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May 17
Dharma Teachings
Suffering, Impermanence, Life
Reflecting on ways to respond to the many changes we inevitably experience 

The world at large and our own personal worlds are always in transition. We can accept this truth or we can wish it were different – either way, the nature of reality is that it is always in transition. One definition is: “a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another.” Simply put, change. Often, we can accept transitions without much thought, but then there are times when changes can be painful and a cause of suffering.

There was a time in my life that I had so many transitions going on at one time that it was quite overwhelming. I felt like I was floating through my days rather than touching the earth, or having my feet on the ground, so to speak. A friend noticed this and said to me, “you seem to be just skating across the ground.” He was right, and it was something I needed to hear. He put into words how I was feeling. Once he labeled it for me, I was able to pay better attention, to start looking at what I was doing, how I was doing it, and most importantly, why I was going through life in this way.

What I had been doing was not fully engaging with any of the transitions. I was paying attention only to the surface, and was not willing to go deeper. In other words, I was avoiding my life. It was as if I were watching a movie in which the main character looked a lot like me.

This reminds me of a game a bunch of us used to play as kids. The lagoon was an ice skating pond in our neighborhood, and it was packed when we were kids – what great fun! A bunch of us would race from one bank of the lagoon to the other – and get this – the other side was a barricade that protected the skaters from the waterfall where the lagoon dispersed into a creek about 25 feet below! Why no adult told us this was dangerous is beyond my comprehension. But happily, no one ever slid under the barricade.

During this particular time in my life, I was skating full speed toward that barricade.

I’m going to talk a little bit about suffering. One of the things the Buddha noticed when he woke up was something we now call The Three Marks (or Qualities) of Existence. They are, impermanence, not-self (this has to do with exploring the reality of a solid permanent self), and suffering. The truth of suffering is oftentimes misunderstood by non-Buddhists and Buddhists alike. The misunderstanding is like this: that the Buddha only saw suffering, that his teachings focus on that, and it’s a dreary outlook on life. This isn’t the case. It’s true that suffering is one of the central themes in Buddhism, but the logic is that recognizing our suffering is the first step to its resolution. That’s very good news indeed! If we can see the cause of our suffering and work with that, then comes the cessation of suffering – which is also something the Buddha saw. It is part of his teachings called The Four Noble Truths.

Buddhism talks about 3 kinds of suffering: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering. The suffering of suffering includes the pain of birth, aging, getting sick and then dying, as well all our mundane daily small discomforts. The suffering of change is pretty straightforward. If we have a situation that we really enjoy, we don’t want it to change. So even joy can have a sense of pain or suffering, because we are afraid we might lose it. All-pervasive suffering can be described as that underlying feeling of dissatisfaction with ourselves, our lives, or others. It’s anxiety that we can’t quite figure out where it’s coming from. It’s our insecurity about ourselves and our lack of confidence in who we are. It’s our fears and doubts. This is the type of suffering that we might not even recognize as suffering, let alone recognize something that needn’t be there.

So…back to transitions. In my opinion, transitions can stoke the fire of the suffering of change. Take a moment to think about all the things changing in your body, your personal life, the community and neighborhood around you, as well as the world at large. There is so much movement from one form, stage, or style to another that it can be mind-numbing. What would happen if we decided to change our perspective on transitions? What if we started to accept impermanence, accept that things won’t always be the way they used to (my 25 year old body is gone and it ain’t comin back!). What if we decided to change the amount of time we spend watching TV or on the computer reading news? What would happen if we spent more time taking care of our homes, our yards, ourselves? What if we changed the way we ate, and instead of eating out decided to eat in or vice versa? What if we decided to not allow the suffering that is a part of life to become so solid, so BIG?

Susan Firer is a co-founder of Windhorse Retreat Center. This piece originally appeared on the Center’s blog page, at https://windhorse.shambhala.org/blog .

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2 responses to “ Suffering, Impermanence, Life ”
  1. Linda M Mockeridge
    May 18, 2018

    Sue, enjoy your articles. Hope we arrive in the same space sometimes.

  2. Very good starting analysing on suffering…very touching….great job Susan la.

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