So where do we begin in our search for meaning and suffering? For many people the search begins with their religious tradition. Although different religions may have different ways of understanding the meaning and purpose of human suffering every world religion offers strategies for responding to suffering based on its underlying beliefs. In the Buddhist and Hindu models, for example, suffering is a result of our own negative past actions and is seen as a catalyst for seeking spiritual liberation.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition the universe was created by a good and just God, and even though his master plan may be mysterious and indecipherable at times, our faith and trust in His plan allow us to tolerate our suffering more easily, trusting as the Talmud says, that “Everything God does, He does for the best”. Life may still be painful, but like the pain a woman experiences in childbirth, we trust that the pain will be outweighed by the ultimate good in produces. The challenge in these traditions lies in the fact that, unlike in childbirth, the ultimate good in often not revealed to us. Still those with a strong faith in God are sustained by a belief in God’s ultimate purpose for our suffering, as a Hasidic sage advises “When a man suffers he ought not to say ‘That’s bad! That’s bad!’ Nothing God imposes on man is bad. But it is alright to say ‘That’s bitter! That’s bitter!’ For among medicines there are some that are made with bitter herbs.” So from the Judeo-Christian perspective suffering can serve many purposes: it can test and potentially strengthen our faith, it can bring us closer to God in a very fundamental and intimate way, or it can loosen the bonds to the material world and make us cleave to God as our refuge. While a person’s religious tradition may offer valuable assistance in finding meaning even those who do not subscribe to a religious worldview may upon careful reflection find meaning and value behind their suffering. Despite the universal unpleasantness, there is little doubt that our suffering can test, strengthen and deepen the experience of life. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “What does not destroy me makes me stronger”. And while it is natural to recoil from suffering, suffering can also challenge us and at times even bring out the best in us. In The Third Man, author Graham Green observes, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed–but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they have brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
We are faced with challenges on a daily basis. Some challenges are large and seem insurmountable. Will I make enough money this month to pay my bills? Can I afford to send my kids to college? I can’t believe the doctor said I’ll have to wait a week for the test results. How am I ever going to live without mom now that she’s gone?
Some challenges are small. What should I make for dinner? Who am I going to get to pick the kids up from school? Of course I’m stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire when I’m already running late for my appointment.
Whether big or small, it’s how we face these challenges that makes us who we are and shapes our lives. These challenges give us strength, they provide us with wisdom that makes the next challenge that much easier. They teach us the value of friendship, love, kindness, compassion and patience. They teach us what it feels like when we don’t receive these values from others. And I think ultimately they teach us just to give ourselves and others a break.
Everyone has had those days where everything seems to go wrong. Where it seems every time you turn around the universe decides to present you with another obstacle. You know the days I’m talking about. I had one of those days that seemed to last for fifteen years. Then I learned to change the way I thought and the way I approached my life.
I came up with 4 great rules to live by. Four rules that will serve you well when facing any kind of challenge or adversity.
Rule # 1, Know you are not alone.
In the time of the Buddha, a woman named Kisagotami suffered the death of her only child. Unable to accept it, she ran from person to person, seeking a medicine to restore her child to life. The Buddha was said to have such a medicine.
Kisagotami went to the Buddha, paid homage, and asked, “Can you make a medicine that can restore my child?”
“I know of such a medicine,” the Buddha replied. “But in order to make it, I must have certain ingredients.”
Relieved, the woman asked, “What ingredients do you require?”
“Bring me a handful of mustard seeds,” said the Buddha.
The woman promised to procure it for him, but as she was leaving, he added, “I require the mustard seed to be taken from a household where no child, spouse, parent, or servant has died.”
The woman agreed and began going house to house in search of the mustard seed. At each house the people agreed to give her the seed, but when she asked them if anyone had died in that household, she could find no home where death had not visited–in one house a daughter, in another a servant, in others a husband or parent had died. Kisagotami was not able to find a home free from the suffering of death. Seeing she was not alone in her grief, the mother let go of her child’s lifeless body and returned to the Buddha, who said with great compassion, “You thought that you alone had lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”
We are not alone. Every one of us has suffered. We can all remember low times in our lives where we felt our worst. Remember these times and rejoice in them. For it is these times that teach us the most. These times that allow us the ability to empathize with our neighbors, our family, our coworkers, or even strangers.
Look upon challenges and adversity as a learning experience. Look upon them as an opportunity to afford another that which you wish you had yourself. Look upon them with favor and your life will be richer than your wildest dreams.
Rule # 2, Take a step back
“Well, you’ve mentioned the need for a high level of enthusiasm and determination to transform one’s mind, to make positive changes. Yet at the same time, we acknowledge that genuine change occurs slowly and can take a long time.” I noted. “When change takes place so slowly it’s easy to become discouraged. Haven’t you ever felt discouraged by the slow rate of progress in relation to your spiritual practice or discouragement in others areas of your life?”
“Yes, certainly.” he said.
“How do you deal with that?” I asked.
“As far as my own spiritual practice goes if I encounter some obstacles or problems, I find it helpful to stand back and take a long term view rather than the short term view. In this regard, I find that thinking about one particular verse gives me courage and helps me sustain my determination. It says:
As long as space endures
As long as sentient beings remain
May I too live
To dispel the miseries of the world.
Have patience. Have patience with the world, have patience with others, but most of all have patience with yourself. Your life isn’t over yet. Even if you were 150 years old, there is still good to be done and changes to be made both within the world and within yourself. You are a work in progress. Your life is still loading.
Rule # 3 Sometimes all you have to do is listen
The Dalai Lama was due to attend a small reception held in honor of a group of donors who had been strong supporters of the Tibetan cause. Outside the reception room a large crowd had gathered in anticipation of his appearance. By the time of his arrival the crowd had become quite dense. Among the onlookers I saw a man whom I had noticed a couple of times during the week. He was of indeterminate age, although I would have guessed middle 20’s, maybe early 30’s, tall and very thin. Notable for his disheveled appearance, he, however, had caught my attention because of his expression, one that I had frequently seen among my patients — anxious, profoundly depressed, in pain. And I noticed slight repetitive involuntary movements of the musculature around his mouth. “Tardive dyskinesia” I had silently diagnosed, a neurological condition caused by chronic use of antipsychotic medication. “Poor guy,” I thought at the time but quickly forgot about him.
As the Dalai Lama arrived, the crowd condensed, pressing forward to greet him. The security staff, most of them volunteers, struggled to hold back the advancing mass of people and clear a path to the reception room. The troubled young man whom I had seen earlier, now with a somewhat bewildered expression, was crushed forward by the crowd and pushed to the edge of the clearing made by the security team. As the Dalai Lama made his way through, he noticed the man, broke free from the mooring of the security crew and stopped to talk to him. The man was startled at first but began to speak very rapidly to the Dalai Lama, who spoke a few words in return. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw that as the man spoke, he started to become visibly more agitated. The man was saying something, but instead of responding, the Dalai Lama spontaneously took the man’s hand between his, patted it gently, and for several moments simply stood there silently nodding. As he held the man’s hand firmly, looking into his eyes, it seemed as if he were unaware of the mass of people around him. The look of pain and agitation suddenly seemed to drain from the man’s face and tears ran down his cheeks. Although the smile that surfaced and slowly spread across his features was thin, a look of comfort and gladness appeared in the man’s eyes.
Sometimes we don’t have to solve the problem. Sometimes we can’t. There is no quote, no gesture, no gift that can make it better. It just is. But if we can take the time to listen, to be present in the moment, to experience another’s pain with them, that is all that’s required. That is what they need at that moment. Something that costs you nothing but is priceless to them.
Rule # 4 Pray Daily
The practice of approaching our problems rationally and learning to view our troubles or our enemies from alternative perspectives certainly seemed like a worthwhile pursuit, but I wondered to what degree this could bring about a fundamental transformation of attitude. I remembered once reading in an interview that one of the Dalai Lama’s daily spiritual practices was the recitation of a prayer, The Eight Verses on the Training of the Mind, written in the eleventh century by the Tibetan saint, Langri Thangpa. It reads in part:
Whenever I associate with someone, may I think myself the lowest among all and hold the other supreme in the depth of my heart.
When I see being of wicked nature, pressed by violent sin and affliction, may I hold these rare ones dear as if I had found a precious treasure!
When others, out of envy, treat me badly with abuse, slander and the like, may I suffer the defeat and offer the victory to others!
When the one, whom I have benefited with great hope, hurts me very badly, may I behold him as my supreme Guru!
In short may I, directly and indirectly, offer benefit and happiness to all beings; may I secretly take upon myself the harm and suffering of all beings!
Some of you are the scientific kind or perhaps you don’t believe in prayer or you prefer to call it something else like meditation. No matter what you call it, it is still the releasing of wishes, hopes, and dreams from your heart and soul. Thoughts, usually positive ones, that you direct into the world, the universe, or towards a certain person. I pray a lot. My favorite place to pray is in my car, at the top of my lungs, with the windows rolled down. Or in my shower at 5:30 in the morning when I’m chiseling the sleep out of my eyes. Singing is my prayer. I pray every chance I get.
So remember these rules the next time some seemingly overwhelming obstacle falls into your path.
- You’re not alone – We are here for you
- Take a step back – Remember your life is still loading, this moment is not all that’s left
- Sometimes all you have to do is listen – Be present in the moment
- Pray daily – Share your positive thoughts with the world
I’ll leave you with insight from someone far more enlightened than I.
The Dalai Lama’s Instructions for Life
1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
3. Follow the three R’s:
Respect for self
Respect for others and
Responsibility for all your actions.
4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great relationship.
7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
8. Spend some time alone every day.
9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
11. Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.
12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.
14. Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.
15. Be gentle with the earth.
16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.
19. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
20. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
~ Jessica Carter