Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional

Posted by Kelley Bren Burke on


life is painful suffering is optional

It’s 3 AM. A frenzy of anxious thoughts swirl through my mind. What if my business has horrible sales this holiday season? What if my business fails entirely? Will I have to go back to working retail? Worse yet, maybe no one will hire me. Then we won’t be able to pay the mortgage, and we’ll be homeless. 

I went to bed last night without knowing the results of the U.S. presidential election. I knew that the New York Times predicted that there was a 95% chance that Donald Trump would be president. I woke up at 3 AM and refreshed the NYT page on my iPhone. “DONALD TRUMP IS ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Another headline: STOCKS TUMULT OVERNIGHT. This is not what I was hoping for. Not at all. 

I tried to reframe my thoughts. Well, nothing is really different, right? I’m here in a cozy bed with my husband. Our dogs are fine, our house is fine, my business is fine. So really, what’s different? I quickly lost control of my peaceful thoughts. This is what’s different, I thought: We’ve elected a fear mongering, hateful bully for president. I’ve lost faith in the human race. I’ve lost hope for America. 

Okay, those are not helpful thoughts. 

I've been thinking about two Buddhist parables today.

The first is a metaphor about being struck by a first dart and a second dart. Life is painful, right? And the pain in life is inevitable. You can't escape being hit by darts in this life.

Here's the first dart today: The election did not go the way I hoped, and man, I’m scared. The second (and third and fourth darts, in this case) are the resulting thoughts and feelings I experienced after the first dart: my business will fail, and we’ll lose our home, and we’ll be homeless. 

In the book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson writes: 

“Second darts vastly outnumber first darts. There you are, on the dartboard of life, bleeding mainly from self-inflicted wounds. There are enough darts in life without adding your own!”

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

I recently read about a second Buddhist parable in the book The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom, by Henry Emmons. 

A farmer’s beautiful stallion ran away. “That’s too bad,” the neighbors said. The farmer shrugged. “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.” 

Then the runaway horse returned, bringing with him a wild mare he had found. The mare was pregnant. Soon the farmer had three horses instead of one. “That’s great!” his neighbors said. The farmer simply shrugged. 

The farmer’s only son began to train the new colt. One day, the colt threw the farmer’s son onto the ground. He was paralyzed from his injuries. “That’s too bad,” the neighbors said. The farmer simply shrugged. 

Then a war broke out. All the boys in the village went to battle and were killed. Due to his injuries, the farmer's son was allowed to stay home and was spared. “Lucky you!” the neighbors said, but the farmer simply shrugged. 

Emmons writes,

“As you can see, life takes many twists and turns. Impossible to know what apparently good fortune will turn bad, what seemingly hard luck will become our greatest blessing.”

Today, a Trump presidency looks disastrous to me. Will it be? Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see. Today, I’m just trying not to throw darts. 

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