There’s a famous ancient Buddha quote…
Life is suffering.
It may sound morbid and somber, but when you fully understand what the quote means, it can actually bring about peace, freedom, and even happiness.
This quote comes directly from the first noble truth of Buddhism — that suffering, pain, and misery are a part of life. The entire philosophy of Buddhism relates to the practice of detachment in order to transcend into a higher state of being: detaching from the material world, from possession and addiction, from expectations and ideas, and so on.
For me, this quote holds even more power than the pursuit of detachment. It provides a strange sense of comfort. It brings me peace.
The pressure to always be happy
Life itself comes with such heavy pressure to “live your best life.” Of course you want to be happy, healthy, and comfortable — but the expectation of being all these things ironically gets in the way. It paints an unrealistic idea of what it actually means to be alive.
Especially in current times with social media, everyone is highlighting the best parts of their life on public display. We’re all putting on happy faces, forced to compete with one another’s level of satisfaction. It’s easy to step back and wonder if you’re the only one who experiences sadness, anger, and other uncomfortable feelings. Our culture’s obsession with toxic positivity is making us feel more isolated than ever before — because we’re not allowed to cry in front of others, or be honest about how we feel, or express anything that comes off as “negative.”
The illusion that you can avoid suffering
Another aspect to consider, is when we tell ourselves, “I wouldn’t be suffering if this didn’t happen to me,” or “I wouldn’t be suffering if I made a different choice” etc. But suffering is inevitable. Maybe a different path in life would have lead to less suffering at first, but then it would probably lead to more suffering in the long-run, or a different type of suffering. No matter what happens, whether it’s within your control or beyond it, there will always be suffering — you can’t escape it.
And then you might say “well I wouldn’t be suffering as much in another scenario” — which is also a total lie. Suffering is suffering, no matter how you slice it. You’d be surprised at how great of actors people are, how skilled people are at convincing you their life is perfect. The ironic tendency is that those who suffer the most seem to be the ones who are best at hiding it.
Plus, you also have that “the grass is greener on the other side” mindset. Let’s say you landed your dream job, you live in your dream home, you’ve got the life you’ve always imagined. I can assure you that you’ll still be suffering. Even considering the fact that you’re somehow satisfied with what you have, nothing in this world can take away the suffering of life itself. No amount of physical possessions, social status, beauty, fame, etc. can shield you from the heartbreak and dramas of life.
When I think of those who are filthy rich and ridiculously privileged, I don’t actually think that these are the happy people in life. Here’s my little metaphor:
A traumatic life event is like getting knocked off a mountain, falling to the ground, and just barely surviving. Of course the pain is worse than those who have never fallen. But when life hands you such great amount of grief, it forces you to leave your comfort zone and search for some type of love and support, that you never would’ve done before. It also forces you to step back and look at the bigger picture, like seeing planet Earth from a distance, and realizing that all your “little problems” are completely insignificant. It strengthens you and gives you the type of confidence that can push you through any other challenges that come your way, because past-you never believed that you were capable of surviving such a traumatic event. And lastly, it encourages you to be a kinder person, because you know how it feels to be at your lowest, and you never want to see that happening to anyone else.
In contrast, a privileged person lives in their protective bubble, using money and ego to shield them from the pain of the world. They’re dealing with the little annoyances in life — what I like to call “first world problems” — such as, “the chef burnt my food,” or “I have to wait longer than expected,” or “costumer service won’t accept any returns,” etc. These tiny, insignificant problems seem to bother you the most when you’re so used to always having it your way. It’s not like falling off a mountain, it’s more like a hundred people poking you with sticks. The pain is not significant enough to force you out of your comfort zone and make a change, nor is it significant enough to make you look at the bigger picture. Instead, it just drives you crazy!
Now let’s say you’re out in public and someone acts a bit rude towards you. Person #1, who has just fallen off a cliff, is going to move past their inconsiderate behavior because they have bigger problems to deal with, and they also have the empathy to understand that maybe this person is acting this way because they’re seriously struggling. Meanwhile Person #2, who is constantly getting poked at, is going to be the one who lets this tiny inconvenience ruin their whole way — they won’t have the empathy, patience, or perspective to excuse a small amount of rudeness — they’re going to throw a fit.
Why do people go camping? Why do they choose to leave their AC or heated safe buildings with electricity and Wi-Fi, in exchange for flimsy tents full of creepy crawlers, vulnerable to bad weather and many other inconveniences? Not everyone enjoys camping, but those who do will tell you that it’s therapeutic because it forces you to put your little problems aside, to feel like you’re genuinely alive!
It’s always the little inconveniences that drive you the craziest, when you’re thinking small-minded.
The point is that — suffering is not always what we think it is.
All of us are suffering
The age-old question of afterlife — where do we go after we die? Many will tell you some type of heaven or paradise, or some type of punishment or hell, reincarnating into a new life, or hanging around as a ghost. Some even say absolutely nothing, that it’s over. No matter what happens, death happens to all of us. The mystery surrounding it makes us fear it, no matter what your faith is, you have never experienced death — maybe you came close, but you never felt the whole thing. And anything that has to do with the unknown is scary.
But you can take comfort in the fact that life is suffering. You will have to leave it someday. Maybe you’ll be back, maybe you won’t. Death is a little less scary when you realize you won’t be exiting Paradise, you’ll be exiting a place full of suffering, pain, and misery.
Of course, live your life to the fullest. Make the best choices for yourself. Strive for happiness, health, and comfort, as much as you can. Aim for your maximum potential. Just understand that suffering is a byproduct of being alive. Bodies are weird and awkward and limiting. Your mind tends to work against you. People are prone to conflict and misunderstandings.
If you’re suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you, or that you’re alone in your pain, or that different choices and events would’ve prevented it. So take comfort in that. Make the best of it.