Learning to suffer productively

Buddhists philosophers begin their quest for a good life with a counter-intuitive observation. They notice, simply, that life kinda sucks.1 They then ask, “So if life sucks, WTF should we do about it?” 

Earlier this year I found an amazing answer.

Jack Kornfield, one of my meditation teachers, studied with the late Achaan Chah, a revered forest monk from Thailand. In “A Still Forest Pool,” Jack collects Achaan’s core teachings. One of Achaan’s lessons has been on my mind for months,

“There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If you are not willing to face the second kind of suffering, you will surely continue to experience the first.”

It’s worth slowing down and reading that again. It offers one of the clearest paths to a better life that I’ve ever seen. The idea is so simple and so beautiful: since pain is inevitable, we might as well experience it productively.

  • Feeling pissed at your partner? You could wall yourself off and pretend everything’s ok, or you could talk about it.
  • Feeling depressed? You could spark a joint and drift away, or you could reach out to a friend.
  • Feeling worthless? You could gorge yourself on pizza and Netflix, or you could find a good therapist.

We can go on with examples profound (working to overcome addiction) and mundane (opting in to a kettlebell workout), but the idea remains the same: our goal is to feel the right type of pain.

The tricky part is that both paths have their appeal.

The walls, weed, and junk food are easier than their alternatives, at least in the moment. Sometimes they are the right choices too; there are days when I just don’t have the stamina to deal with life’s shit head on. 

But there’s a catch. Avoiding our problems tends to make us worse for wear. When we take this path, the disconnection, depression, and shame reappear far sooner than we expect. This is the type of suffering that leads to more suffering. It’s easier for a few hours, but it tends to perpetuate our problems.

But having a hard conversation, asking for comfort, and getting a therapist is hard. They require true vulnerability and effort. Yet, with time, these choices free us from pain, and often more quickly than expected. This is the type of suffering that leads to the end of suffering. Even though it’s harder in the beginning it almost always pays off.

There is no avoiding the bullshit and dissatisfaction of life (trust me, I’ve tried). The best we can do is learn to work with it skillfully. It helps to slow down and ask, “Am I just shifting my pain away from the moment and into the future? Or am I meaningfully working to end it?” In both cases we have to deal with the affliction. It’s just that in the latter case we eventually become free of it. 


  1. If you want to get technical, what Buddhists actually assume is that “dukkha” exists. Dukkha is a Pali word that is traditionally translated as “suffering.” However, Joseph Goldstein, a Western Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher believes that a better translation of Dukkha is “unsatisfactoriness.” While “unsatisfactoriness” is a clunky word, it’s also more useful (and I suspect more accurate). The foundational assumption of buddhist philosophy, then, is that much of life is inherently unsatisfying.

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