Wait. Hold up. ‘Accept that suffering is part of life’…but isn’t the whole point of Buddhism to remove suffering?
This definitely sounds counter-intuitive at first, but after thinking about it for a while, it really does make sense. If we embrace the fact that suffering is inevitable, then it removes any kind of resentment or feeling of ‘why me?’ when things do cause us pain. The universality of suffering is yet another thing that bonds us humans together, because it’s something we all experience, one way or another.
Furthermore, acknowledging that things aren’t always going to go your way makes it easier to move on from times when you fall down, because you accept that things didn’t work out, and that just means you can dust yourself off and keep going. Especially with the current COVID-19 pandemic, everyone’s having to make compromises and adjustments, and that’s caused a heck of a lot of upheaval and turmoil across the globe.
But we’re all in it together, and I think if we approach this pandemic with the Dalai Lama’s mentality of acceptance, then we can see it not as a massive injustice against us, but rather as an opportunity to really come together (accidental Beatles reference) and help (whoops, another one) each other. Just let it be (ok, that one was on purpose).
It might be easy to look at the Dalai Lama and say, ‘oh, but what does he really know about suffering?’. And it’s true that the life of a monk seems very peaceful and unperturbed. But the Dalai Lama has not by any means had an easy life. He was just 15 years old when China invaded Tibet in 1950, forcing him to assume political power despite only being a teenager. He was then exiled from Tibet in 1959 after leading a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation, and has since had to live with the knowledge that his people are being persecuted, and that there’s nothing he can do about it except campaign for change.
So I think it’s safe to say he’s seen his fair share of struggle and suffering, which makes it even more inspiring that he can adopt this stance of acceptance. In The Art of Happiness he repeatedly references his attitude of forgiveness and compassion towards the people that exiled him and took control of his country, and outlines his hopes for a peaceful resolution.
This brings us to another key aspect of this teaching - accepting that suffering is inevitable does not mean that we should simply resign ourselves to this pain and not try to change our situation. I think it is more about doing this without harbouring any feelings of resentment and fear, and this is where an attitude of acceptance can help us.
There are lots of possible songs that would be relevant for this teaching. I was tempted to pick Kelly Clarkson’s ‘(Stronger) What Doesn’t Kill You’, Andra Day’s ‘Rise Up’, and numerous others. Saying ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’ (hey that’s catchy…should I become a songwriter?) is clearly a very common theme in music, probably because it’s so relatable and, like I said earlier, universal.
But I went for Coldplay’s ‘Up&Up’, and I think it fits the bill perfectly, because it’s all about finding yourself in difficult situations where it would be easy to give up. But instead of giving up, they turn around and say ‘we can do this.’
“We’re gonna get it, get it together right now, we’re gonna get it, get it together somehow”
This links back to the very first teaching in this project, which was all about creating that heartfelt intention to be happy. The moments described in ‘Up&Up’ are all crossroads, where the character in the song has the choice between resigning themselves to their plight, or the route of trying to achieve happiness.
“Lying in the gutter, aiming for the moon; trying to empty out the ocean with a spoon; up and up”
The above scenarios are clearly hyperbolic, but they portray impossible tasks, where there would undoubtedly be a feeling of hopelessness in chasing such an unattainable aim. And hopelessness is a completely understandable response to suffering, especially when it feels relentless. But that’s what I love about the song, it flies in the face of what seems possible and just tells us to keep striving for our goal regardless. It’s all about perspective.
“See the forest there in every seed, angels in the marble waiting to be freed; just need love, just need love”
The story behind Gospel singer Merry Clayton’s appearance on the track also adds to the value of ‘Up&Up’, in showing us how to accept suffering so we can move on from it. Chris Martin describes how, when they asked her to be a part of their album, she had just had both her legs amputated at the knee, following a serious car accident. In an interview, Martin described her inspiring attitude, despite this suffering:
“She came in a wheelchair and did her thing and then said, ‘I just lost my legs’. We didn’t know. She’d just come out of hospital the week before but was so full of joy, gratitude, love and life.”
Suffering is universal, and sickness, old age, and death are tragically but intrinsically part of the world we live in. However, given this inevitability of suffering, the Dalai Lama’s teaching makes sense, taking the approach of ‘well, if this is going to happen anyway, and there’s nothing I can do about it, then I must accept it’.
Personally, I’ve always been terrified of death, not just my own death but that of my loved ones. Grief is a horrible thing to experience, and equally the idea of just disappearing is incredibly scary. One day you’re here, one day you’re not, and the world keeps spinning regardless, and that just seems wrong. But a life spent being fearful and overly aware of the inevitability of death isn’t going to be a happy one, because you’ll always have one eye on the future, which means you won’t be able to be fully present and seize the moment that’s before you.
Once we accept the inevitability of death, and of suffering in general as just a part of life, the Dalai Lama, and virtually all renowned Buddhist figures, say that this will lead to greater peace and tranquility, and will ease anxiety about the future. It’s like that famous quote about how ‘Life is 5% what happens to you, and 95% how you react to it’. This is definitely something I’m still trying to learn and to practice, but hopefully after reflecting on this idea of acceptance in tandem with the rousing message of ‘Up&Up’, it’ll be easier to embrace.
I wanted to finish today’s post on another quote that’s especially pertinent, given this project’s attempts to combine music and teachings on happiness:
“We can’t always choose the music life plays for us, but we can choose how we dance to it.”