There is a confusion that exists among those unfamiliar with Practical Buddhism; They confuse emotion with suffering, particularly negative emotions like anger, disappointment, and grief.
- You can be angry and not suffer
- You can experience disappointment and not suffer
- You can even grieve without suffering
Stimulus and response
My 17-year-old son has lived with me all his life; for the last 10 years, it’s been he and I alone without his mother. Because of the nature of our family’s divide, he feels a certain amount of disappointment and negative emotion around his mother.
There are times when his anger and its resulting expression are fused into a physical response. At times he’s slammed his bedroom door, the front door to our home, or thrown something in his hand onto the floor.
At 17, he still struggles within the space between stimulus and response.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In this space is the power to choose our behavior.” ~ Dr. Wayne Dyer
We talk about the relationship between stimulus and response often. He’s gotten a handle on it in recent months and, to his credit, has more awareness of the distinction between the two and how fusing them into one behavior is a betrayal of his intellect. I tell him, “[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Smart people think, others simply act.[/inlinetweet]”
Emotion and suffering
Just as there is a link between stimulus -that which offends us or makes us angry- and response -the behavior we choose after becoming angry- likewise there is a link between emotions we experience and the presence of suffering.
We experience a wide range of emotions in our daily lives, some positive, some neutral, and some that are negative. I view these emotions as stimulus. The emotions aren’t wrong to experience, but they do present us with a choice as to whether or not we choose to suffer because of them.
In this same line of thought, I view suffering as a response. As a result of experiencing anger (or disappointment, or grief) we are faced with a choice of how to respond to it. If we choose to be a victim of our emotions, we are actively choosing to suffer. If you instead observe that the emotion is our humanity in action, we can also choose not to suffer.
What choosing suffering looks like
Here are a few examples of what making a conscious choice to suffer looks like. See if you recognize any responses that are familiar.
You expected a promotion at work but didn’t receive it. You experienced disappointment, maybe sadness, and even some momentary resentment of the person chosen over you or anger at the person making the decision.
- As a result of not receiving the promotion, your work productivity took a dive the next week. You in effect ‘punished your employer’ for not choosing you
- Or perhaps you told a bunch of people about not being chosen for the promotion and received comfort and pity as well as some hugs of support
- In an extreme reaction, maybe you just quit your job without regard for your family’s welfare
You expected your spouse or partner to remember a special date in your relationship, but they didn’t. You experienced disappointment, sadness, regret, anger, resentment, and jealousy perhaps.
- Because they forgot again, you verbally criticized them pointing out their insensitivity and lack of devotion to your relationship thereby emphasizing your victimization
- Maybe you burned dinner or simply didn’t do something they would normally expect you to do for them as a form of retaliation
- Perhaps you went out to a bar or to Starbucks with your guy and/or girlfriends and commiserated about your failing marriage or relationship
A coworker, when they are criticized for their job performance, implicates you as a way of defending themselves. They said something like, “Well, that ‘s the way Barry told me to do it.”
- Upon hearing this you may call them an asshole.
- Maybe you did nothing but told others around the proverbial water-cooler about it and garnered sympathy for your victimization.
- Perhaps you took matters further and emailed the supervisor directly and defended yourself against these accusations.
In all three of these examples, we have made ourselves victims of the other’s behavior. No matter what kind of spin we place on victimization, we are choosing it as a mode of suffering. Without the spin, the label, or the attachment to being a victim, there is no suffering, only observation of the other’s behavior.
The secret to not suffering?
People ask me all the time about my secret to avoiding suffering. I smile because there is no secret, there is only being awake. You must be awake to the present moment; awake enough not to choose attachment to outcome, and awake enough to make the appropriate choice of behavior apart from a conditioned response that we, like my young son, feel is our right to express.
Suffering isn’t wrong, it’s simply a waste of time
The Buddha taught that suffering is a part of life. He also taught that we are able to end suffering if we choose. I choose to use the three practices in Practical Buddhism to end my suffering in a moment by moment manner. I choose to be awake each moment and choose awareness and observation over negativity and victimization.
You are free to make the same choice right now.