The Habitable Zone of Suffering
“Some people suffer too much and others suffer too little,” a wise friend of mine once said.
Although we don’t like to admit it, suffering can be a blessing.
The first noble truth of the Buddha states that life is suffering. Yet the word “suffering” fails to capture the meaning of what the Buddha really intended. By “suffering,” he didn’t simply mean pain and discomfort, even though these too are inescapable in life. Rather, he intimated that life was incapable of fully satisfying us, that there was something about this life and this world that just didn’t quite fit.
Suffering is the experience of that absence. The very fact that this worldly game is broken belies the reality that it can’t bestow happiness. And that sucks.
If you suffer too much, you might think that happiness and peace do not exist. You would see the way the worldly game is broken but you’d see no redemption to be found. You might forget that there is a song in your Soul and an ecstasy inside you. Too much suffering and you lose hope and heart. You forget your divine connection and never suspect the godly dimension within.
If you suffer too little, you might not see that this worldly game is broken. You might mistakenly believe it can actually give you fulfillment. You wouldn’t bother to ask if there is more to this reality or your existence. You’d merely concern yourself with sensory and intellectual pleasures. While suffering too much is like being parched in a desert, suffering too little is like drinking saltwater. It seems fulfilling but it isn’t.
Between too much and too little lies the habitable zone of suffering. My guru often says that suffering is a wellspring to throw you back to the divine. It is not that there is some virtue or merit in suffering. But rather, the right amount of suffering is what lends intensity to our turning away from the unsatisfactory play of our worldly experience. The right amount of suffering kindles the fire of our longing to be free from our limited sandbox of a “reality” by awakening to The Real Thing.
For me, my suffering peaked after I graduated college. I was living at home, I had no idea of where to steer my future, my girlfriend of six years had broken up with me, and my world was in shambles. I would wake up every morning and just think, “Oh. I’m still here.” Stuck in that same situation day after day for two years.
And over those two years, I felt this suffering in my gut and this confusion in my mind. But I knew there was more. I persevered in my meditation practice and started to immerse myself in Buddhist compassion teachings. I stumbled upon the book The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron, which I endlessly recommend to this day. It is a very short book and yet it took me six months to work through because it kept pointing out everything within myself that I had tried so hard to ignore.
Every day I strived to make peace with the suffering, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. But either way I would wake up every morning at the beginning again, feeling like shit. And again I would work through it during the day. This did a lot to soften my heart and enthusiastically introvert my attention away from the world and into myself. I grew to value non-attachment and love.
Of course, all of that suffering I described was circumstantial. Eventually I found a direction for my life, I moved out of the house, I experienced new loves, and my world changed. By then, however, I wasn’t fooled. I had known suffering, it had pointed me to a profound and intimate realization within, and I wasn’t about to be seduced by a pleasurable change in circumstances. I was grateful for that change, but I didn’t forget my path inward.
To and fro goes the way. Suffering did come again. And so did relief and pleasure. Nothing is permanent in this world, everything is temporary and transient. Good things and bad. The right amount of suffering turns us away from this false dichotomy of good and bad to find something indescribable, blissful, and beyond them both.
Instead of resenting your own suffering or the seemingly better fortune of others, contemplate the habitable zone of suffering and what the emphasis really should be.
Namaste! Much love.