Not What We Want
There's a lot going on in this world, and for each of us there's a lot going on in our own life. Big stuff. Small stuff. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. And with everything that is happening it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
A common feeling is that things aren't how we would want them to be - a wish that things were different, that things were 'otherwise.'
The First Noble Truth describes this situation succinctly:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.
The words 'stress' or 'stressful' here are translations of the Pali word dukkha, which is often translated as 'suffering,' but which has a more subtle meaning than that. People sometimes use the rather awkward 'unsatisfactoriness' or the more colloquial 'suckiness.' However we translate it we can all resonate with this feeling. When we are separated from what we love or when things go wrong we are stressed and it feels like things suck.
The Second Noble Truth explains the cause of this stress or sufferings - not from the things themselves but from our clinging and wish for things to be otherwise. And we are then taught that the way to overcome this is to move beyond that clinging. This is important, we don't move beyond stress or suffering by removing the unpleasant things, we move beyond it by removing our clinging to things being 'otherwise.'
This seems counter-intuitive at first - if my pain is causing me to suffer, then I should free myself of that pain, right? Instead what this says is that root of our suffering is not the pain but our desire to be without the pain. And what is freeing about this is that the desire - the cause of our suffering - is within our control - even if the cause of the pain is not.
Pema Chödrön explores this distinction further in her book "The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World":
There is a common misunderstanding among the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same. A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet. To lead to a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we are committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.
I find this incredibly freeing. I cannot control what is happening in the world, or the ageing of my body, or how others treat me. I can, however, realize that I am stressed and suffer not because of these things but by my wish for things to be otherwise. And I can, as Pema Chödrön suggests, use that awareness to live a more full, kind and joyful life.
P.S. One of the ways we can work with this in our meditation practice is by cultivating awareness of bodily and mental sensations as they arise. As we become aware of a sensation we identify it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Then we let go of it, practicing not clinging to the pleasant sensations and non-aversion to the unpleasant. I have linked below a fully guided 30-minute meditation where we practice this. You are welcome to use it in your own practice.
P.P.S. I do want to add that the equanimity we cultivate in this practice is not the same as indifference. We can recognize pain in our leg without aversion, but still move our leg with compassion. In the same way if there is injustice we can practice acceptance - and at the same time work compassionately for the removal of that injustice. It is not an either-or.
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html .