To live well, learn to suffer

To live well, learn to suffer

To live well, learn to suffer well

Suffering is inescapable, we should therefore minimize its frequency and intensity

Life is not presented to us despite our best efforts, in perfect conditions. Our journey of life often passes through rough patches. Many times life can become extremely painful and even cruel. Pain and suffering are an integral part of life. Our life oscillates between two extremes, from acute suffering to mild satisfaction. There are various shades and forms of suffering in our life. Even if we are very rich, powerful, and high statured, we are not free from suffering. Our inherent nature is like that. To escape from suffering we seek pleasurable goods and experiences, but we end up becoming more frustrated, unsatisfactory, and discontented. We have been designed to suffer.

More than 2500 years back, Lord Buddha declared, “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation, and path. That’s all I teach”. The Four Noble Truths contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. The First Noble Truth, which is deceptively simple, yet very profound and lucid. It’s usually translated as “All life involves suffering “, or “All life is unsatisfactory.

The original word used by the Buddha was Dukkha. It includes suffering in the form of physical and emotional pain, mental stress, feeling lack of satisfaction, anxiety, frustration, depression, boredom, loneliness, anger, and so on. Can we imagine living without experiencing these negative feelings for a long time? Many unfortunate people keep on living in a state of acute suffering like the mother losing her child, a person born with some physical deformity, someone is suffering from a terminal illness, a person getting bankrupt, etc. These are the cases of extreme pain and suffering. 

There are many types of suffering. However, it’s widely believed that there are 3 main categories.

  • The first kind of suffering is like the pain of birth, old age, sickness, and death, as the Buddha described it.
  • The second is that of the suffering of change. Either we want to change or resist change because of our own interests. It’s very common in our lives. If someone is very rich, he doesn’t want to lose wealth. A poor person desperately wants to change his life’s conditions. This is how we suffer.
  • Then the last category is all-pervasive suffering. It’s the general background of uncertainty, anxiety, and insecurity, in which we live. Besides, there are different kinds of fear that we continue to experience in life. These life conditions make us suffer in many different ways.

After realizing that suffering is an integral part of life, Buddha recognized that there could be no end to suffering unless we know the reason behind it.

In the second noble Truth, Buddha tells us that the root cause of all suffering is attachment. He explained that the fundamental cause of suffering is “the attachment to the desire to have (craving), the attachment to the desire not to have (aversion) and the attachment to ignorant views. He made it clear that desire as such is the problem. It’s the attachment to the outcome of desire. We all experience attachment to different things from time to time. We get attached to wealth and status, our physical bodies, our expectations, opinions and beliefs, our own personal stories, and so on. Suffering invariably arises because attachments are transient and loss is inevitable. We all experience attachments of different kinds and then suffer.


To have a better understanding of suffering we should learn the parable of two darts. The concept of the two darts of suffering comes from the “Pall Canon”, one of the earliest teachings of Buddha. When someone is hurt by a dart, the first one, causes physical pain and distress. Now, different people will react to pain caused in different ways. However, after the first dart, suffering invariably begins. Buddhists call this pain and suffering a second arrow. The second arrow, unlike the first, is controllable. It is the anger and mental distress caused by our thoughts after the first dart. So, we are adding the pain and suffering of the second dart to the initial cause of anger and distress. A highly avoidable pain. It’s self-imposed suffering.

Take an example, let’s say someone hit your car and then ran away.  He lost in traffic too fast that you couldn’t note down the vehicle number. This is the first dart. Now it’s up to you, how you react. What kind of emotional pain and stress you will impose on yourself? How long you will suffer and think about the person who hit you? That choice is with you. The pain and suffering caused by the second dart. This dart is imaginary in nature. You may now harm yourself with that second dart for a variety of reasons. Ideally speaking, we should stop the dart before it hit you. We have that option available with us. Likewise, we come across life’s experiences so often where we create suffering on our own. The only pain we really feel is the one we create inside our mind.

In Stoic philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius’ words: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 

Suffering is inevitable consequence of our living. The kind of life we lead and the way our mind works, suffering is unavoidable. Our mind is highly fragile, sensitive and vulnerable. There is also a negativity bias. Even a small distressing incident can create a negative stream of thoughts, which can ruin our peaceful days. If we try to suppress those negative thoughts then same set of thoughts may recur more often. Now the question arises, as how to handle suffering. How we can minimize the intensity and frequency of suffering once it’s triggered. If we know the way, we can surely overcome the problem of suffering to a great extent.

The question how do we handle suffering in our day-to-day life. Since suffering is universal and we simply can’t escape from it because of the mind’s inherent nature, we should learn to suffer well. It means we should try to bring the level of suffering to a minimum. Before the second dart arrives and hits us, we should escape from it. The first dart in any case can’t be avoided. During our journey, we can’t avoid, despite doing our best of our abilities, adversities, and challenging times. We will lose our nears and dears. We may face serious health issues, relationship problems, financial difficulties, etc. Others may cause trouble for you. Three things are required to handle suffering in life – self-awareness, acceptance, and mindful living. If we learn and adopt 3 things in our life, we can handle suffering in far better ways. 

Ideally speaking, we should be aware and conscious about all happenings inside and outside of us. Ironically, most of us are not self-aware to the required level. We are busy in our own thought process, mostly engrossed in our own habitual and conditioned thoughts. When we are talking or interacting with others, we, most of the time, are not listening to others. We tend to react rather than responding to life’s situations. We are not fully attentive, focused and alert to what others are doing or saying. Many of our problems in relationships, family or workplace arise because we are not self-aware. This is also the reason, why we are we so impulsive, reactive and angry towards others.

The second thing is that we should recognise the power of acceptance in our lives. We should accept life as it’s presented to us from time to time. We should bother about the things where we have control, otherwise acceptance is the best available option. We have seen people ruining their lives by not accepting the life after traumatic incidents or some adversities. Life is filled with uncertainties. Anything can happen with anyone. The practice of acceptance can give us great strength to mitigate suffering in our life.

The last thing that’s badly needed in our lives is ‘mindful living’. For us, living mindfully is about five things – existence, awareness, appreciation, reflection, and action.

In order to exercise greater control, both internally and externally, we need to live mindfully. If we are attentive and focused on whatever is happening outside of us; we will, quite naturally, act as the situation demands. In the “normal” course of events, we think and act from our habituated and conditioned minds. We become impulsive and reactive and act without thinking rationally and consciously. Many of our behavioral problems arise because we don’t think and behave mindfully. Many actions are also driven by our unconscious mind, so we act in a robotic manner. If we live mindfully, we can drastically reduce our mental suffering in our life. In this way, all three things together can make our lives immune to emotional pain and suffering to a great extent.    

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Balvinder kumar

I am retired IAS officer and writer of books and doing work for mind therapy.

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Sed ut perspiciatis unde omnis das ist wirklich iste natus.