Ever wonder why suffering exists? It is a fundamental question in religion and philosophy. If one believes that God exists and is good, omnipotent and omnipresent, wanting only the best for all beings, how could suffering exist?
Buddha said that what he taught was the truth of suffering and the end of suffering. As I understand it, Buddha identified three basic forms of suffering:
1) Illness, old age, death and death of a loved one.
2) Impermanence. Everything changes.
3) The conditioned mind. This includes expectations of fairness and right and wrong.
The first two forms of suffering are inevitable parts of life. The third is optional and the focus of Buddhist practice. I think of it as learning not to cling to expectations more than not having them. Many traditions warn against desire and often Buddhist teachings warn specifically against attachments. Yet it seems to me that without desires and the attachments that friendship and love usually bring, life would be too limited.
When a loved one dies or leaves, we suffer with that loss. Yet unless one gets stuck by either denying the loss that is or raging against a feeling of injustice, along with the hurt feelings of loss we also are warmed by the joy and wonder of the connections that have passed. They remind us of our capacity to connect and feel at such depth and meaning. For while in love we tend to focus on love’s object (the one we love), the wonder is actually as much that we ourselves can love and relate so deeply.
Suffering is not just for humans. Stepping out during a rare break on a weekend long, silent Zen meditation retreat, I was feeling quite vibrant. The sittings were done facing white walls, with eyes only partially open, being almost a form of sensory deprivation. Walking outside the building into nature all my perceptions seemed to explode with a wonderful intensity. Then I heard this very plaintive bird cry from nearby. Turning I saw a few feet away, large hawk with a small bird trapped in it’s talons. The hawk was judiciously plucking the living small bird’s feathers from it while called out in pain and terror. This was the peaceful, compassionate nature we admired? Knowing there was nothing I could do, I still took a step closer and the hawk flew off with it’s prey.
I had thought that animals killed their prey before dismantling it, a clean kill and end of suffering. So what was this? The hawk was not acting with an intention to cause suffering. I suspect when animals do kill their prey before devouring it, it is more about preventing it’s escape than any sense of compassion. One thing that animals largely lack which people can have is *consciousness. With consciousness comes the capacity for both compassion and intentional cruelty, aspects that inform our choices in ways not present for animals.
Pain and suffering bring things into to sharp awareness in the moment. Pleasure and love can also do this. We can benefit by simply enjoying the sense of well being brought by love and pleasure. With suffering however, unless we learn from it we only lose. As conscious beings faced with suffering, we can choose to act or not to act with compassion, or, on the other side, with cruelty. Consciousness brings the responsibility of choice. Self-aware beings can identify with another’s suffering. With consciousness, compassion is the usual healthy response to suffering.
To put this another way, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, we have become the gardeners in the Garden of Eden. We are at least partially one with God. The more we let ourselves become attuned to the God, Spirit, or Universal within, the more we will act for and from the highest good to maintain a flourishing garden.
The conscious choice to respond to suffering with compassion seems a good description of living a spiritual life. May we all be more conscious and compassionate in all we do.
* The term self awareness or human level self awareness might be better here. As one person wrote me, higher level animals show evidence of consciousness and caring for self and others. Yet to feel compassion they would have to be able to imagine themselves in the other’s position, something only humans seem to be able to do.