All life is suffering

It is a basic tenet of Eastern philosophy that all life is suffering. The fact of suffering is the first of Buddha's Four Noble Truths. In the Yoga-Sutra, Patañjali tells us that the purpose of our existence is to overcome all future suffering.

Our births involve suffering, for mother and child. Our upbringings involve suffering with lessons hard learnt. Our relationships involve suffering with the thoughtless ways in which we sometimes behave towards each other, and with the inevitable separation, either in parting or in death, in which all relationships must end. We endure the suffering of physical pain and mental anguish, of injustice and of unfulfilled desires. It can get extremely grim.

The fact of suffering is as much a part of the fabric of our existence as is joy. We often allow our sufferings to define us, as much as we do our joys. But joy is, itself, part of the dynamic of suffering. We become attached to our joys and to our desires, and when we are separated from them, or denied them, once again we suffer.

Luckily for us, teachers such as Buddha and Patañjali tell us there is a cure for all this suffering. They offer us spiritual practices and ways of living that will give us tools to overcome this fundamental suffering that we all experience.


A note before we continue. These inquiries can be strong stuff and are not meant for the faint of heart. If you suffer from melancholy or outright depression, then this sort of practice is not meant for you. Even if you are generally a sturdy soul, the type of self-inquiry required by yogic discipline can, at times, be overwhelming. If at any point you begin to feel overwhelmed, stop the practice. Open your eyes and breathe. Get up and walk around. Go out into the sun and take a walk, or do some other form of exercise. Actively seek out some form of non-destructive enjoyment and bring yourself back to a state of balance. And then, perhaps, put away that specific practice for a period of time. Often all it takes is a glimmer of realization to spark off a multitude of changes. The healthy conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg and sometimes needs to be left to its own devices to sort things out.

Take a moment, or several, to sit and observe how suffering has affected your life. This is quite a difficult inquiry to attempt, as you do not want to get caught up reliving the actual incidents of suffering. Look instead at who you are in the present moment and observe how the painful experiences of your life have shaped you.

Once you have made a general inventory of your present self, observe if those experiences of suffering have defined your life. Have they led you in any direction you might not have otherwise taken? Have they prevented you from doing things that might have been to your detriment, or have they prevented you from doing things that might have enriched you? The important thing is to attach no value to what you observe, be it positive or negative. Be as objective as possible.

Can you do the same with all the joys of your life? Observe how they have shaped you and how they may have defined you.

Go back to your observation of the moments of suffering. Consider your present self without those defining aspects of suffering. How would you be without them?

Then consider your present self without your defining joys. How would you be without them?

In this way, explore how the fact of joy and suffering has shaped your life and your sense of identity. Can you go beyond both, strip them both away, and truly observe the identity that lies beyond them? Can you observe the present self that is unaffected by joy or suffering? It is important to look at the two together, and not to think of being unaffected by joy as itself being in a state of misery.

As you go through your day, can you observe moment to moment how the aspects of joy and suffering are affecting your thoughts and actions?