“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
A few weeks ago I met my Japanese friend Kaz for dinner at a Thai restaurant in Saigon. He’s a console game developer and fellow world traveler, and we always get into great conversations about life, love, travel, politics and other topics. The time passes really quickly every time we meet up. (Here and in general, when I write about a real person in my life in this blog, I change the name and all identifying details.)
At the end of the evening, we did what a lot of single, early 21st century city dwellers do – we took out our phones and called Ubers. I remember being pained that mine was an estimated 11 minutes away (which actually means 15-20 minutes of waiting because, at least here in Saigon, Uber’s dreamy time estimates seem to be based on a fantasy world in which the streets are empty except for you and your driver). The restaurant was in the heart of central Saigon where Ubers are normally everywhere and waiting times of just 3-4 minutes are typical.
On the Uber app’s map my car was just a few centimeters away but in my mind it seemed like a chasm. Blink, blink, blink went the car icon. Pulse, Pulse, Pulse went the blue dot (me). Every time I checked the app, there seemed to be no progress. My impatience increased with each glance, and I thought about canceling the Uber and getting a taxi.
At some point though I noticed that something really curious had happened. Why had an enjoyable dinner with a good friend suddenly changed into an impatient wait? I was in the same place and with the same good company! Why had the Uber’s slow progress changed a great pleasure into a painful wait? And, more generally, is there a way to chill out when life moves more slowly than we like?
More than 2,500 years ago a wealthy prince in what is now Nepal named Siddhārtha Gautama ventured beyond the sheltered world of his opulent palace and was struck by the suffering he saw everywhere – poverty, disease, death etc. Determined to understand why humans suffer and how it might be alleviated, he left his aristocratic life for good, and spent the rest of his days in spiritual exploration and teaching. After a period of 49 days meditating he came to an understanding of why we suffer and achieved enlightenment (which in the Buddhist context means a liberation from suffering, not a more general omniscience).
The foundational tenets of Buddhism are known as The Four Noble Truths, and focus on the critical role of our own constant desires in making us suffer:
1) Life is full of constant dukkha (commonly translated as suffering, but recently many scholars say that unsatisfactoriness is more accurate).
2) Life’s suffering or unsatisfactoriness is caused by tanha (craving or desire).
3) It stops when we stop the craving.
4) In order to reduce the craving, follow the Eightfold Path (graphic below), which can be summarized as appropriate thinking, behavior and mindfulness.
The idea that we suffer because we constantly want things (including both more good things and fewer bad ones), and that our suffering will be alleviated if we can tame these excessive desires strikes me as profoundly true and perhaps even more relevant now than it was 25 centuries ago (as the modern world is more affluent and full of vastly more things to want, many of which are not good for us).
It’s interesting that the 10 Commandments, the core edicts of Christianity, also touch on the problem of desire, though in a much more tangential way, in the final two – thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house (#9) and thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife (#10). In modern global society, with its endless stream of things to want pulsing from our screens or shining alluringly from the Bladerunner like advertising covering much of modern cities, these prohibitions seem a bit quaint. We best not be coveting the neighbor’s Tesla or his flat stomach either. The Buddha’s central insight was that the main cause of human suffering is excessive desire of all sorts: for possessions, for lovers, for things to be different than they are etc.
Back to my enjoyable dinner with Kaz and impatient wait for an Uber, I think that one of the major themes running through many of the posts in this blog is the incredible power of awareness – when something is not going well in our life or just inside our own minds at that moment, to pause and look at what’s going on. So when I caught myself getting impatient and a bit annoyed at the Uber app, I stopped and examined the feeling. What’s going on here? Is there a smarter way to think about this? And a smarter way to act?
The first thing that occurred to me was to wonder why I was suddenly pained in the first place. That night and in general I thoroughly enjoy spending time with Kaz, and it seemed odd that the Uber app’s 11 minute estimate would suddenly turn enjoyment into irritation. This introspection was proceeding in parallel with an internal debate about whether to cancel the Uber and get a taxi. Finally, with my finger poised above the cancel icon in the app, I saw a way out of the quagmire my mind had led itself into. I should just look at the time before my car arrived as more time to hang out with my friend. We’d enjoyed the two hours or so we’d spent so far and on other get togethers. Why not see the wait as just an opportunity to prolong the evening? Kaz of course had his own Uber to wait for.
Truth be told, this was a simple solution to an easy type of waiting (just prolong a fun evening), but of course waiting is sometimes a lot harder than this and I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with patience from time to time. Is there a better way to deal with the pain of waiting more generally, even when it’s a lot more trying than my Uber example? A way to suffer less when the natural speed of life’s slower moments takes more of our time than we want to give?
If we think about it, impatience is just another type of desire. We constantly want things and we generally want them now, not later. When we want something to happen faster than it does (the arrival of our ride, reaching the front of a line, our partner’s call or any of the other endless things in life we can’t control) we’re not just getting caught up in desire; it’s a desire of a particularly useless kind. There’s of course absolutely nothing we can do to get that Uber to arrive more quickly, the long line to disappear or the phone to ring.
When we’re impatient for the less exciting parts of life to zip along faster than they naturally do, there’s the minor inconvenience of the wait and the additional layers of suffering our minds heap on top of that. Self-reinforcing waves of thought and feeling bounce around our heads, and each new round of rumination heightens the sense of suffering. 11 minutes? Fuck! By the time it actually gets here in 15-20 I’d be better off just walking home, I moaned internally as I stared at the slow progress of the car on the Uber app’s map. The thought of canceling the Uber and hailing a cab on the street brought its own worries – here in Saigon taxis sometimes cheat foreigners by going in a roundabout way and I avoid them as much as I can. These recursive waves of unhelpful thoughts and feelings of course significantly amplified what was, truth be told, a really trivial inconvenience.
When we get annoyed in these situations, our mind has created a problem where one didn’t actually exist. On top of the requirement that we wait for something to happen, it’s added on completely unnecessary suffering. When I read Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running about eight years ago, well before I began meditation and more generally started to cultivate this type of awareness, I loved the book but didn’t really understand one of its most famous lines: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Pain? Suffering? What’s the difference?, I wondered.
Now though this is an obvious and profoundly useful perspective. In the book, the immediate context is Murakami’s long experience as a marathon runner but of course it’s an obvious step to apply this insight to all aspects of our lives. Running marathons (and life) is going to be painful sometimes, and there’s absolutely no way around that. But the real suffering is created by our own minds. Pain is an objective internal or external reality (a headache at the end of a long day at work, a long line at the grocery store etc.). But suffering comes entirely from the way we think about those circumstances.
More generally I think the pain of waiting comes from the particular focus of our minds – just as a marathon runner who suffers more rather than less is focused on the pain in her body, when we’re impatient our minds are fixated on the wait (another type of pain), on our desire for it to end, on how much time until we get what we want. At our worst, these waves of rumination and self pity continue until the wait ends, which piles on lots of unnecessary suffering. After the Thai dinner, by inviting my mind to turn back to the pleasant evening with my friend, I gave it something much more helpful to focus on. And, of course, the time passed much more quickly and pleasurably.
For any frequent traveler, I think airport security lines are a much more difficult example of waiting that is both really common and can also involve a lot more suffering than necessary. Beyond the sometimes long lines themselves, there’s the cold anonymity of airports and the large crowds of people who are often not in their best state of mind or on their best behavior. Traveling is a blast but airports can be a real pain.
Here too though the waiting and other unpleasant aspects of the airport experience are unavoidable but our suffering is great increased when our mind fixates on them and broods unhelpfully. Why is this line moving so slowly? Why don’t they open more x-ray machines? How rude these people are! Why are they singling me out for hand inspection?
These and other airport lines (for checkin, immigration etc.) used to be the type of waiting where I suffered the most, but over the last couple years I’ve come to some realizations that have made airports, and waiting more generally, much less unpleasant. It’s absolutely no accident that these insights have come during a period in my life in which I’ve deepened my meditation practice and habit of self-awareness and have reaped increasing benefits from those.
This seems so obvious now but after I examined the unpleasant feelings while waiting in airports (or a convenience store line or any unpleasant wait), I realized that all the suffering was created by my own mind. It was excessively fixated on the waiting and on each of the individual points of pain that arise during that (how slow the line moves, rude fellow passengers or staff etc.).
Since having this insight about the way my own mind made me suffer in airports, I’ve made some concrete changes. To start, I simply cast aside all expectations that there will be no waiting and give my mind some more pleasant things to do during that time. From the Uber ride to the airport to my seat on the plane, I typically have a relaxing playlist playing in my earbuds. Jazz saxophone is one of many genres I like and I’ve included my favorite Spotify playlist for travel days at the end of this post. Listening to music alone has dramatically improved the experience of Uber rides, airport lines and endless other times when life moves slower than I want it to. At best, with a great Sonny Rollins or Grover Washington track playing, the time doesn’t feel like waiting anymore. It becomes music appreciation. In other words, I’ve shifted the focus of my mind from the wait to the great jazz (and also how awesome it is that Spotify makes pretty much any song ever created available at any time).
Beyond music, I’ve made myself much more open to getting into conversations with fellow travelers during slow moments at the airport – lines of course, but also airport lounges and public waiting areas. As a frequent solo traveler, meeting fellow travelers has always been one of the great pleasures of travel, but I used to be much less open to this in airports because of the unpleasantness I associated with the whole experience. I was waiting for the fun part of travel to start, but now I have a much greater appreciation for the critical role of our own minds in making something fun or boring. After I simply accepted waiting in airports as a normal part of the experience, and got in the habit of focusing my mind on something more helpful and pleasant, I’ve become much more open to engaging with other travelers in airports. And this is of course another habit that makes the time pass more quickly and feel much more pleasant.
Spending more time on our phones is the last thing I recommend in this blog but periods of waiting can be a great time to reply to texts from friends or family. In the end it doesn’t matter so much what we do with our minds at these times as long as it’s pleasant and helpful. If you’re single and unattached like me, discreetly checking out attractive strangers is another great option. It was the unhelpful focus of our minds that created the feelings of impatience and irritation so any more helpful focus can help. Naturally, our minds will sometimes wander back to the pain of waiting, and when this happens we can gently bring them back to the more pleasurable object of attention.
With a change in our outlook and a more helpful focus for our minds, what we usually think of as waiting can become a pleasant manner of simply being alive.