November, 2016


I once took a course on Buddhism with a Unitarian minister who characterized one of the central tenets of Buddhism as “Suffering is the difference between the way things are and the way you want them to be.” I had read a lot about Buddhism before, and when I heard this, the light bulb went off in my head. It made complete sense. Think about it. If you didn’t care what happened in the world, to you or anyone else; if you simply accepted everything as it happened, you wouldn’t be disappointed, discouraged, upset or sad. In short, you wouldn’t suffer.

However, to take such a passive stance, has some serious potential drawbacks. For example, if you got sick, and simply accepted without seeking treatment, you might put yourself in great pain. If you accepted that pain passively, you might lose the will to live. Or your illness might kill you. It is good to accept the fact that you will die, but maybe you would prefer dying later rather than sooner.

The point is that every time we make a decision about how we want things to be, we pay a price. If we decide we have to go to a certain school, get a certain job, have a particular relationship, win a certain game, get rich, get a PhD, anything, we set ourselves up for suffering when things are not as we wish. We suffer when our kids do not meet our expectations…when we lose people we love…and when we no longer can do what we used to be able to do physically.

Our expectations of the world can cause suffering, too. Disasters that do not touch us, politicians we support who lose, even such trivial things as having a favorite sports team lose a game, can cause suffering.

There is no “cure” for this problem. But understanding the mechanism that causes the suffering may help us let go of some things and reduce our suffering.

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