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Soulful Sundays: Suffering

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." -Buddhist Proverb

Someone we trust betrays us; we realize we aren't as healthy as we hoped; the interest rates are never going back down again. Suffering occurs when reality does not meet our expectations, and we put our attention on that disappointment instead of looking for a solution. There are two ways to reduce the amount of suffering in our lives. They form a yin-yang pair.

The yang part of the pair is what I will call 'intention.' In any given circumstances that you encounter, you bring an intention (or set of intentions) with you. These are the guiding principles behind your actions and they make an outsized difference in how events play out. Let's say that you go to work simply to make money. How you behave will vary greatly from the person whose intention at work is to help make the world a better place. In the first instance, work is just a job. In the second, work is a passion.

Choosing to have 'no intention' is actually an intention as well. People get in trouble when they try to have 'no expectations,' because a situation involving no expectations is utter chaos, and most people will not willingly choose utter chaos. Controlled chaos, yes, but not complete pandemonium. So if your intention is to have no intention, then you are planning to take no responsibility for what ensues, although I would argue that you are merely delaying or shirking off that responsibility to someone else.

The key to mastering intentions (or expectations for that matter) is to make them as simple, internal, and process-oriented as possible. Instead of being focused on an external end goal (i.e. I want everyone to have a good time at my party tonight), we can shift to a more attainable intrinsic goal (i.e. I want to provide an environment that will make it possible for my guests to have a good time). Whether or not the external goal is met is not up to us. What is up to us is that we did our best in the process.

The yin side of this pair is what I will call 'sensing.' This is the art of observing reality for what it actually is. Sensing allows us to manifest what we are intending by giving us an accurate account of both assets and liabilities. We are more likely to be successful if we can limit our liabilities (i.e. only invite people to the party who are positive) and increase our assets (i.e. providing quality food and entertainment). Even under the best scenarios, though, we can still fall flat. Sensing is an art. It must be practiced and refined.

Suffering especially occurs when we think we are prepared for something that defeats us. This is called hubris and it is mankind's greatest sin. Hubris is why Prometheus became eternally tortured by the gods and why Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. It is the belief that we know what is best, despite evidence to the contrary. This attitude pushes us to overreach and fall. Some amount of pride is healthy and desirable. It helps us to step bravely into difficult situations. But failing to adjust to objective reality is hubris. Spotting the temptation early is the hallmark of honed sensing.

Intention (creating simpler goals) and sensing (seeing the world as it is) form the backbone of a philosophy of better living. These teachings are echoed across multiple religious and academic texts. They are the yang and yin of the same universal oneness. The Taoists call this oneness 'the Way,' the Buddhists call it greater consciousness, and the Abrahamic religions call it God.

Whatever you call it, the evidence that there is higher order and purpose beyond our tiny influence is undeniable. The ultimate goal of mastering yin and yang is to return to that oneness. To trust in that oneness. Faith is the closest word to describing that trust. But faith alone does not prevent suffering. We must also take responsibility for doing the work of balancing our own efforts.

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