Paths Out of Suffering

Paths Out of Suffering

This essay is a revision of something I wrote ten years ago. It explores a question I still ask: How do we find our way to happiness?
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
–Robert Frost
In this society, we are raised to make our way in the world. We are taught to seek status and recognitIon, produce goods and services, build families and financial security. While all these tasks have value, few of us ask whether or not following this road takes us where we want to go.
Here’s what it promises: If we succeed in society, we will feel good in our hearts.
More and more, I’m realizing society’s road doesn’t lead me to happiness. At time I’ve managed to gain, produce, and build. But I’ve also lost and failed. I built a high-status career, but spinal problems ended it. I’ve traveled to lovely places but felt haunted by problems at home. I’ve worked hard on Mindful Biology, but it hasn’t covered my expenses.
We can play some good hands in the casino of Life, but loss, illness, and death remain in the cards.
The jaggedness of human life is obvious, and society-at-large insists we have but one way to go: grasp for peaks and stay out of chasms as long as we can.
The prescribed road assumes happiness tracks circumstance. It assumes that as life goes well or badly, in lockstep we feel happy or miserable. Should we bet on this assumption?
It is true that bad times do–predictably–cause bad feelings. Yet it is possible to meet difficulties with heart, move through the pain, and come out feeling contented (and even enriched). We’ve all heard stories along these lines, and many of us have lived our own versions. So in this sense, there is no lockstep between circumstance and happiness.
Then there’s the fact life may line up with expectations, while happiness remains elusive. Societal values often promote lifestyles, relationships, or occupations that often don’t feel right once we secure them. Or we may suffer inner conflict, so core unhappiness remains despite outward shells of success. I’m speaking from personal experience.
There are certainly folks who’ve built true happiness along conventional lines. But there are so many exceptions, it seems natural to seek alternatives.
Meditative traditions of the East and contemplative ones of the West offer many. They guide us to feel less enslaved by circumstance and more secure in our souls. They tell us we need not feel destroyed by losses, which are—of course—inevitable. They remind us that worldly success often feels shallow and unsatisfying. They guide us to meet life’s jaggedness with equanimity.
Wisdom traditions help us find solace inside, but they also encourage us to behave helpfully outside. We might spend long periods in seclusion, building steadiness and faith, but sooner or later we seek ways to help other beings. If we don’t serve Life in some way, we are simply escaping it.
My ability to remain steady–independent of circumstance–has been increasing for years. So has my capacity to serve others. As long as I can, I will do my best to exit the freeway of modern stress and follow a sweeter path.
Here are some steps that have seemed pivotal to me:

Befriending Consciousness

I explore my inner experience, settle into it with less resistance, and soften it when I can. By accepting my emotional stress and bodily discomforts, I naturally begin to lessen them.
When I notice that my emotional state is agitated by fear, grief, or desire, I feel how that lands in body. I see where over-reactions, outdated habits, and resistance make my situation worse. Once I’ve accepted my experience, I can gently refine it. Angst tends to lessen and what remains feels easier to bear.
Of course, one of the most useful techniques is breathing. We can take deep breaths, feel the sensations of airflow and bodily movement, keep our focus on the present moment. Stress softens when we quit fighting reality and simply breathe.
Another useful tool is imagination. Picturing a beautiful landscape or a beloved companion feels settling. The richer the imagined experience, the more grounded and peaceful I feel.
You might wonder: if it’s possible to generate peaceful feelings, can we generate ecstatic ones? Yes, it can be done, and sometimes that feels helpful. I’m learning, however, that a state of ecstasy feels less necessary as I find contentment. My desire for rapture is born from dread of despair. The less I feel haunted by desolation, the less I desire ecstasy.
Contentment is enough, while craving or clinging to peak experiences invites cycles of longing and frustration.

Helping Living Beings

The term ‘living beings’ includes one’s own body and mind. Rather than judging and stressing them (like we often do), we can support them with acceptance and compassion. We also can help our bodies and minds by eating well, exercising, opening our hearts, and meditating.
As we do, we find ever-increasing energy for helping and nurturing other beings. These may be family members, plants in the garden, or animals in the wild who need protection from pollution and degradation. There are myriad ways to support others.
Which is good, given how people differ in their interests and capacities. If we’ve been badly traumatized, we may feel so depleted that we can do only a little to help. Maybe watering a single houseplant is all we can manage. That’s okay.
There’s nothing to be gained by judging our limitations harshly. And as we spend less time punishing ourselves, we free up resources. Gradually, we find more capacity to assist others, to take on more.

Enlarging Perspectives 

One of the surest methods for sidestepping angst is to focus on the Big Picture. We are products of long histories, both evolutionary and cultural. Genetic and historical factors play decisive roles in our lives. We’ve had fewer choice points than we think.
When we seem to make decisions, our choices are strongly conditioned. Contrary to widespread belief, life trajectories are not constructed by personalities; they’re shaped by history and circumstance. We aren’t individuals acting in the world so much as world processes with delusions of individuality. Recognizing this, we can feel less judgmental of ourselves (and others).
Consider that multicellular life has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years in a cosmos that’s been expanding for billions. The scale of reality defies understanding. No matter how tiny you imagine yourself in the face of that expanse, you’re tinier. Individuality must be less important than we imagine, given how we live in the midst of so much space.
What’s more, a great many people are struggling. I must admit that no matter how challenging my circumstances feel to me, there is someone, somewhere, who would consider them a big improvement over their own.
Enlarging my perspective in these ways keeps me from contracting into loneliness and grief. I feel less stricken and less alone.

Awe, Love, and Wholeness:

What’s just been described is a good path to qualities this site emphasizes: Awe, Love, & Wholeness.
  • Awe arises naturally as we delve into human consciousness. There is something profound about feeling the body breathe, accepting the present moment, and surrendering to what is. The feeling of Awe is a powerful antidote to the delusion that reality must change before we can be happy.
  • Love arises when we feel support by the earth and other beings. And feeling support inspires us to offer it. At its most mature, both love and helping come naturally, without force, stretching but not overwhelming our capacities.
  • Wholeness becomes obvious as we broaden our perspective. No individual story is truly individual; each is a subplot in a much larger saga, written by cosmic forces far beyond our control. Some people view these forces as mechanical and random; others think they are divine and intentional. Belief matters little; we are healed by feeling part of something larger than ourselves.
We can find our way to Awe, Love, and Wholeness. We can follow the less-travelled roads. Ancient spiritual traditions and modern psychologies offer detailed maps. My own path has been charted by such ancient and modern wisdom, and it has been further marked out by Mindful Biology.
However we worship, learn, or practice, what’s important is to take heart and have faith. We will find our way.