Eliezer Sobel

The 99th Monkey

Suffering, Seeking & Sanity

Suffering and misery as a full-time profession.

Posted Jun 12, 2009

Yes! I thought; at last. She was right on target, and naming my condition brought with it a huge wave of relief. After floundering about in my early 20s searching for a focus, I had finally zeroed in on something to which I was already quite devoted, and which seemed to come to me naturally: suffering, and seeking a way out. Little did I know at the time how extensive the profession of suffering was; endless work had already been done in the field for thousands of years, within schools of philosophy and ancient religions, traditional approaches to psychology and contemporary alternative therapies, legal and illegal pharmaceuticals, New Age teachings, mysticism and more.

My quest took me on some offbeat detours, such as the time a rather obese female therapist sat on my head for about 20 minutes at Esalen Institute, so that I could "re-experience being smothered by my mother." And I once participated in an exercise called "The Tush Push" at a nude sexuality workshop,  the details of which I leave to your imagination. My explorations included extended pilgrimages to India, silent retreats in Nepal, the study of Kabbalah in Jerusalem, and ayahuasca rituals in Brazil. 

I literally made a career out of my search, and as a journalist, I became a human guinea pig for any and every carrot held out to the suffering human. Over time, the object of my seeking evolved from merely looking for personal relief, to a grander, all-encompassing search for truth, God and enlightenment. Thus I found myself on a spiritual path, although I have always been a rather delinquent aspirant. I tend to spiritually binge: I'll spend 40 days alone on a mountaintop or 20 days on a meditation cushion in silence, but whenever I return home from such adventures, I always seem to take myself with me and leave the practices behind; especially if they worked.

My individual unhappiness eventually expanded to include the fundamental, core discontent at the root of all beings everywhere, and I found that Buddhism stated the problem most succinctly: life itself, Buddha taught, inherently contains suffering and dissatisfaction. It's just part of the package, part of what we were given as a door prize, just for showing up. (Thanks a lot, Buddha.) The source of our suffering, Buddhism explains, is that we either don't get what we want, or we get what we don't want, or we do get what we want and then have to face the pain of losing it due to the ineluctable impermanence of all passing phenomena. Therefore, we would all be wise to relinquish any strongly-held attachments to which we might be clinging, those positions that insist that life should be a way that it isn't. In fact, for beginners on the path of suffering, this is a surefire method to maintain an unhappy disposition: simply demand that your life, and all life, be different than it is. Bingo!

Despite the Buddha's explication of the all-pervasive nature of suffering, it is clearly not distributed equitably. Some people suffer more than others. "I was complaining that I had no shoes," the saying goes, "then I met someone with no feet." On the other side of the equation, I myself have met many people who, I could swear, seem to simply go about their lives without a lot of fuss, neither bemoaning nor kvetching, and even seem to be enjoying themselves much of the time. They've never been to see a therapist, never tried Prozac or needed Xanax to get out the front door, and have no use for God or religion. Such people seem like alien beings to me. I can't quite get my head around what their moment-to-moment experience of living actually feels like. For example, my friend Asha once said to me, in passing, "You know the way you feel when you feel really deep down fine?" I didn't hear whatever she said next, because I was thinking, Huh? Feeling what? Deep down fine? Really? She had lost me.

At the end of the day, suffering comes down to our steadfastly, and often unconsciously, holding to a core point of view that somehow just who we are, and just how life is, is fundamentally not okay and should be different. That is the lens through which we view existence, and we are usually blind to it, and thus, rather than changing the lens, we devote ourselves to perpetually rearranging the picture, via the various and exotic forms of our seeking. True sanity is parted from us by the filmiest of screens, only a thought away, and we all know this directly from those glorious moments of being "in the zone," when that "not okay" voice of the perpetual seeker mercifully drops away and allows us to engage life directly and fully, as it is, making neither demands of life nor imposing conditions on it. Those are moments when we are launched, despite ourselves, into the Grace of joy, gratitude and appreciation of the Great Mystery that surrounds us always. May we all know more of those moments.