spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
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“Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.” When the weight-loss leader spoke those words during the meetings I attended to lose 30-plus pounds, I didn’t know how profound were her words. That was more than 10 years ago, long before I meditated or heard the dharma. She explained that from a Buddhist perspective, restricting food intake, cutting out night time binge eating or doing three days of exercise could be painful, but complaining and deluding ourselves into thinking pounds would melt away if we just sat in a chair at meetings would cause us to suffer. In other words, we had some control over suffering.

Buddhists consider suffering a fact of life. Indeed, it is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. According to Buddhist Studies for Secondary Students:  “There are four unavoidable physical sufferings; birth, old age, sickness and death. There are also three forms of mental suffering; separation from the people we love; contact with people we dislike and frustration of desires. Happiness is real and comes in many ways, but happiness does not last forever and does not stop suffering. Buddhists believe that the way to end suffering is to first accept the fact that suffering is actually a fact of life.”

 That word “suffering” doesn’t quite explain this concept central to the dharma and to meditation practice. I have read that the Pali word Dukkha usually translated as suffering can also be thought of in terms of something being “intolerable,” “unsustainable,” “difficult to endure,” and can also be “imperfect,” “unsatisfying,” or “incapable of providing perfect happiness.” When my Soto Zen teacher speaks about the First Noble Truth, she uses the term “dis-ease” to describe this human condition called suffering. Any of these words would describe quite a few aspects of my daily life.

Even seemingly insignificant moments show me how quickly I cause myself to suffer. A recent though temporary onslaught of disappointment, impatience, annoyance, futility, anger and mild self-loathing got triggered by my thwarted attempt to sign into my Starbuck’s account so as to register for 20 bonus stars by mid-February. Without my Starbuck’s password at the ready, I chose my Facebook sign-in option. The password to that account was also not in the forefront of my thoughts, ergo I could not sign up for all those bonus stars. As those feelings short-circuited my ability to be mindful of or kind to any other person, additional suffering ensued.

Suddenly from my throat issued a caterwauling of “me-ows.” Why is this happening to me. Ow! I’m frustrated, suffused with anger. Shortly after dealing with frustration and disappointment, I began to blame those corporate somebodies who sent emails addressed specifically to me. Clearly, form letters don’t care that I start each day buying a double-short soy latte and have for years, and that I buy Abe his oatmeal – I would want this predictability and generosity to count for something. Just this past week, before 6 a.m., I made an emergency run to a nearby Starbucks because my Starbuck’s location was out of oatmeal, caramel, skinny vanilla syrup, and compost bags. So why do I not have uncomplicated access to my account based on good karma?

 My prefrontal cortex gets it that Starbuck emails are unrelated to my comings and goings in one neighborhood in one city in its vast and impersonal universe, although the emails are addressed to “Alison.” To be of no consequence in the on-line world, no matter how personal sounding the emails, shouldn’t matter. And in any brain function save the reptilian brain, suffering wouldn’t happen. But that familiar childhood need to matter stored in the old brain still triggers me.

Rather than react to an impersonal, all-too-human glitch, I might have paused to remember the words of my weight loss leader: “Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.” I could have taken three deep breaths, let go of thoughts and grasping. I could have looked at the branches of winter trees and sidestepped suffering altogether. However, in the larger picture, compassion allows me to feel gratitude to the Starbuck muckymucks for reminding me that insidious old patterns of wanting to be special needn't be a source of suffering. 

Stan Hartzell
2/4/2014 07:04:14 am

Alison great posting - last week I had my yearly physical and extensive tests - I'm healthy with the exception of my weight and high trigycerides. My physician "Doggie Howser" he's so young gave me a choice to increase one of my meds - I said "Oh let me increase my exercise" - his email reply was "I'll contact you in a few weeks to see how you're progressing.' I am in pain but will not suffer. Thanks

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