Charlie Ambler

Suffering: The Condition of Life, the Solution to Life

There’s a school of thought that pushes you to eliminate suffering; but in the real world, we cannot avoid it. Would you rather suffer in the aid of something you want? Or would you rather miss out?


A major “goal” of Buddhism is to reduce suffering through the curbing of attachment and the acknowledgement of the impermanence of all things. Many misinterpret this desire to reduce suffering as an attempt to avoid it altogether. Religious traditions that ask us to shed all attachments and desires just so we don’t hurt inside often lead to meekness and fragility rather than strength. I don’t advocate this type of Buddhism; we live in the real world, not a monastery, and cannot avoid having attachments and real world problems.

We should not fear the strength to overcome problems any more than we should fear death or disorder.

Would you rather have no children? Or experience both the joy and suffering of children? Would you rather have no money or no career? Or have a bit of achievement anxiety? Suffering is good most of the time; it helps us live more fully. Even the deepest misery can help us rise above its cause if we can just persist through it and find the courage to experience it fully.

One of my favorite Buddhist traditions is the Tibetan burial ritual in which a person’s dead body is cut up and fed to vultures. It’s called a “sky burial” and is meant to encourage treating the body as an empty vessel for the spirit. Death is not to be feared; it is an inevitable truth of life, the singular event that charges life with all its nuance and meaning. Thinking about physical existence in this way repulses us Westerners, but the real lesson is in asking yourself why. Why are we so repulsed by this natural death ceremony? Because our culture is terrified of death. We see death as a problem to be avoided, not an inevitability to be conscious of.

Let’s put this in cultural context. Modern people sacrifice themselves for jobs they don’t like to save money just so they can “live” once they’re at an old age least conducive to healthy living. They know deep down that the happiness they crave is unattainable and that’s why they create elaborate rituals by which they postpone contentment for their entire lives, always working for a non-existent future. They are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, not the attainment of it, since that would require settling down. They indulge in smoking, drinking, eating poorly, drugs, pornography, and violence. They spend exorbitant amounts of money on unnecessarily overpriced medical practices just to fix the consequences of their poor decisions. We are perpetually distracted, too comfortable and obsessed with chasing happiness at all costs. Those who decide to live healthily often take a militaristic or spiteful approach, spending thousands of dollars on fancy workout classes, clothes, diets, and “superfoods,” all to live just a bit longer or feel special. We are terrified of death and suffering and, ironically, we suffer far more from this fear than we do over the natural inevitability itself.

Monks were revered in older traditions precisely because they lived outside of the world we are all so attached to. Asceticism is the opposite of worldliness. Monks were seen as sacrificing their worldly lives for ascesis and transcending to a higher spiritual realm. They were respected because, at the end of the day, most people do not want to become monks. If they did, there’d be a lot more monks. In modern times, ascesis is highly limiting if not impossible. If we want to truly “escape suffering” we must shake off life entirely and go live in seclusion. No family, no friends, no money, no ideals.

Who wants that sort of life?

Suffering is good most of the time; it helps us live more fully. Even the deepest misery can help us rise above its cause if we can just persist through it and find the courage to experience it fully.

The Zen thinkers that appeal to me most are those who encourage us to live curiously and mindfully in the real world, not retreat to the sterility of a sacred space apart from the world. Dogen started this layman Zen tradition, which persisted with people like Kodo Sawaki, Kosho Uchiyama, and Taisen Deshimaru. Outside of Zen specifically there are thinkers like Chogyam Trungpa and Alan Watts who encourage us to live fully in the real world and not hide from it. Most people suffer deeply; it is a condition of being alive. We take the good with the bad and try not to overthink the causes of suffering, since it comes about whether we try to avoid it or not. We will all die; this is liberating. There’s no need to leave a mark, no need to fundamentally change the fabric of existence. It is what it is! We need to get over this fear of inevitability. It’s just plain stupid to fear what we can’t avoid.

What better way to understand the impermanence of all attachments than to experience this truth directly? We acquire wisdom almost exclusively through suffering, recognizing loss, understanding death, and experiencing other heavy emotional states. Calmness and pleasure rarely provide us with much clarity outside of meditation. The most important periods of life are often those in which we hurt deeply. In the same way that physical pain exists to alert us of injury, we can see abstract suffering as existing in order to alert us to the opportunity for growth. Growth doesn’t have to mean trying to become something or someone else. Many of the changes we experiment with in life lead us towards the true self. We are all united in this individual journey inward towards truth. Mindful consciousness allows us to recognize who we are, remove our masks of delusion and falseness, and accept life for what it is. We must make peace with death and suffering if we want to accept life as it is in reality.

Every day is full of calmness, chaos, pleasure, and suffering. There are wonderful little moments and miserable big moments, and vice versa. The more we judge and sort these experiences into “good” or “bad,” the more we fall into delusion. We cannot curate life to give us only happy experiences. We cannot “solve” death, because death is not a problem. It’s just an insult to our egos. Whenever we try to fight nature in this arrogant way, life responds by adjusting towards a balance of “good” and “bad.” Balance is everything; this is why people can only “reduce suffering” by becoming more moderate and temperate in their lifestyles. Why else would every religious tradition throughout human history have special cloistered areas where spiritual people go to avoid the “real world?”

This is what we must make peace with—what causes us to suffer cannot be destroyed. It cannot be fought. The more we fight it, the more difficult it gets; it’s rather frustrating trying to shake a foe that by nature doesn’t go away. This is where the real crux of Zen is for me. We accept it all—the deep suffering, the deep pleasure, the chaos, and the calm. We breathe through it and let it carry us through life. We either learn something or enjoy the calmness of mere existence. There is always something to learn, some opportunity to understand ourselves better. We are neither hopeless nor hopeful.

We just try to embrace each day with the best of our ability.


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