The most fundamental Buddhist teaching on the Four Truths for the Ennobled addresses the reality of what is commonly translated as suffering (skst. dukkha), although I prefer the idea of “dis-satisfactoriness.” In fact the entirety of Buddhist teaching is based on the premise that it is possible to transcend suffering. Thus, we might say that Buddhism is a soteriological teaching, that is, a teaching that involves liberation or salvation- albeit distinctly different from the Christian counterpart.
Many of us arrive at spiritual teachings, Buddhism or otherwise, because we are or have experienced some kind of great suffering. To be sure, Buddha considered this to be a universal existential truth. In Buddhism, there are different forms of dukkha, although I am not so well versed in their subtleties (yet they seem rather self-explanatory). For the sake of this post, I will not make further distinctions about defining suffering or pain. I have heard some argue that pain and suffering are two different things, the latter being “added on” by our mental, or emotional response to pain. While this argument may have some merit in certain contexts, for this post I am going to use pain and suffering interchangeably and assume that whatever way I am using the term falls under the umbrella category of dukkha.
So while many of us arrive at our own version of the spiritual path due to some kind of suffering, the implication- especially within Buddhism- is that there is a way to go beyond that, and that is what in Buddhism has been called (at least in this language) “enlightenment.” For many of us, this offers a sense of hope, of direction, which is very important. Yet, if we misunderstand this teaching, then it is possible it can do more harm than good. That is one reason why many Buddhist schools emphasize the importance of studying with a teacher- so that we don’t misinterpret teachings and thus perpetuate the ignorance that leads to suffering.
Let me say in no way am I enlightened, nor do I claim to be- and I am not a teacher either. Therefore, my understanding of the phenomenology, or embodied experience, of enlightenment is limited. I am speaking only through my own limited understanding and experience, and any misrepresentation or misinterpretation is solely due to my own ignorance, for which I take full responsibility.
The problem with depending too much on the idea that we are trying to get out of pain and suffering is paradoxically that our attempt to do so actually causes pain and suffering. In other words, in Buddhism suffering is generally thought to be caused by ignorance, which is enacted by the principles of attachment and aversion. If we are trying to get out of an experience, to manipulate it, to push it away, or conversely to hold on to it, to prolong it, then in effect we are dis-satisfied. Now be careful here, because it can be easy to fall to extremes.
Does that mean that we should not apply what I would call “interventions?” No. If we are feeling like crap, it is probably a good thing that we do something that we know soothes us. We might ourselves a chance to recalibrate through meditation, or yoga, or talk to a friend that we know understands us. We might drink relaxing herbal tea, read a book, or go for a jog. Yet these interventions are superficial, in other words while they may help the symptoms of our crappy feeling, they in no way liberate us from ever feeling crappy again.
You see spirituality is not an analgesic. Although Buddha presented the Four Truths in the formulaic manner that an Indian doctor of his type might make a prescription, when we expect our spiritual path to relieve us of our human pain we are simply setting ourselves up for disappointment. At least, that has been and continues to be my experience.
Take this as an example… What happens when you meditate? Of course there are different types of meditations, but I would say most basic meditation promotes awareness of the contents of our minds and our felt sense of our bodies. Therefore, if you are in pain, meditation may actually heighten your awareness of that pain! It may be true that the pain will change, and transform over time, but that is not something that the meditator can control (for those of us without super-powers). Generally speaking, meditation is meant to help us learn to be with “reality” as it is, not what we think it ought to be. One side affect of learning to be with "reality" as it is, is that we may learn to be more relaxed with said reality rather than tensely trying to manipulate it.
If you ask me, most of us romanticize liberation because we have to. Without believing that there is a direction we are going in which we will suffer less it is easy to get discouraged. Yet, I think this romanticization can contribute dreadful pain onto our situation, and create an inordinate amount of pressure for us to “go beyond” suffering, which paradoxically perpetuates it.
While I do not claim to know the deep realization of the Buddha, in his first teaching the message is clear- there is a way to extinguish the causes and conditions of suffering. I would argue that for most of us it would be more practical to think about transforming our relationship to suffering, rather than romanticizing about its cessation. By taking this approach we cede to the sobering reality that suffering is not something we can willfully control- if it were, none of us would suffer at all. Yet we can learn how to meet whatever is arising- to greet it, to recognize the pain of wanting it to go away or stay longer- and instead of trying to control it, to give up hope of doing so. In this way we expose ourselves nakedly to our experience, we allow suffering to transform us into compassionate beings rather than victims of our humanity. No one said it was easy, though- or that it always "feels good."
If you’d like an analgesic, there are plenty of legal ones you can use- spirituality is not one of them. Denying pain and suffering is not the same as going beyond it. Your suffering has the ability to bind you to all beings that exist, and to teach you the true meaning of indiscriminate compassion. Analgesics make you less sensitive to pain… however spirituality, in my experience, makes you more sensitive to your own and that of others. And believe me, as much as I have internal conflict about what I am about to write, as much as I want to deny it and run away from it, I believe it is true.
Your suffering is sacred.