TLDR: Having a set of goals to work towards gives us a sense of direction in life. Our society prizes this go-get-it attitude as a self-improvement hack; many of us strive for this mindset. However, there could be a risk of doing something just for the sake of it and we may end up beating ourselves for getting lost in the pursuit of excellence.
Many of us have been conditioned to chase something, consciously or unconsciously. We race with others to prove our worth, ever since birth – to be the first to crawl/walk/run, the top rank in class, the one to get into a famous university, the first to be office management level, the one who found ‘the one’ and have family……The list continues.
The neverending chase has been fuelled by the comparison trap we adopt from our parents, society and ourselves.
Have we ever pondered what is the source of our chasing mindset?
I was so used to the chase that I rushed from one achievement to another, not sparing time to truly soak in whatever I was doing and its outcome. After landing my first job as an accountant, I quickly enrolled on a professional certified course.
Upon completion, I thought, ‘what’s next?’. Before long, I was looking to register for a postgraduate degree.
I must admit those learnings were not in vain. I gained something out of them – both technical skills and soft skills like time-management, relational skills, self-organisation. These skills have been helpful to me in my personal and professional life. But whether or not I could use the effort on a more targeted outcome, that’s another question altogether.
To outsiders, I may look like someone with a thirst for knowledge (or paper certificate, for that matter).
Little did I know this chase was masked as self-improvement; there would always be a better thing to go for next if I don’t consciously define the outcome that I want to achieve.
This deceptive ‘self-improvement’ is not limited only to the worldly chase – I realised that I wanted to keep improving myself spiritually too. While spiritual advancement may be a sensible goal, my underlying intention was warped, at least initially.
I kept myself immersed in spiritual talks one after another. I sat meditating even when the heart refused to – just to prove that I, too, can evolve in my spiritual practice.
This spiritual chase resulted in resistance between the mind and the heart, not to mention the sense of dejection when I didn’t see the improvement I expected. Definitely not a fun experience!
The source of my chasing mindset was a sense of lacking self-worth. I wanted to prove myself a deserving human being by reaching the level that is deemed ‘good enough’. And we know that ‘good enough’ is a subjective measurement and may not serve as a good gauge.
Comparing myself today with who I was 3 years ago, for example, I can honestly say I have grown into a different and (hopefully) a better, more mature person. This is probably a better use of the comparison mind for improvement measurement.
Be kind to ourselves and others
I chanced upon an apt Dhamma talk by Venerable Ajahn Brahm on how we often hold on to ‘I need to be better’ thoughts just because everyone else thinks or expects so. Ajahn Brahm further taught that this ‘I’m not good enough’ mindset is neither kind nor helpful to ourselves.
Of course, we need to carefully distinguish between accepting ourselves with kindness and not growing out of unconstructive habits.
There could be a risk of not improving the mind under the false pretence of self-acceptance. Learn to be at peace with what we already have, then improvement would flow naturally.
Many of us may be performing good deeds and consciously express kindness to others. Doing so not only keeps the mind at peace but also elicits joy during and after the act. I identify with this definition of living a blessed life in the spirit of Mangala Sutta, when I can share and contribute what I have with others. However, with the chasing mentality, I might have forgotten about the one person who would benefit from such good deeds as well – myself.
How many times do we speak harsh words inside our head when we act less than ‘perfect’?
‘Why did you do that silly thing?’
‘How could you forget about that important event?’
‘What is wrong with you?’
I probably would not say such things to my close friends or even strangers, so why do I say them to myself? Am I unworthy of the same kindness I have so freely and joyfully shared with others?
Nowadays, I decide to contemplate my pursuits with an objective mind, even if it seems like an improvement on the surface:
‘Does this course/workshop feel aligned with the heart or is there another reason why I want to join?’
‘Do I feel joyful in learning or is it another medal on my chest to show the world?’
Suffering arises when we don’t get what we want and when we get what we don’t want
I recently read separate teaching from Venerable Ajahn Chah1 on “wanting with right understanding”. The teaching explained that desire towards and away from something can arise from us as worldly beings. I find resonance to this gentle outlook towards self and am aware that setting goals can start off my self-improvement actions – but blindly chasing and grasping the desire tightly is not right either. Instead, taking action accompanied by gradual and reflective practice would be more helpful.
For example, I started this article with the intention to write about chasing struggles. It has developed into deeper contemplation of my underlying beliefs and expanded thoughts that I am sharing now.
Trying to be mindful of my wanting and not-wanting, I do my best at the moment and allow the outcome to unfold.
I realise that telling myself to let go of expectation, is an expectation by itself – another debacle to untangle!
Rather, it is much more peaceful to put in my best effort for the situation; watch the result arise and take the next step from there.
When a learning experience concludes as expected or not, I try to take time to settle down and truly embrace the event. When another learning opportunity comes, I will then be able to jump in wholeheartedly. Even if I failed, I could learn from it. Failure is just another piece of feedback! With this outlook, I hopefully lessen the suffering created for myself.
I conclude that having a goal is necessary, especially for myself and many others who are just entering the ‘real’ life of the professional and social world.
Clarity of true motivation is essential as we take on the path, paired with conscious kindness towards ourselves when the comparison mind takes a negative turn. The next time I look at others and start to put them on the pedestal with an unreasonable expectation of myself, I will remind myself: ‘remember how far you have gone’ and ‘we all have our own path to take’.
TLDR: Once you fall in love with suffering, you won’t have to suffer anymore. Here is why and how to go about doing it.
What? Have I read the title wrongly? Fall in love with my suffering? Why would I ever want to do that? Well, to begin with, we have misjudged and misunderstood suffering.
Recently, I was invited by the Singapore Buddhist Mission to speak on How Buddhism has transformed my life? Throughout the 45 mins, I noticed most of what I talked about was how I overcame my sufferings.
Sufferings come in many forms.
“Lucky” for me, I’ve experienced many from the grief of losing my father, the guilt of not seeing my father for a year before he passed away due to my medical condition, go the physical and mental pain of my cancer treatments, I could go on and on, but that would make this article too depressing. So, why don’t I turn my sufferings around?
Suffering does not discriminate
If you take a closer look, suffering is an inevitability in life. I have not heard of anyone who has not suffered, whether it is physical or mental, we all suffer. It is bound to happen, and I’ve not heard of anyone immune to it as well.
All existence is Dukkha. According to the first noble truth in Buddhism, there is dukkha, often translated as suffering (though a sense of dissatisfaction is a closer meaning).
I simply thought it’s true, and it makes sense, but I didn’t heed the advice as a warning. I mean, I have had my fair share of sufferings, and I dealt with them promptly. But I neglected to pay attention to the second noble truth, which said that our constant wanting and resisting causes suffering.
What I failed to understand is my resistance to suffering when I’ve been warned. Can accepting the fact that bad things do happen in life reduce suffering? Apparently, it does.
It’s ok to not be ok.
Acceptance does not mean you are ok with it. But by reacting against the pain—resisting or rejecting it—we create unnecessary suffering. It doesn’t mean that you’ve chosen or agreed with what has happened to you.
It doesn’t mean you like panic attacks, the side effects of cancer treatments, or suffering an injustice that has happened to you or someone else.
Rather, you’re choosing to allow it to be there when you can’t change it at that moment. To make space for it. To give yourself the patience to understand what’s going on, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you’ve experienced without creating unproductive anger or anxiety.
The pain might still be there, but some of the “by-products” of the suffering will be alleviated.
Sufferings are to be embraced.
One of my strengths, or I personally like to think of as a strength, is I have the ability to go deep into my experiences and examine what is truly happening to me. My life experiences are like a school; I attend to each experience like a student in the class, waiting to see what is going on and what I can learn from it.
What I have learnt is that I haven’t become stronger after much suffering. I just feel more exhausted and weak, but I also feel more resilient towards suffering.
It’s like if I embrace every suffering, wouldn’t I get better at dealing with the unavoidable? Wouldn’t it make sense to embrace it rather than detest it?
Whenever I face any bad situation or problem that happens to me willingly and enthusiastically, it eases me into making better decisions. I feel less stressed out in dealing with it.
Suffering can be a valuable teaching.
Most of the time, we misinterpret suffering, thinking it comes from the world or the people around us. But it’s impossible for the world to cause you suffering if you don’t allow it. Also, suffering is a good thing, a kind of nourishment.
In order to be happy, you have to first find the meaning of happiness, and suffering becomes a catalyst for you to define it. It’s like using the dictionary – in order to understand happiness; you need to read up the definition of the word.
You can treat suffering as nourishment, a kind of tonic for your life that activates your willpower and allows you to discover your own strength and clarify your doubts.
For instance, the side effects I suffered from cancer treatment reminded me to stop procrastinating and postponing the things I really wanted to do. It also helped me focus on the present and discover the meaning of life.
Pain is certain, but suffering is optional.
External forces have always caused us much suffering. Although they can trigger our negative emotions, we forget that peace in the heart is also there. Our lack of awareness might be the cause of many of our sufferings, but it’s not like we can’t do anything about it.
We might not be able to control what has happened to us, but we can choose how we respond to it. So, my point here is that no matter how horrible a situation may seem, we can still stay focused in the present moment.
Being in the present moment helps us to become aware of our peaceful mental state within. We shouldn’t let bad situations rattle us into a corner and face defeat, thinking there is no way out of it.
A bad situation could be an opportunity for something good.
Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we think they are. It just so happens that we’re conditioned by society to get what we want, and if we don’t get it, we automatically feel disheartened or disappointed.
Bad things in life can also be a stepping stone towards good things that may happen in the future.
I remember desperately wanting to secure a job which I was rejected. But that allowed me to apply and secure another job opportunity that was far greater and better than what I had expected.
Suffering doesn’t belong to anyone.
Suffering is only as bad as you want it to be. If I remove “me” from my problem, it will just be a problem and not “my problem.” Suffering no longer becomes personal; the problem is as it is.
There are no good or bad experiences. An experience is an experience if you see it for what it really is. It only becomes good or bad when we judge it.
If I know something will be bad for me, it will be bad for me. I choose to suffer; then I suffer. It all depends on how we look at things.
When we stop owning our sufferings with our egos, our sufferings will end. In Buddhism, phenomena are characterised by impermanence, no-self and dissatisfaction (dukkha). Suffering as taught by the Buddha, only occurs when there is an “I” (Self-identity), “Me” (Self-ownership), and “Mine” (feeling of a Self) due to our erroneous belief.
No-Self, or anatta is the hardest to comprehend because it is a deep-seated belief that we own our thoughts, feelings and body when in fact we are more a slave than a master to these impermanent phenomena.
We tend to attach ourselves to problems due to our egos. As a result, we make suffering a problem, my problem.
Every suffering will be worth it.
Suffering can be valuable if we can understand the underlying truth that suffering is the gateway to enlightenment. Although it does not mean we pursue suffering, it can help open the door to awakening if we become aware of it.
Pigs can eat rotten food and still find it delicious. Lotus cannot grow without the mud, and enlightenment cannot be attained without becoming aware of the causes of suffering.
Only when we are aware, can we change suffering.
By accepting that sufferings are inevitable and can’t be avoided, we can learn to embrace them as a catalyst for happiness.
Treat sufferings for what they are; they don’t belong to you or anyone.
Not every suffering is bad; we can choose to look at it differently and turn it into an opportunity leading to something better.
Sufferings are worth having only if they lead us to our own awakening.
The Buddha in his very first sermon to these cultivated disciples gives this teaching there is suffering, and then he says it should be understood. This is the practice to understand, to know, to fully recognise suffering, not to just react to it, run away from it, blame it on somebody else like we tend to do — “I suffer because it’s too hot” or “I suffer because of my wife or husband, my children” or “I suffer because of the political system”.
We love to blame everyone else for our unhappiness. So it’s a blaming society — “If the government was perfect, if the national health system was perfect, if my wife or my husband was perfect then I wouldn’t have any suffering.”.
The truth: Suffering comes from within
But even if that all came true, you’d still suffer because there is this not understanding, not having developed wisdom, not having looked into the nature of things. So, even under the best, the most auspicious, and pleasant conditions we can possibly expect as a human being there will still be Dukkha or suffering.
Now, that can sound pessimistic to many people. But it is not. It’s a change in your direction from just running around trying to find happiness and running from suffering to look at suffering, saying “there is suffering”. It’s like this. And when I say it in this way, it’s not about liking it or approving, but you recognise that the mental state you’re not looking at suffering as if it’s happening out there you’re not blaming the weather or somebody else. You’re looking at your consciousness.
Understanding reality as is
The reality of consciousness in the present moment. And you can realise the doubt, the fear, the resentments from the past, the anxiety about the future, worry, dread, disappointment, despair, grief, and lost. All these are a part of the human experience. And then all of us have to deal with old age, with sickness, with the death.
We have to cope with the loss of loved ones, seeing our parents grow old, and get feeble, and die. It’s just a part of human experience. And yet, we suffer from this because we don’t want it to be like that. We don’t want to have that happen to ourselves. In terms of the reality that all human beings face is that we all cope with the changing of conditions. What’s born, what grows up, what gets old, and what dies, it’s just the nature of things.
Embracing change without labeling it as good or bad.
That’s natural phenomena. There’s nothing wrong, bad, or it shouldn’t be otherwise. It’s looking at it from the wisdom level, of mindfulness by seeing that all conditions, all phenomena, are in this incessant changing-ness.
So, the Buddha emphasised over and over in his teaching that all conditions are impermanent.
Mankind has dukkha. Each one of us has it. But, the wonderful teaching that we have is that there is a way to get beyond it.
There, we have to change our thinking a hundred and eighty degrees.
We are operating on an illusion. It is the illusion of being an individual, an identity.
You can feel it. “That’s me getting up, that’s me being dissatisfied, and it’s me having dukkha.”
The Buddhist great enlightenment explanation was not that dukkha can go away, but this delusion can go away, and then we’re beyond Dukkha.
There are moments when we feel a deep inner peacefulness. When we see a beautiful sunset, a rainbow, we hear exquisite music, watch a happy baby, and we think and immediately make up our minds that the lack of dukkha at that moment is due to the fact that there was a rainbow or a happy baby.
We are externalising. That isn’t that at all. It’s because in those moments, we were totally concentrated on what is happening that we forgot about ourselves. That’s why these moments are without dukkha. But externalising them means that we are in this case, praising the trigger. In other cases, we usually blame the trigger. They are all outside of us. What is happening within us, that’s our life.
We usually try to arrange our outer life so that it is convenient and comfortable, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that. But do we arrange our inner life so that it is convenient and comfortable?
Have we ever given that any thought that it is actually possible to do that?
The promise of the Buddha that we can all get beyond dukkha is something we have to take on (with) faith at this moment because we haven’t got beyond dukkha yet. If we take such a promise, all it means is that we’re willing to try. And that’s all the Buddha asked people to do. Try it out. Try out the methods, Try out the instructions, and see whether they help.
We don’t get pass dukkha immediately. Nothing of the kind. Meditation can take dukkha away temporarily, but how long does anyone sit in meditation?
What we need to know and what we need to experience is the possibility that through seeing things in a different light, seeing ourselves in a different light, seeing dukkha universally instead of individually, we have a chance to have a totally different relationship to everything that happens in our life.
“All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.
This is an extract of a lecture given by Bhikkhu Bodhi on the topic of Nirvana/Nibbana. Bhikkhu Bodhi has been a Buddhist monk since 1972 and is highly regarded as a scholar and teacher. He translates a large volume of the Pali canon to English.
The Buddha says that he teaches only Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha, i.e. suffering, and the end of suffering.
The truth of suffering is not the final word of the Buddha’s teachings. It is only the starting point, the First Noble Truth, not the whole of the Dhamma.
It is important to understand why the Buddha starts his teaching with the truth of suffering.
He starts with suffering because his teaching is designed for a particular end. It is designed to lead us to liberation. In order to do this, the Buddha must give us a reason to seek liberation.
Normally, we aren’t aware of the problematic nature of our existence.
We live in a world of delusion. We see things as being pleasurable, attractive, permanent. We take our personalities to be a self. We live seeking pleasure seeking to gratify, We think only on how to maximise our enjoyment and our personal status.
In this way, we get lost in the world of (in)finite concerns. We get swept away by time, the currents of time.
We get sunk in the dark mass of ignorance. We do not realise that our lives are pervaded by Dukkha.
We don’t see the pain and suffering, the impermanence, the insubstantiality surrounding us in all sides. To lead us out of Dukkha, to bring us to the true state of peace, the Buddha first has to alert us to the danger. He has to make us see the problem, the peril. He has to arouse in us a sense of urgency.
His position is like somewhat like someone trying to save a man who is caught unaware of a burning house. The man does not realise that the house is on fire. He’s living there enjoying himself watching television, playing and laughing. To get him to come out, first thing that we have to do is to let him know his home is on fire. So, in the same way, the Buddha announces in the
First Noble Truth that our house is on fire. Our lives are burning with old age, sickness, and death. Our minds are flaming with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. Then, when we become aware of the trouble, when we are ready to seek a way to release then the Buddha can show us the possibility of freedom.