I would have a hard time saying that my life has any suffering in it at all really. To paraphrase George Carlin, what do I really have to be sad about? "REI is out of khaki shorts!?", "Yonder Mountain are breaking up!?". In general I'd say that I am incredibly lucky to lead the life that I do. Most of the challenges that I face are not a danger to me, but an opportunity for me to play, to learn, and to excel. So, I can't make any claim to be an expert on the topic of suffering, but fortunately for me Hindu and Buddhist philosophy have a word for exactly the kind of suffering we all deal with on a daily basis: samsara.
Samsara appears to have two meanings. On one level, it refers to the cycle of life an rebirth - the only escape from this cycle is enlightenment ("nirvana"). Or, more generally, it can refer to the subtle sufferings that people encounter in everyday life. In Sanskrit, samsara literally means "continuous flow" or "continuous movement". According to the Buddha (I think), all beings should attempt to understand their samsara and attempt to follow a path of detachment and moderation that can lead to a cessation of this suffering, where they can finally achieve nirvana.
Now, I don't know much about Buddhism, but I've read a little humanist philosophy, and I like climbing up mountains a lot. To me, the concept of samsara seems a lot like climbing. I have to reach the top with all of its prismatic views, cool breezes, and still air (nirvana) through the struggle of climbing, splitting skin on hard rocks , the risk of a fall, the burning of muscle long since fatigued (samsara). At the end of the day I can sit around a fire with my friends and talk and laugh and about our mutual suffering ("Dude, that was hard fall that you took on the 5.12."; "Rub some dirt on it... it'll be fine"; "Yep, that's a bruise"). We don't take pride in our suffering - that would be a little masochistic and sick - but we do take pride in the rewards that suffering brought us - that tiny piece of nirvana. No samsara; no nirvana.
I then compare this to the fast-food, need to have it now, instant gratification that pervades our culture. There are pills to make you skinny, shakes to make you ripped, surgery to fix your nose, genetic manipulation to give your kids blond hair with blue eyes, and Oprah will give everyone a car. I don't want to begrudge people something that makes them happy, but I wonder if they wouldn't be happier in the end if they accepted a little more struggle in the short-term. Like the people on TV make-over shows, they always seem so happy when stylists come in and tell them that they're ugly... but with just $5,000 dollars and our expert advice you too can be beautiful. Surprise, surprise, in the end people are so happy that they are *finally* beautiful. But wouldn't these people have been happier (in the long term) if they were are peace with who they were? Yes, there is such a thing as aesthetic beauty, but there is no single 'Beauty'. If a girl doesn't have a enough "shine" or "texture" in her wardrobe, or doesn't own a dress, then she might struggle with societal concepts of beauty, but if that is truly who she is, surely she will be happier in the end?
I can put off studying for an exam because I don't enjoy it; I can ignore having a difficult talk with a loved-one because we might get angry and yell at each other; I can skip going to practice today because I feel tired. But from my own experience, if I study now I can relish doing well on the exam later; in an argument we might hurt each others feelings, but by exploring an issue that is clearly important to both of us, we can grow closer as a result; and I might just surprise myself by finding out that I can practice tired and learn that my own limits are little more limitless than I imagined. No samsara; no nirvana.
It might have been better to bring this up at the beginning, but what got me started thinking about all of this was how everyone likes the result of a good climb, but what one really gains from climbing -beyond skill, or strength, or an excellent excuse to travel- is an appreciation for samsara.
We have to climb and struggle to improve and reach the top. A surfer has to paddle for hours to get an exhilarating few seconds of riding a wave. A student has go through ambiguity, intellectual uncertainty, and constant assessment to look back and say, "wow, look at what I know now." But I think the happiest among us are the surfers who learn to appreciate paddling (even though it may be less than riding a wave), or the students who learn to like learning (even though it may be a struggle in comparison to the joy of doing and knowing). No samsara; no nirvana.
At the same time, I am always turned off by people who embrace their samsara too much. People who feel superior in their suffering. Self-aggrandizing masochists who weigh their struggles against others and who feel no joy in their samsara. The person who feels that play is unnecessary and irreverant and that work and industry are the only virtuous acts anyone should engage in. To my mind these people have a huge fundamental misunderstanding: work is not the antithesis of play! Work and play are two sides of the same coin. But I think I'll leave that topic for another time...