Life is hard and full of challenges. Buddhists would even go so far as to suggest that life is suffering as a result our attachment to it. It stands to reason, then, that the ultimate goal in life is not necessarily happiness, but the cessation of this suffering.
There are, perhaps, three routes to this goal. I’m sure there are many more if you were to explore the sutras, or read up on the philosophy of life, but for now I’ll settle with three.
One is to identify those things in our life that we’re unhappy with, which we perceive to be causing us suffering or unhappiness, and work to eradicate them. However, this can cause problems – further suffering – in itself. The constant striving for something different, something better, amplifies our dissatisfaction with where we are now. It amplifies our dissatisfaction with ‘what is’ and we find ourselves increasingly dissatisfied, disempowered, and resentful of how unfair life is.
There is an alternative though. If we find ourselves wrestling with some aspect of our existence, and suffering as a result, we can reframe our relationship to it. We cannot lose a fight we do not engage with, and so by letting go of our desire for something different, something better, and learning to accept where we are and what we’ve got, we find an alternative route to the cessation of suffering. Attachment is suffering, so if we detach, the suffering is no more.
There are monks in the Buddhist temples of Thailand and San Diego who dedicate years, even their whole lives, to this detachment from desire and its suffering. And although I do have the best intentions, I am not a monk. Seriously. Just ask my friends.
There are bills I have to pay, things I want, luxuries I desire, daily discomforts I must face, both in my own life and in the world that I see around me. A world that has become much closer and more vivid thanks to modern media, bringing all of the injustices of the world – or at least those injustices that the news editors deem worthy – into my consciousness.
Now, not only am I suffering because I don’t have a good enough car or the latest Playstation, but I find myself faced with the suffering of others – people just like me – all over the world. I am faced with famine, racism, greed and climate change. Wars are happening, atrocities I cannot believe one human can do to another, and all manner of evils being committed – often in the pursuit of money which, paradoxically, is someone else attempting to reverse their own suffering.
And I’m torn. I seek peace within me. A nice life. A carefree existence. I meditate and I embrace loving kindness, mindfulness and compassion. I forgive and I forgive and I forgive.
But is it enough?
Should I be out there on the streets, with those good people who are challenging hundreds of years of oppression and marginalisation? Should I be giving my income to those who need it more than me, who sleep rough in doorways or who are sick and dying from easily preventable disease? Should I take on the suffering of the world as if it were my own – because it is my own – or should my own inner peace be enough? How much of mankind’s irresponsibility is my responsibility?
How much should we take on the suffering of the world as our moral duty? How much should our own private sanctuary be disturbed by the cries for help from our brothers and sisters around the world? By the cries for help from the planet that sustains us, yet which we cavort over like mindless yahoos.
How much is enough, to soothe our delicate, western, middle class egos? At what point can we say – “it’s ok, we fought the fight in our ownway, and we did enough”? At what point can we sleep at night?
The world is in crisis, and everywhere there is suffering. But, has there ever been a time when the world has not been in crisis? Can we even begin to fix the world? Does any action do enough? Or is it enough to be, as Gandhi is often misquoted as saying, “the change we want to see in the world”?
How much of our own peace should we sacrifice for the peace of the world?
This is a conversation I had with Trudy Goodman. She is one of the senior Buddhist teachers in America, and a shining light for compassion, love and kindness. She most graciously gave up her time to remind me that you can walk across continents one small step at a time. You can bring about change one small action at a time. And that by finding peace in ourselves, and becoming beacons for love, forgiveness and awareness, we can contribute a small part to a better world, a brighter future, and a global cessation of suffering and injustice.