Pain vs Suffering or Samsara is Nirvana

A student shared this article with me on Facebook saying it sounded like a talk I would give in class, and she was right! Definitely worth the read. 

As buddhism teaches, pain is an inevitable part of life, but suffering is optional. Everyday of this life is pure magic. Even the disappointing or difficult ones. If you don’t see it this way, it probably has more to do with how you are seeing your life than the actual events of your life. We all have things we can complain about. We all have things we would like to change. That does not have to keep us from being happy, peaceful, content in each moment. Happy people are happy because they see things differently than your average person does. 

Toward the end of the article it talks a bit about a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset and for me this is absolutely key. I try to encourage my students to stop seeing life as a joyride and to start seeing it as a classroom. You are not here to get what you want. I’ll repeat that, you are not here (in this life) to get what you want. Look around. Even if your life seems to be pretty good with just a few annoying people and life events between you and your personal “nirvana”, it is undeniable that there are people on this planet who are being subject to unimaginable amounts of real physical, mental and emotional pain daily and on a continuous basis. While living in the industrialized world it can be easy to poo poo the Buddha’s teaching “all life is suffering or dukkha (suffering is actually not the best translation), we don’t have to look very far to see that life for many on this planet, in fact for most humans on this planet, can easily be seen as pure pain or suffering. 

Even in the industrialize world, most of us complain about what we don’t like more than we celebrate all of the miracles that we are privy to due to the hard work and genius of those who created all the technology we get to take advantage of. Many people wake up everyday not filled with joy at the prospect of another day, in the miracle and gift that is this human life, but instead with a sense of dread. Many have a nagging sense that there has to be more to life than this. And there most definitely is. It’s perhaps just not what you think. The real zest in life, the deep joys and peace, come not from getting what you want but from something else entirely… growth. You are not here to get what you want you are here to grow. And it is often at the very moment when we are most challenged, when we feel we are out of our element, when we are in above our heads that we do the most growing. 

To quote my favorite Zen master Muso Kokushi: “When people are unsympathetic to you and the world does not go as you wish, this should be a help to detachment of feelings from the repetitious cycle of becoming and decay, gaining and losing.”  To someone unfamiliar with Buddhist and Yogic thought “detachment of feelings from the repetitious cycle of becoming and decay, gaining and losing” may not seem like a very big deal, but both these traditions teach that it is actually our attachment and aversion to things and situations that cause the suffering, not the things or situations themselves. 

Think about it for a moment. Someone with severe arachnophobia will “suffer” if we bring a harmless tiny little spider in a glass cage into the same room they are in. Now, are they suffering because of the spider? Some may try to answer yes, but if that same person were unaware of the presence of the spider they would not be suffering right? It’s not as though we put the spider on them or let it bite them. They are physically safe because the spider is in a cage. The spider cannot harm them in any real way. But because this person has an unhealthy irrational fear caused by what yoga calls Vasanas and Samskaras, they will suffer, even though they are not in any real danger. 

What the yogic and buddhist tradition teach is that the real origin of all suffering, is our mind. If we put a dangerous spider on anyone and let it bite them, they will be in pain. Pain is inevitable in certain circumstances.  However, only someone with a certain psychological perspective will suffer  because of the presence of a tiny harmless spider in a cage in the same room with them. But what about the person suffering because they were bitten by the spider? That is legitimate suffering right? Wrong! It’s just that in our culture we see arachnophobia as an illness and we see the other perspective as ‘normal’. While the perspective “I am in pain because I got bitten by a spider therefore I am suffering” is more common and is condoned in most societies, what the buddhist and yogic perspective try to teach us is that this perspective is just another form of what the person suffering from arachnophobia is suffering from. Both people suffer because of what might be called “mental illness,” not because of their circumstances. The “cure” for this mental illness is to begin to see things differently

Many people think that they just see things as they see them, or they may even think that they “see things as they are.” Well, there are many scientific studies coming out now that prove that not only do you not see things as they are, no human ultimately does. The very experience of being a human means that you see things in a way that distorts them to your biological and evolutionary advantage. But the good news about being human is you have a flexible nervous system that can be trained to see things differently than nature taught you. You can train your nervous system to see things closer to how they actually are and in the process make yourself happier and more peaceful.

So how can we choose to see things differently than your average person? Well its quite simple really, don’t be average. Most people pursue joy, peace, and satisfaction through things and accomplishments in the world. Instead of doing that, put your energy into changing your perspective about the world. How do you do that? Well, while reading about happiness or how to be happy can be helpful, most people lack the mental power to simply  change their beliefs just by reading an article about what beliefs make us happy. In my experience there is no replacement for a regular, daily, meditation practice. Meditation practice is where you “teach” your biology to be less reactive and more in tune with things as they are, what in Buddhism is called Tathātā or “suchness.” The scientific evidence keeps rolling in on how daily meditation literally rewires your brain. And why would being in tune with things “as they are” make us more joyful, peaceful and happy? Because, believe it or not, this world with all it’s ‘problems’, is unbelievingly, achingly beautiful and amazing beyond belief. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas “the kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth but men do not see it.” In the buddhist tradition this same idea is expressed as “samsara is nirvana.”

While different people may have different recommendations about style, length of time, etc. I always like to say that the best kind of meditation is the one you are going to do. Any meditation is better than no meditation. The best approach is to think of it like brushing your teeth. Brushing your teeth is not fun, and your don’t really get anything by doing it. What brushing your teeth does is it let’s you keep something, namely healthy teeth. The same is true of meditation. Meditation lets you keep something healthy, namely your brain. It lets you keep joy, sanity, and perspective. 

This is not to say that all meditation is created equal. As we study the brain more using the scientific method we will likely discover that different kinds of meditation tend to effect the brain differently. But just as we could debate the benefits of an electric toothbrush vs a standard toothbrush, or one toothpaste over another, the fact is everyone reading this is going to go to the bathroom tonight to brush their teeth, at least I hope you are! My hope would be that after reading this you will do the same with your meditation practice. 

It is our daily meditation practice that really allows our nervous system the flexibility to get the most out of this classroom we call life. The irony is that when we do start to see life as a classroom it becomes a joyride. As my Zen teacher Michael Elliston told me once “Life is about Zen.” When we start to welcome challenges in life instead of feeling overwhelmed by them, when we stop dreading things not going our way, which for most people is often, and when we start to welcome what each moment has in store for us we begin to see that samsara is nirvana, that the kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth and now we see it.

Thanks to Katie Bush for sharing the original article with me.  

Jai Bhagwan,


P.S. If you are new to meditation I have posted a FREE audio recording of meditation instruction here on Patreon. If you search for it you will find it. It is usually good to hear the instructions more than once, so I will be posting more of these in the future. It is also a good idea to receive meditation instruction in person and to practice with a group from time to time, both of which I offer at Mahāpatha Popup on a fairly regular basis. But for now if you want my take on meditation the recording is a good way to start. 

Sounds of Summer - A Yoga Retreat

July 19th-21st