The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

June 13, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Life Is Suffering…and Joy, Serendipity and Adversity

Life is suffering, Siddhartha Gautama famously said.*  While I worship nothing and no one, I am a great admirer of Mr. Gautama.  First, he claimed to be nothing but a man—a man awakened to life, but just a man nonetheless.  As such, Buddhism emphasizes the buddha nature in all of us.  Second, Mr. Gautama was focused on this life and maximizing awareness and minimizing dissatisfaction in it.  And Mr. Gautama cautioned his fellow-travelers not to take his, or anyone else’s, teachings as received truth but to test their efficacy through experience.  This last injunction is particularly dear to my naturally skeptical mind, and with it, I dispatch all the mystical aspects of Buddhism and focus on the pragmatic.

By its very nature, life is fragile and impermanent, and as living, feeling beings, we find this ineluctable fact of life painful.  Because of our advanced cognition, our suffering is enhanced.  Not only will we and our loved ones become sick, grow old and die, we anticipate this happening and suffer in the anticipation as well.  The uncertainty and loss life entails can be so overwhelming that we want salvation from it, and religious belief certainly can be a personal salve. 

But there is great peace to be had in confronting directly and accepting the inevitable.  Facing life head on for what it is, rather than what we wish it to be, can provide a profound, unmediated experience of life.  It can awaken one to the experience of aliveness itself.  A state probably more similar to that of other animals, but enhanced by our psychological facility to know so much.  Life does inevitably entail suffering, but being alive, especially with our knowing sentience, can be a tremendous joy.

This is not an exhortation to a “get it while you can” hedonism in the face of mortality.  Such excess seems a projection of an intense fear of the inevitable, not a coming to peace with it.  When one experiences aliveness fully, there is such satisfaction in being itself—breathing, eating, moving, sensing—indulgence is a hindrance.

Neither is this an endorsement of navel gazing self-involvement.  A rare few will have the skills and circumstance to persist in a personal state of vivid awareness much of the time.  But even touching that state can inform how one lives in the daily world of stress and wanting, disappointment and satisfaction.  Touching the live wire of existence leads to a greater respect for life itself, in all its forms.  Respecting life deeply calls one to help ameliorate the suffering living must bring and to act so that more people more of the time can more fully enjoy their lives.

Commitment to a faith tradition is not necessarily a barrier to a rich awareness of existence.  Not at all.  At their best, faith traditions foster such awareness.  But some faith traditions foster the opposite—selfishness and self-righteousness, suspicion of the other, a longing for the imagined paradise of the next life which eclipses the immediacy of this actual life.

Some accuse Buddhism of nihilism.  Although I do not consider myself a Buddhist, I have learned a great deal from Buddhism and believe that Buddhism properly understood and practiced is quite the opposite of nihilistic.  Indeed, the Buddha as imagined is literally the picture of contentment, of having truly accepted and embraced the vital struggle.

Life is suffering, but living is a glorious, profound privilege, and we can do so much to improve our own condition and the conditions of those around us.


*Some posit that the Sanskrit word most often translated into English as “suffering” can more properly be understood as “dissatisfaction.”  PBS recently produced a great 2-hour primer on The Buddha, by David Grubin.  The film itself does not appear to be available for viewing on the internet, but information about it and copies are available at

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson



  1. Excellent post.

    I think that most people will never have the opportunity to see your point of view because they lack a certain reflective capability. Like you said, “A rare few will have the skills and circumstance to persist in a personal state of vivid awareness much of the time.” – Very few people I know spend any significant amount of time quantizing their existence, happiness or lack thereof.

    Personally, I enjoy striving to see my world through the clearest possible lens I can manufacture.

    Comment by modulus1578 — June 14, 2010 @ 9:03 am | Reply

    • I love your statement, “I enjoy striving to see my world through the clearest possible lens I can manufacture.” That captures so much.

      Comment by SAJohnson — June 14, 2010 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  2. I came to this thread from 13.7
    Love the intent, and content.
    I tell my children every day, when the subject of death comes up (they have ageing grandparents, friends parents with cancer, etc, normal for the population here) to ask them selves the following :
    Do you remember anything before you were born?
    If the answer is “no”, then you had better get on doing and experiencing everything you can possibly imagine just incase the same thing is true about death.
    The world and living is the experience of a LIFETIME, so get out there and make the most of it!

    Comment by Peter — June 14, 2010 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Peter. That is a very good suggestion for what to tell children. And thank you for your work on carbon trading. How heartening to know such efforts are out there.

      Comment by SAJohnson — June 15, 2010 @ 7:28 am | Reply

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