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Learning How to Suffer

I attended a family event recently where all of the activities were outside. We ate under a canopy provided by our host and walked down to the lake for a swim. Generally, everyone had a good time. The only negative was the weather.

It was hot—as in, “Don’t walk on the sidewalk barefoot because you’ll burn your feet” hot. At one point, someone looked over at me and said, “This heat probably doesn’t bother you since you were in the Marines.”

It was a strange comment, but I understood where they were coming from. People often assume that military service members learn secret mind tricks that make us impervious to extreme heat and cold.

But that’s not true. We hate being too hot or too cold just as much as the next person. The only difference is we’ve learned to suffer in silence. More than that, we’ve learned that we can suffer and still be okay.

Case in point, whenever we did live-fire exercises, which required us to fire live ammunition at targets while moving and communicating with others, we wore heavy boots, long pants, long sleeves, and a host of protective gear, such as kevlar helmets, tactical gloves, and flak jackets.

This served to keep us safe from all of the bullets and hot brass flying around during training, along with safeguarding our arms and legs from scrapes when we dived behind rocks and trees for cover.

Unfortunately, it also made us extremely hot. Wearing all of that gear in the middle of summer sucked. There were days when I could literally feel the sweat dripping down my legs and pooling in my boots.

I suffered quite a bit in those days. But I also learned something important: suffering isn’t the end of the world. 

During training I was hot and tired and hungry, but as long as I stayed hydrated my body didn’t break down. I could be unhappy and still do my job well. I could suffer and be okay.

I often think about this with regard to Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, which states: “Life is Suffering.” That’s a scary, pessimistic worldview. But it’s also an honest one.

Our lives are filled with the inescapable suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death. We lose friends, gain enemies, lose things we want to keep, and gain things we’d rather lose.

The Buddha referred to these life experiences as among the “eight winds.”

To put it another way, every day we’re alive will either be too hot or too cold. There will never be a day when something unpleasant doesn’t occur, whether that’s losing our car keys or getting into a fight with our spouse.

This reality can either crush us or it can make us stronger.  It depends on whether or not we’ve learned how to suffer.

Once we learn that suffering is okay, that we can experience it without the world falling apart, then it becomes easier to endure and we can live happy, fulfilling lives amid those unpleasant experiences.

More than that, when we stop trying to avoid suffering at all costs, when we accept it as a natural part of life, we can find healthy ways to work with our suffering.

This is what my friends and I did in the Marine Corps when we focused on staying hydrated during training instead of complaining about the heat.

To be sure, there are times when our Buddhist practice will help us avoid suffering altogether—helping us to develop the wisdom that’s required to make healthy, life-affirming decisions.

However, in those times when unpleasantness cannot be avoided, our Buddhist practice teaches us how to suffer well. This can take a variety of forms.

Maybe we take several deep breaths when we lose our keys so that we don’t lose ourselves to panic. Maybe we spend a few minutes chanting before we go into work so that we can greet our co-workers with a calm demeanor. Maybe we study the sutras to learn how the Buddhist patriarchs and matriarchs responded when they experienced similar troubles.

When we practice in this way, our relationship with suffering changes. It becomes less scary, like a serpent that’s lost its fangs. And we become empowered to move through the world without fear.

We are able to do this not because we think suffering will never darken our door. Rather, we lose our fear of it because we’re confident that, no matter what happens, we’ll be able to endure and overcome the challenge through the use of various tools and techniques that we find in the Buddhist texts.

Like a Marine who has learned that being hot and sweaty isn’t the end of the world, we can learn that being a little uncomfortable and little miserable at times doesn’t need to ruin our day.

Namu Amida Butsu

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Impermanence, Suffering, and Non-Self
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