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Awareness and the Alleviation of Suffering

I couldn’t focus at all. I’d been meditating, sat still for at least 15 minutes out of my usual 20 and the monkey in my head would not calm down. I’m usually pretty settled after about 10 minutes, and when my attention drifts, I can catch myself in the act and bring it back to the practice, but that was not the case today. No matter how hard I tried, my mind kept focusing again on what I had done.

Yesterday, I noticed that it was somebody’s birthday. Now this somebody (let’s call her Barbara) used to be one of my best friends. Barbara was kind, generous and funny and tried to help me at a point in my life when I needed someone. In return for her goodness, I was a prick to her. I acted like an idiot, doing and saying some things I’m not proud of but suffice to say it was quite cruel and uncalled for. It happened in the course of a phone call around 12 years ago. That was the last time I spoke to her.

Every now and again, this memory rears its ugly head for me and reminds me that despite the fact that I try to aim for good outcomes in my life, I am capable of evil. I can do bad things at the drop of a hat, and it’s only the knowledge of how doing those things negatively affects both myself and everyone else emotionally, physically and spiritually which stops me.

That’s only half of the reasoning, however. If any of you are listeners or readers of Dr Jordan B. Peterson, you’ll probably already be aware of the theory I’m about to put forward. The way he puts it, (and I’m almost certainly butchering his fantastic explanations here) it is the very knowledge of the bad and the evil and the acceptance of it within oneself as an individual which contains within it the seed of opportunity to create and cultivate the good within us as well. This is because it is impossible to act in a conventionally good, moral way without first understanding what the opposite is.

Dr Peterson explains that if there is one thing which is for certain about the human condition, it is that pain exists and that it is undesirable. Whether that pain is emotional, physical, spiritual or otherwise, it is undeniable. When we are in pain, it’s real. We know it, and we want it to stop. By using this as a basis for forming a moral and ethical structure, we can put forward the idea that if pain and suffering exists and it is undesirable, whatever the opposite of pain and suffering is must be desirable. At the very least, it’s a good place to start. Minimise pain and suffering; both to yourself and others. That seems to me like a logical and solid foundation on which to build our understanding of morality and ethical behaviour.

So What Does This Have to Do with My Story?

As I said, the memory of the way I sabotaged my friendship with Barbara has haunted me on and off since that day 12 years ago, whenever it catches up with me again. This time, however, the difference was that when my subconscious started screaming at me about this obvious unhealed wound, I was listening. Instead of trying to push it back down and forget about the pain I had caused and the suffering I was experiencing. As a result, I decided to do something about it.

As I mentioned, I had noticed that it was Barbara’s birthday and according to the evidence of Facebook (my favourite – occasionally useful – waste of time) she seemed to be enjoying life, and I felt genuinely happy for her. I decided that it was time to put down the baggage I had been carrying over the mistake I had made and reach out to her.

I wrote a private message to her, and in it, I apologised for the way that I had treated her. I apologised for being a crap friend. I apologised for my lack of character. I apologised for not having the courage to apologise sooner and wasting so much time. I told her of my regret over my actions. I did not offer any excuse for what I had done because there was none. She didn’t deserve what happened, and I told her as much. My hands were shaking as I wrote it. I felt a bit sick. I felt like crying. I was sweating. It was not pleasant.

I don’t expect anything back at all. I don’t expect a reply and if I do get one; I don’t expect it to be nice. The irony is; any reply from her probably would be nice because that’s the kind of person she is.

The point is this: I did it to remove some suffering from the world; both hers and mine. By doing the right thing (i.e. that which causes the opposite of suffering), I had unburdened myself from something which had been weighing me down and hurt me for years. I had also let her know that I knew I was in the wrong and that I was sorry. That should hopefully provide her at least with some closure and help to undo some of the negative feelings she undoubtedly (and deservedly) has for me, thus reducing her baggage as well.

Points to Take Away

I hope in reading this; someone recognises something comparable that they could improve in a similar way. In the grand scheme of a life lived, it’s a pretty small thing, but small things have a habit of accumulating into big things if left unchecked. The fact that I apologised also doesn’t necessarily change anything fundamentally. I probably won’t be forgiven. I probably won’t forget about what I did. What I can say though, is that I feel better about myself for confronting it. The alternative was to keep holding on to the suffering, letting it weigh me down, convincing myself that I deserve to feel this way forever. That’s not how I want to live. Instead, I made myself vulnerable and tried to humble myself and copped to something I had done wrong (by the way, the irony of writing about humility in a blog post on the internet is not lost on me, I promise!)

This is an ongoing process that I don’t think will ever end. In fact, I don’t think it’s something which can be completed, but that’s OK. The purpose of the exercise isn’t to eradicate pain and suffering altogether. That would be impossible. Instead, it is to teach myself to be aware of and recognise pain, suffering and negativity in my everyday life, so I can start to do something about it in my way.

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