I heard a dhamma talk from Ajahn Punnadhammo this week where he made the startling claim that our culture in particular denies the truth of suffering. My first thought was, “That can’t be right.” Surely, everyone can see that suffering is a fact of life. But the more I thought about it, he’s right. It’s not that we doubt that anyone suffers, but rather we tend to think that suffering has a technical fix, if only we could figure out what that is.
Sick? Have some drugs! Old age? Plastic surgery, baby. Death? The singularity approaches! Of course meditation can dull physical pain for a time, but there is no true escape for illness. And while true psychological problems require therapy and even drugs, too often we try to medicate away existential suffering rather than face it directly.
One of the primary symptoms of this culture wide blind spot is Positivity™. The idea that you can just will yourself to be happy is an illusion that causes much more suffering than it alleviates. Telling someone in the middle of chemo to “just stay positive” is something only someone with no insight into dukkha could do.
Suffering is pervasive. Disappointment is baked into existence. Accepting this hard truth is a necessary step on the path of spiritual practice. Human beings evolved to constantly feel that things aren’t quite ok. Content people don’t go out and invent fire! This urge to always want more and better drives most of our actions. But it is also the primary driver of persistent misery.
So what do we do about it? First, recognize that the basic misery of life doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. At least nothing that comes with an easy technical fix. Most of your problems come from the same place and have the same solution. Suffering is something that you do. The path to the end of suffering isn’t squashing every problem that comes along. And surely by now you know what that path really is!