What Should a Buddhist Practice When Suffering?

Recently someone wrote asking what a Buddhist should practice when suffering. Here is my response:

Wow. A simple but profound question. Let’s consider this together.

Buddhist teaching claims to deal with the cause of suffering. So what actually is suffering? What’s going on right now for you? Something has happened and now you’re in a really uncomfortable state. I don’t know if it’s something just moderately serious or something that is really awful for you right now. (Maybe you’re asking this question even though you might not be suffering right now but it’s not too hard to remember difficult situations, so we can start with that if you need to.)

Usually when we’re in pain the last thing we want to do is to pay attention to it. There are lots of ways to distract ourselves from it and that’s natural in a way. The body is designed to try to get out of pain. But the kind of suffering we’re talking about is different from simple pain. If I get stung by a bee, there’s a certain amount of physical pain going on. If, as I’m smarting from the sting, I start thinking that I better not ever do any gardening again, and then think about how much I’m going to miss gardening, and then being angry that I can’t do my beloved gardening without having to watch out all the time for bees, and then thinking about how I always have to be on guard against people too and that I’m sick and tired of it, etc., etc., then now there is suffering. There is pain being added layer upon layer by trying to deal with a current, simple pain through the imagination. In other words imagination amplifies and magnifies the pain and it does it over and over because it can’t really solve the problem.

It is really helpful to become familiar with what is going on inside as suffering takes place. Then naturally the nervous system doesn’t enter into a process that it knows is not helpful.

So in the case of whatever you’re experiencing that’s painful right now, have you been able to notice the thoughts that go on around it? Maybe that seems like a dumb question, especially if there’s nothing but negative thought after negative thought going around and you’re sick of them. You could say you know the thoughts all too well.

It’s always possible to listen a little more to what’s going on beneath the thoughts. What are the feelings? The patterns of reaction? What triggered the whole incident? What was it about the trigger that really got you? I’m just making up some possibilities. You can come up with the questions that are real for you and help you listen beneath the surface.

One thing that I’ve found worth noticing is that there are moments when the crazy cycle of thoughts does slow down and perhaps even stop for an instant – a tiny gap of freedom from the thought cycles. It’s amazing enough just to notice that this happens. It’s also helpful to notice that something kicks the thoughts back up again and the exhausting process continues until it wears itself out and pauses for a second again.

There are lots of ways to work with this situation but they all come from your own intuition. Maybe we can share a little bit together but the real guidance comes from wanting to really see what’s going on deeply for yourself. When it’s clear how thinking kicks up endless anxiety and that this kind of thinking is not a good way to come to terms with whatever difficult life situation is going on, then the mind doesn’t go there. It stays with just being in touch right here. For that moment there is an end to suffering and a beginning of wisdom. But there’s no guarantee about the next moment!

When we’re caught up in endless thinking about a problem, it seems like there is nothing else to rely on. But looking more carefully, there is always the in-touchness of this moment, which might include a tight and tired heart, a sore back, a feeling of sadness. These sensations are all real, unlike the complex world of imagination. And these real sensations tell us something. They feed us real information. They lead us into understanding ourselves.

Does this make any sense? Have we addressed your question? I guess I haven’t spoken about “practice” but that’s because I don’t think or experience in terms of tactics to apply over and over. For me it’s about direct in-touchness with what life is manifesting this moment, rooted in simple sensation. That’s all that’s needed. Everything flows spontaneously and ever freshly from that.

Please let me know if you want to ask more about this or question something. I hope you feel more at ease soon.

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