When you are suffering, ask: ‘Why am I suffering? Why am I miserable?’ Because you are clinging to something! Find out what you are clinging to, to get to the source. It may be, ‘I’m unhappy because nobody loves me.’ That may be true; maybe nobody does love you, but the unhappiness comes from wanting people to love you. Even if other people do love you, you will still have suffering if you think they are responsible for your happiness or suffering. Someone says: ‘You are the greatest person in the world!’ and you jump for joy. Someone says: ‘You are the most horrible person I’ve met in my life!’ and you’re depressed. Let go of depression, let go of happiness. Keep the practice simple: live your life mindfully and morally, and have faith in letting go.
– from “Letting Go”, a talk by Ajahn Sumedho
This excerpt from a long-ago dhamma talk by Ajahn Sumedho starts by acknowledging that we often suffer without knowing the cause of our suffering. Sometimes it’s obvious – we want the new car that our friend has, or; we wish we had the body of a goddess, or; we take a travel delay personally. But sometimes it takes an unusual sort of thinking to discover the specific form our clinging is taking right now. Maybe there’s fear about what may (or may not) come tomorrow; maybe we have a chronic illness that we’d prefer not to have to manage; maybe we have a problematic relationship that we can’t seem to disentangle ourselves from. Or maybe we just think, ‘Why me?’, as if there needed to be a special reason for dukkha to come to us.
When the Buddha said “I teach suffering…”, he also said “…and the end of suffering.” We are invited to examine our actual feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. Where is the sticking point? In what way do we want our current reality to be different from how it is? We may have to stay with the investigation for some time to see the source of our suffering clearly. Even after we see it, we may need to examine it over a period of time to discover the connection between our desire and the pain it causes.
If our immediate desires are being fulfilled, we may not see that suffering is being generated. Only after the high passes does the low become apparent. Can we see, while we are happy, that sadness or suffering is inextricably linked? Even the pleasure we get from a wonderful book or concert or visit must end with the sadness of separation when the experience is over. Can we live fully all the time, whether we’re currently experiencing pleasure or pain?