Last Friday was my birthday—May 4th. It was a pretty strange day since I just arrived home from Australia and everything was upside down, but I ate some chocolate cake, slept, and contemplated the meaning of life for a few hours. I suppose it was nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that my body digested dessert as a 34-year-old for the first time.
Birthdays are a bit bizarre. There’s so much pomp and circumstance about them, though in truth they are poignant reminders that our days on earth are dwindling. Forgive me, I don’t mean to get all morbid and depressing here, but it is reality after all. Most of us know our birthday, but none of us knows our death day. The mystery of that is what adds incredible vulnerability, tenderness, and beauty to life. It’s also what drives some of our asses to the meditation cushion as fast as possible.
A few years ago a dear friend died on my birthday. She got sick suddenly and left her body shortly after. I found out on the morning of my 32nd year and felt really off-kilter the rest of the day. Yes, I was deeply saddened about her passing, but I was equally shaken by the truth of impermanence that her death smooshed in my face. In an instant I realized how quickly things come and go—like flashes of lightning in the sky. One person’s birthday is another person’s death day, and that’s just the way it is. In fact, this year Beastie Boys' rapper Adam Yauch died on my birthday too; yet another reminder.
The whole life-is-fleeting thing fascinates me. Some moments I feel grateful for the preciousness of being, so tender in its transience. Other moments I weep, knowing that nothing in this world belongs to me. At times I really do wish I could be one of those rare beings convinced about the interdependence of life, or perhaps a Zen master aware that she was never born and, thus, will never die. But alas, every year when my birthday comes around I still believe that I am my age... and I eat cake to celebrate this oh-so-lovely illusion.
Fortunately there’s another, gentler way to look at the whole birthday thing—with gratitude. Gratitude is what I’m trying to cultivate these days because it makes such a huge difference. Though I often feel like a little girl who has no clue how to navigate her way through the universe, at the end of the day I’m just thrilled to be here on planet earth—singing, writing, breathing, listening to the rain, swooning at the supermoon, and stuff like that.
Sometimes I like to believe there’s a holy grail and that, as soon as I stumble upon it, all of my suffering will vanish like a line drawn in water. But the more I live, the more I realize that perhaps suffering itself is the Holy Grail. Sound crazy? Not to the Buddha. He understood that misery is just freedom in disguise and that beneath its choppy exterior lie priceless jewels of self-knowledge.
In his first teaching after enlightenment, Buddha named the big fat elephant in the room when he said, “Suffering exists.” That is the First Noble Truth and it’s quite a powerful statement. Why? Because the only way to become free of suffering is to acknowledge that it exists in the first place. After all, if we don’t notice that our room is dark, we won’t bother turning on the lights!
Despite having different realities, I think all seven billion of us can agree that suffering is not the most enjoyable hobby. Still, those of us who are married to our egos suffer, plain and simple. The question is: What exactly is this thing called suffering and why won't it go away?
Unlike the dictionary definition of suffering, which refers to pain and distress, the Buddha defined it as a kind of uneasiness or discontent—what he called dukkha. In Pali, the language of the early Buddhist canon, dukkha is translated as “bad axle-hole,” du meaning “bad” and kha meaning “axle-hole.” (I hope you find that hilarious; I do.) A bad axle-hole is basically a misshapen wheel and it's no mystery that a lopsided wheel doesn't make for a very nice ride. Another way to put it is that dukkha is the uneasiness that results from bouncing through life. Once in a while it’s fun, but when the bouncing goes on for years on end it can get a bit tiresome. Unfortunately, a smooth highway doesn’t improve the journey much since the wheel is the problem and that comes along with us wherever we go.
But bad axle-holes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Buddha’s views on suffering. Instead of mushing everything together into a big ball of miserable, samsaric dough, the Buddha took suffering apart and broke it down into three main types: the suffering of suffering (dukkha-dukkha), the suffering of change (viparinama-dukka), and all pervasive suffering (samkhara-dukkha)
The suffering of suffering refers to the obvious: Emotional, physical, or mental pain. Discomfort. Anxiety. Broken relationships. Poverty. Disease. Death. And a host of other unsatisfying things that we simply wish would go away. This is the kind of suffering that we can discern most easily, but there are subtler layers, too.
The Buddha also said that we suffer because everything changes; nothing is permanent. Not that impermanence is problematic in it’s own right, but our relationship to it is. When things go our way, sure, impermanence is grand. “It’s all good, man. Yeah, this impermanence stuff—it’s no big deal.” When we stub our toe we’re glad as hell when the pain passes. When it rains for weeks on end we cheer when the sun comes shining through the clouds. Bravo impermanence! We love you.
But what about when our lover leaves, we get fired, sprout grey hairs, grow two chins, and all our stocks crash? Damn it! Impermanence, you suck. This is what the Buddha called viparinama-dukkha, the pain of change. In a world that is ever-shifting and full of uncertainty, we can never get too comfortable. Even with our fancy cars, tiny turbo iPods, and herbal elixirs, we can’t control the wind. Life is always changing: the seasons turn, the moon swells and shrinks (just like our tummies), the wood burns to ash, our best friends become our foes, and our foes become our friends. Though we know this, still we don’t know it. Somehow we believe that happiness comes from things outside of us, but the more we seek for it “out there” the more we feel estranged “in here”.
The third kind of suffering that the Buddha spoke about was all-pervasive suffering. This is the kind of suffering that is so subtle we hardly even notice it—like the underlying fear that we may lose something we really love. Since everything changes and nothing is completely reliable, at any moment in time we are susceptible to pain. Even pleasure contains the seed of misery for it, too, is transient.
While all of this may seem a wee bit sad, I actually feel it's a relief—like sharing a long-held secret. Though speaking the truth may be awkward at first, ultimately it sets us free. The Buddha knew this, which is why he said what no one else wanted to: that we suffer because of our desires and attachments. With his penetrating insight, he understood that all we need to do is be honest, watch what’s happening, and see where we’re burning up inside. We don't need to stand on our head or sleep on a bed of hot coals to get enlightened. We simply need to develop awareness and acknowledge what’s really going on because only from there can we truly make a change.
What often causes me suffering is expectation. I remember a few years ago my guru Amma said, “Spirituality is a destruction of expectations.” At the time I wasn’t too thrilled to hear that, but the more I contemplated her words, the more I realized how true they were. Expectation is very good friends with the word “should,” which I’m convinced is one of the most destructive words in existence. Should says, The way things are is wrong; they need to be different. The problem is, sometimes they can’t be different and when we expect them to be, we suffer. It’s a pretty simple recipe.
That’s where spirituality comes in. True spirituality sneaks into our little world of egoic fantasy and says, “Baby, you’re all turned around. I’m going to destroy some of your incorrect perceptions, okay? For starters, you’re not the center of the universe.” If that’s not a profoundly unpleasant message, I don’t know what is. But when we really want to expand, wisdom hears our call and illuminates all the places that we’re full of shit. Wisdom reminds us that we’re one speck of brilliance in a vast ocean of consciousness—no greater or less than anything else. And wisdom reminds us that, when we resist reality, it hurts.
Over the winter a friend came over for dinner and as we sat at the table eating black bean soup, he asked, “Why is reality so hard to accept?” It was a great question. Sometimes we see things clear as day, but refuse to accept them because they don’t mesh with our desires. For instance, when the sky is grey, why do we want it to be blue? Or when someone we love doesn’t love us back, why do we want to convince him otherwise? It makes no sense. Fighting with reality is nothing but exhausting because at some point we always lose.
So what to do? How about be kind to ourselves—isn’t that the bottom-line? Ultimately, that’s what I recommit to on each and every birthday: kindness towards myself, first and foremost. Without that, this beautiful mess of a life just looks messy. I'd rather see the beauty, soak my heart with love, and let life be.
Thus ends my soliloquy on suffering! As always, thanks for reading. I appreciate you.