adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, October 1st, 2000
Buddhism is often considered a religion of tolerance. In many ways it is. But a particular kind of intolerance develops as we practice: intolerance to suffering. I use the word “intolerance” to be deliberately provocative, to encourage you to reflect on suffering and the issues surrounding it.
Taking suffering seriously is an important element of Buddhist practice. To ignore it is to miss a powerful opportunity. Intolerance of suffering motivated the Buddha to find liberation from it. It is sometimes said that no one comes to Buddhist practice unless they suffer. Suffering, a feeling of dissatisfaction with life, motivates people to engage in spiritual practice. The Buddha’s challenge is for us to become free of our suffering.
People are often quite tolerant of their suffering, particularly of the subtle suffering in everyday activities. For example, we may not pay attention to the subtle tension in the way we drive: going a little faster than is comfortable, judging other drivers, or perhaps anxious about our destination. Such minor stress tends to build over time, affecting our overall mood.
People also tolerate larger suffering. For example, we may be afraid that addressing certain issues in our relationships will cause even more suffering, so we choose not to. Or we may passively tolerate such existential anxiety as the fear of death, never really looking into it deeply, never freeing ourselves of its grip on our life.
We have many ways of tolerating suffering, and many reasons. We may fear the consequences of facing our suffering. We may become numb to it, or turn away from it. We often intentionally deny the existence of something that is quite uncomfortable.
We may also tolerate our suffering because of ambition or desire. We may be willing to tolerate some suffering to achieve what we perceive is a greater good. Sometimes this is a necessary component of life. To graduate from college, for example, many of us tolerated unpleasant situations. We were willing to put up with the discomfort because of the value of education.
But such tradeoffs are not always worthwhile. When we consider our deepest values, we may find that what we are pursuing is not really worth it. For example, financial wealth may not be worth the years of stress needed to achieve it.
Major crises and personal tragedies can be very difficult to deal with, but they can be a lot easier if we have had experience with smaller issues. The subtle suffering in our lives- such as in the way we drive, or talk co-workers-may seem unimportant. But if we attend to small ways that we suffer, we create a context of greater ease, peace, and responsibility, which can make it easier to deal with the bigger difficulties when the time comes.
Being intolerant of suffering, in the Buddhist sense, does not mean that we reject it or fight against it. It means that we stop and look at it, not morbidly, but rather because we have faith in the possibility of living a joyful and peaceful life.
In Buddhist practice, we investigate the nature of suffering. One of the first things we may notice is our relationship to it. We may discover how we tolerate, avoid or accept suffering in unhealthy ways. We may notice our aversion to suffering. Trying to push something out of the heart is another form of suffering. Aversion to suffering creates even more suffering.
We may also notice how suffering functions in our lives. We might be using it as proof or justification for inappropriate judgements about ourselves: e.g., that we are blameworthy, inadequate, or incapable. Identifying strongly with our suffering can become our orientation to the world. Occasionally people hang on to the identity “I’m a victim,” and want to be treated by others as a victim. We can use our suffering to get other people to respond to us in ways that may not be healthy.
However, being willing to investigate suffering and to look at it closely and non-reactively changes our relationship to it. We bring a healthy part of our psyche to the experience of suffering. Instead of being wrapped up in our suffering, lost in aversion to it, or shut off from it, we simply ask: “What is this?” This movement toward a different relationship with our suffering is an important aspect of Buddhist practice.
Meditation practice helps us develop concentration. When we develop concentration on something as simple as the breath, we counter the force of our attachments with the strength of our concentration. Concentration often creates a sense of calm, ease and even joy that in turn begins to change our relationship to suffering.
But concentration is only a part of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to look honestly and steadily at the sources of our suffering. It helps us to see that the roots of our suffering are actually in the present moment. The conditions that gave birth to suffering may be in the past, and understanding past conditions can be very helpful. But suffering occurs in the present moment, and is actually held in place by clinging, aversion or fear that are also occurring in the present. If we can release the holding, suffering loosens. Mindfulness joined with concentration allows us to see the moment-to-moment holding at the heart of our suffering.
Intolerance of suffering may co-exist with joy. Certainly not joy in the suffering itself, but the joy of bringing our practice to bear on it. As we become intolerant of our suffering and face it honestly, we begin to see the possibility of living a joyful and peaceful life.