This is one of the most important of all the Buddhist teachings. There are many teachings, and many that are simple, deep, and profoundly helpful in our lives. This one’s right up there at the top.
No one wants to suffer.
When we encounter anyone who is behaving in an angry, mean, rude, impatient, destructive, unkind, or hurtful way — instead of becoming righteously indignant, offended, annoyed or angry ourselves, we can think, “No one wants to suffer.”
We can be calm, patient and open-hearted. We can think, “Ah! This person is suffering. No one wants to suffer. How can I be with this person in a helpful way?”
Maybe helping means calmly listening, just being present and non-reactive, gently offering a hand or kindly, honestly inquiring, what’s going on?
Several years ago, I noticed that a co-worker had begun signaling me out for criticism, making snarky comments about my work for no obvious reason. She had often before said how much she enjoyed working with me and how much she admired my work, so this came out of left field.
Early one morning I heard her in the kitchen across the hall from my office. We were the only two in the office, and I decided to seize the opportunity to check in with her. With a truthful, open-hearted intention, I said, “Mary (not her real name), what’s going on? I’ve noticed you’ve been unkind to me lately. Have I done something to hurt you?”
She shocked me by bursting into tears. “I know!” she wailed. “And I don’t know why!” She went on to describe some problems she was having in her life and asked me if I could recommend a good therapist. (I did.)
Gentleness can work when a customer service person is curt or rude to you on the phone, or a person is obnoxious to you for no reason, and whether you know them or not. The reason is they are suffering. It’s not about you.
The knowledge of suffering was the first of the Four Noble Truths the Buddha is believed to have taught in the first sermon after his Enlightenment. Simply put, the truths are: there is suffering in the world; suffering has a cause; suffering has an end; and there is a path to bring about its end. This is not a negative perspective on life (Oh, great — it’s all about suffering?). On the contrary.
Knowing someone is suffering can’t fix everything. Actually, I have a flash bulletin: it’s not your job to fix everything. Just being there in loving presence, listening with an open heart, is marvelously healing to both you and the person before you. Also, remember to breathe. That’s about it.