We suffer when we want something — love, a particular job, or praise — and it’s not forthcoming. Our unfulfilled yearning becomes inner turmoil, and we hurt because we consider various reasons we must get what we want and can’t have it. You might imagine, then, satisfying your desires will reduce suffering.
But getting what you want won’t work. Momentarily, perhaps. But you’ll soon want something else and suffer again. The answer is self-empowerment from knowing you can cope with or without what you desire.
What leads to suffering?
Our unmet desires may be small, like wanting to watch a particular movie that’s not available or eat a specific meal when we can’t buy the right ingredients. Or, they might be medium, like discovering someone we like doesn’t like us back when we hoped they would find us scintillating. And we have bigger desires, like wanting someone we love to stay with us rather than abandon us by choice or death.
All of our desires, however serious or trivial, have the potential to cause suffering when not met, so it makes sense to aim to get what we want at any cost to avoid pain. But the problem isn’t getting all the things we imagine we must have and can’t live without, it’s getting attached to the idea we must have them, and will die a thousand deaths without them, in the first place.
We turn wants into needs
When we build the notion our lives will be, or are, improved by having something our journey to suffering begins. It deepens as we strengthen the idea that without this thing — a person, social standing, or a new phone — we will feel pain. We convince ourselves, even when the notion’s untrue, our wants are more than wants: They are needs.
We think about how we can’t manage life so well without this new thing or old relationship and find ourselves weakened. Each time we consider how much we rely on whatever it is, or whoever we hold dear, we tighten our grip on them and lose the grip on our inner strength and self-belief.
We resist the truth, and it hurts
The greatest suffering stems from resistance to the truth. We lose or can’t get something and then resist what’s happened. We stick our heads in the sand and don’t move on. So we might grieve, well into the night, about failing a job interview or sit, head-in-hands, pondering the unfairness of life because we don’t have something else we desire.
Much of the time, though, our suffering is unnecessary. We birth our pain in our minds and it continues to torment us when, actually, life can go on. We haven’t got what we want, but we’re all right. And sometimes, opportunities to improve circumstances exist, but our eyes are closed while we feed suffering.
We can have things, but recognize we will manage without them
Just as the way to stop suffering isn’t to scurry to-and-fro, panicking about how we must fulfill our desires, it’s also not to go the other way, thinking we ought not have relationships, good clothes, or a rewarding job.
Unless your religious beliefs suggest otherwise, you might still find pleasure and reward in attainment. To suffer less, remember you won’t fall apart without the things you enjoy, though, whether they are material or otherwise.
It’s unhelpful not to have things that improve your well-being, but not impossible to manage when they are beyond reach. What’s more, there’s never only one thing that makes or breaks your happiness: Happiness lives behind many doors rather than one alone.
It might be said suffering is a gateway to growth. And, indeed, doing away with it completely could reduce personal development and the attainment of empathy and wisdom. Nonetheless, it’s also true we often suffer far more than is necessary for self-improvement.
We go beyond a point of growth into needless pain. At such times, it helps to note we hurt because of our thoughts. When we recognize we can enjoy things, but manage without them, we rely on them less to prop us up. Then, when we lose them, we don’t fall over.
More from The Bolt-Hole
You Don’t Need to Be Successful (What a Relief!)
You probably will be though if you stop trying
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