Meditation hones my ability to be still and to concentrate
- Mindfulness keeps me grounded in the present moment and not worrying about the future or regretting the past
- Compassionate kindness enables me to remain free of automatic judgments
Practical Buddhism helps me eliminate suffering in many areas of my life by keeping me in the present moment
In the present moment, there are no unmet needs. That doesn’t mean I can experience hunger, grief, or illness. It just means I experience each of these in the present moment and not attach desired outcomes to each situation. Getting to this place in my life didn’t happen all at once, but slowly over time as I learned to embrace the absence of attachment.
How to start eliminating suffering in your life
Meditate – Set aside just five minutes and sit in silence. Do nothing; don’t try to be spiritual, that’s not meditation. Just sit and observe how frenetic and wild your untamed mind can be. This frenetic activity is normal and it’s why most who try meditation quit. But just as a toddler doesn’t give up after falling down a thousand times in the process of learning to walk, neither should you give up on developing the discipline to work through your wild mind while developing a meditation practice.
Be Mindful – the practice of mindfulness is checking in with yourself at various times throughout the day and asking the question: What am I thinking about? If you’re human, you will be thinking about all kinds of things that take you away from the present moment. The goal of practicing mindfulness is to bring yourself back to this present moment. Because the present is all we have (the past is just a wake in the water of time and the future only a dream) it is here we need to be. We don’t need to dwell on the past and worry about the future – we should be here, now, in this moment.
Feeling Compassion, Expressing Kindness – Compassion is the devotion to being sensitive to other beings. It is a connection at the heart level. Kindness is a response and the expressive form of compassion. When you feel compassion, stay with it and you will find that a natural response to this feeling is to express kindness. It can be expressed as a gentle touch, a smile, making eye contact, sending a card, engaging in an embrace, or even simply nodding your head. When expressed from a place of compassion, kindness is your highest form of giving.