One of my first yoga instructors used to say, ‘Suffering is optional.’ In the immediate he was referencing the struggle to remain in challenging postures—our mindset could shift from one of struggle to that of acceptance. Underlying the asana was the notion that we choose to view existence as laced with suffering…or not.
That life could be filled with contentment instead of constant anguish was a revelation. Essentially raised agnostic, even I felt the heavy weight of guilt that pervades those of my generation, a hard reality to escape in America.
In her insightful interview with former Missions of Charity member Mary Johnson, who worked alongside and often lived with Mother Theresa, Valerica Tarico asks if the potential saint was ‘a friend of poverty instead of the poor.’
Most people today would say that we help the poor by helping them out of poverty. That was never Mother Teresa’s intention…Mother Teresa was undeniably interested in reserving a really good spot for herself behind the pearly gates…I do believe that Mother Teresa had a great deal of compassion for the poor, but it’s hard to deny that she was more interested in improving everyone’s lot in the next life than in this one.
While Johnson’s intention is not to lambast Theresa, the interview demands that we ask an important question: Is suffering necessary for the spiritual life?
Ask a Catholic, as Johnson alludes to, and the response is a resounding yes. In that and other Christ-based outlooks, we are born into this as world imperfect sinners. Jesus suffered for us, and so we must constantly confess our less-than-godly stature.
Essentially: you were born a loser destined to lose the game. There is one avenue of thought that will potentially help you in the afterlife; you spend the entirety of this lifetime accruing credit to reach that destination.
Similar philosophies exist in some of yoga’s earliest writings, where our body is a ‘meat puppet’ just waiting to fall off so the ineffable essence of who we are can get on with it. Yoga’s roots were not only atheistic; a complete cult of bodily denial existed. The exercises, mostly involving breathing techniques and meditation, were designed to help the practitioner transcend the puppet, not live comfortably inside of it.
Not all yogis take this view, just as not all Catholics subscribe to the original sin theology. Today yoga is extremely body-gratifying, a celebration of our skin, rooted in Tantric philosophy. While sometimes yoga serves those with eating disorders and other mental afflictions, many practitioners use the postures in preventative and holistic health routines.
Yet there remains plenty who subscribe to this notion that by our very birth we’re flawed with no chance of redemption, nagging horses chasing impossible carrots. This gospel makes for a much better business model than spiritual outlook.
Buddhism perhaps offers the most succinct treatise on suffering. Yes, it’s there, and we’re all going to go through it. That does not imply that suffering is our raison d'être. In this view, suffering is a tollbooth we have to pass through, though here we can actually reappear on the other side.
In his memoir, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor writes
To fully know suffering goes against the grain of what I am primed to desire. Yet a contingent, impermanent world does not exist in order to gratify my desires. It cannot provide the non-contingent, permanent well-being I crave.
There is, perhaps, where the fundamental disagreement lies. In the Catholic world, suffering is a necessity, even though the world was ‘built’ for humans to experience the glory of Christ. No matter what we do, we will be victimized and must submit to it in order to ‘believe’ in Christ’s glory.
Belief is a non-starter in Buddhism, where humans are a part of the process of existence, one in which suffering is a component we can work with, not run from or surrender to. Batchelor describes the remedy thus:
Every sentient creature suffers. When my self is no longer the all-consuming preoccupation it once was, when I see it as one narrative thread among myriad others, when I understand it to be as contingent and transient as anything else, then the barrier that separates ‘me’ from ‘not me’ begins to crumble…to embrace suffering culminates in greater empathy, the capacity to feel what it is like for the other to suffer, which is the ground for unsentimental compassion and love.
We all suffer. Some of us have a greater threshold for it; others, like psychopaths, have no capacity for remorse or empathy, and so suffer differently. The Mother Theresa route—service in the name of the next world, predominantly for oneself and then others—seems the more selfish path. The act might be genuine, but the motivation is skewed, resulting in odd manifestations (a la dirty needles and birth control scandals).
In Buddhism, it all comes down to action. Beliefs are only primers for how we live our life—it is through living that we relate (or not) to how we suffer. It is a means of living the best possible life now, not pretending there’s somewhere invisible we’re all heading towards. Most importantly, actions are performed for the actions themselves, not to add points to our divine reward club card. In this way, suffering is alleviated, not elevated.