We all want to be happy and there are many books and teachers in the world that try to help people be happier. Yet we all continue to suffer.
Therefore, we may think that we’re “doing it wrong.” Somehow we are “failing at happiness.” That isn’t true. Being able to enjoy happiness doesn’t require that we have zero suffering. In fact, the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well. When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further and transform our suffering into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others.
One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering. This doesn’t mean that we should despair. Suffering can be transformed. As soon as we open our mouth to say “suffering,” we know that the opposite of suffering is already there as well. Where there is suffering, there is happiness.
According to the creation story in the biblical book of Genesis, God said, “Let there be light.” I like to imagine that light replied, saying, “God, I have to wait for my twin brother, darkness, to be with me. I can’t be there without the darkness.” God asked, “Why do you need to wait? Darkness is there.” Light answered, “In that case, then I am also already there.”
If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness. But the art of happiness is also the art of knowing how to suffer well. If we know how to use our suffering, we can transform it and suffer much less. Knowing how to suffer well is essential to realizing true happiness.
The main affliction of our modern civilization is that we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside us and we try to cover it up with all kinds of consumption. Retailers peddle a plethora of devices to help us cover up the suffering inside. But unless and until we’re able to face our suffering, we can’t be present and available to life, and happiness will continue to elude us.
There are many people who have enormous suffering, and don’t know how to handle it. For many people, it starts at a very young age. So why don’t schools teach our young people the way to manage suffering? If a student is very unhappy, he can’t concentrate and he can’t learn. The suffering of each of us affects others. The more we learn about the art of suffering well, the less suffering there will be in the world.
Mindfulness is the best way to be with our suffering without being overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness is the capacity to dwell in the present moment, to know what’s happening in the here and now. For example, when we’re lifting our two arms, we’re conscious of the fact that we’re lifting our arms. Our mind is with our lifting of our arms, and we don’t think about the past or the future, because lifting our arms is what’s happening in the present moment.
To be mindful means to be aware. It’s the energy that knows what is happening in the present moment. Lifting our arms and knowing that we’re lifting our arms—that’s mindfulness, mindfulness of our action. When we breathe in and we know we’re breathing in, that’s mindfulness. When we make a step and we know that the steps are taking place, we are mindful of the steps. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. It’s the energy that helps us be aware of what is happening right now and right here—in our body, in our feelings, in our perceptions, and around us.
With mindfulness, you can recognize the presence of the suffering in you and in the world. And it’s with that same energy that you tenderly embrace the suffering. By being aware of your in-breath and out-breath you generate the energy of mindfulness, so you can continue to cradle the suffering. Practitioners of mindfulness can help and support each other in recognizing, embracing, and transforming suffering. With mindfulness we are no longer afraid of pain. We can even go further and make good use of suffering to generate the energy of understanding and compassion that heals us and we can help others to heal and be happy as well.
The way we start producing the medicine of mindfulness is by stopping and taking a conscious breath, giving our complete attention to our in-breath and our out-breath. When we stop and take a breath in this way, we unite body and mind and come back home to ourselves. We feel our bodies more fully. We are truly alive only when the mind is with the body. The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath. Maybe we have not been kind enough to our body for some time. Recognizing the tension, the pain, the stress in our body, we can bathe it in our mindful awareness, and that is the beginning of healing.
If we take care of the suffering inside us, we have more clarity, energy, and strength to help address the suffering of our loved ones, as well as the suffering in our community and the world. If, however, we are preoccupied with the fear and despair in us, we can’t help remove the suffering of others. There is an art to suffering well. If we know how to take care of our suffering, we not only suffer much, much less, we also create more happiness around us and in the world.
From No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, by Thich Nhat Hanh.