“Life is suffering”, as the Buddha said.
Waking up on a cold, dark winter morning and slogging your way to work, you might sympathise.
So, why persevere in the face of such hardship? Even when it can all seem a bit well…pointless…
In this article, we’ll wrestle with this slippery question.
What is suffering and why keep going?
What is suffering?
Officially, suffering can be defined as,
“The state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship”
In my mind, a large part of suffering is the gap between your expectations and your current perception of reality.
By this, I mean that although particular life challenges are potential triggers, external circumstances matter less than your internal landscape, with suffering arising in seemingly benign or positive conditions.
Confused? Keep reading…
Everyone suffers. We all encounter it sooner or later.
It seems to be a design feature of life, neither discriminating nor respecting privilege or position.
Take the depressed millionaire.
They might have imagined that their life would be complete upon achieving success (expectations) and having finally “made it”, they discover they still have to deal with their pesky thoughts and emotions (reality).
In this way, wealth is a poor predictor of the suffering someone experiences.
Some may assume that suffering is solely the result of external events and vicissitudes of life, but this simply isn’t true.
Accidents, trauma and bereavement are likely to cause short term pain but aren’t indicative of long term suffering, whereas money and success may be poor predictors of long-term contentment.
Types of pain
There are infinite shades of suffering, everyone experiencing a different colour through their unique world lens:
Perhaps the most common on the lower end of the scale is discomfort.
We’re constantly buffeted by this sensation.
Every time we inch beyond our comfort zone, it’s there, lurking like an evil goblin.
Flirting around its edges, most people turn back to the warm safety of the familiar, unwilling or unable to push into the pain.
This type of suffering is usually short-lived, although our brains argue otherwise at the moment of action.
Pushing yourself on the treadmill? You can simply decide to switch off the discomfort whenever you wish and retreat to the comfort of a nice hot shower.
Many of us suffer from health issues, whether that’s short term pain, as in the exercise example above, or chronic health conditions.
Real pain is one of the hardest examples of suffering to accommodate.
Try having a philosophical debate with someone who’s slipped a disc, and they’ll likely tell you where to go.
Can real pain be said to be more legitimate than other forms of suffering? Perhaps.
In the definition above, I said a large part of suffering was the gap between expectations and reality, while physical pain really does hurt. A lot!
However, there’s also an expectation element.
We expect not to have to suffer, but that pesky pain just keeps on coming.
We expend significant mental energy wishing our tooth didn’t hurt, adding mental anguish to our considerable physical symptoms.
Although physical pain deterrents are essential for survival, on the sliding scale of pain, there’s much more slack in the system than we think.
Just take walking on hot coals. In the throes of religious or spiritual ecstasy, pain tolerance increases significantly.
When there’s purpose behind the pain, it seems like otherwise debilitating physical symptoms can be endured.
Loss e.g. bereavement
Our expectation was that we wouldn’t lose that thing or person, and then reality punches us in the face, reminding us that the universe is unpredictable and impermanent.
A large part of the Buddhist doctrine focuses on attachment and its association with suffering.
This is often addiction to the pursuit of pleasure, but frequently, we become attached to the important people in our lives.
We imagine them as indestructible and unchanging, unanswerable to the laws that govern others.
And when they’re gone, we not only feel the loss of their absence, but have to question our fundamental perception of reality.
Like a rug pulled from under us, if the person or relationship we were attached so securely to is now gone, what else in the world can we possibly trust?
Mental suffering is the canvas on which every other form of suffering is painted, and comes in many shades.
Let’s take anxiety as an example…
When we’re anxious we fret about a future with hasn’t happened.
As we attempt to plan out intricate futures, we constantly try to close the gap between our expectations and reality.
Although like an optical illusion, the gap remains, no matter how fast we run.
Why must we suffer?
Suffering seems like a survival mechanism, baked into the human condition to make us avoid not nice things that kill us.
Often pain, whether physical or psychological, alerts us to issues and encourages us to seek a remedy.
Physical discomfort is a prime example.
There are some people who don’t feel pain due to a condition called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain and Anhydrosis (CIPA).
You’d think that this was a superpower, but alas no.
These people have a terrible time, because they constantly injure themselves, sometimes seriously, without ever noticing.
Low-level discomfort, however, differs somewhat, our suffering alert system operating on caveman technology rather than 21st-century software.
Evolutionarily, most forms of suffering would have been legitimate causes for concern.
If you were cold, wet and hungry on the Savannah, such signs would provide the motivation to seek shelter and warmth or run the risk of shuffling off the mortal coil.
Now, when we’re cold, wet and hungry, much of the developed world is only a few steps away from central heating and an stocked fridge.
Rather than the life and death situation of millennia before, a genuine survival threat no longer remains.
But our mental operating system hasn’t evolved in sync with our environment.
And as a hangover, our mind is hypersensitised, repeatedly pinging threat signals to an overactive imagination, with suffering produced as a by-product.
In modern life, much of the low-level discomfort and suffering we experience is a throwback to yesteryear, able to be safely observed and de-escalated with no further thinking or action required.
However, this is a mental skill few of us wield effectively (until now!)
How to cope with suffering
If you’re suffering now, either from physical pain or mental anguish, you likely want some helpful strategies. So, here you go…
Suffering physical or psychological pain? Getting the basics in order is fundamental to making progress. I won’t go into great detail, but imagine the essential elements of a healthy life: eating well, sleeping enough, spending time with loved ones, routines etc. While these methods won’t solve all forms of suffering, by not doing them, you’re almost guaranteeing that suffering will persist.
Many people want to escape suffering as soon as they encounter it. But running away isn’t the answer. Avoiding psychological issues or physical pain only strengthens our alarm system, as the mind and body try to alert us to a potential problem. As a physiotherapist, I experienced this often. Patients would ignore their physical symptoms for months and even years, before their condition deteriorated to the extent that they could barely move. Therefore, it’s essential to address the suffering early.
Learning to meditate is the essential first step in approaching suffering with an open, impartial attitude. Becoming aware of our mind, we realise the suffering might not be so bad. Our normal reaction to escape from it is often an overreaction. Once we explore our natural aversion to these feelings, we diminish their power. Meditation allows us to observe thoughts/emotions and in many cases, befriend them.
Having established a habit of self-awareness, we can begin to tell ourselves more empowering stories about our suffering. If the suffering is temporary, such as with exercise, this can be especially useful. Harnessing the power of thought by telling yourself that you’re the type of person who invests in their health today for a better tomorrow can help your endure short-lived discomfort for long-term reward.
With practice, I believe that it’s not only possible to reduce the impact of suffering, but even train ourselves to love it. By treating such emotions as signs of growth, we know we’re making positive progress. For example, I’m currently struggling with motivation while writing this article after a long day, but I use the discomfort as fuel for the fire, aware that I’m training a muscle by doing hard things I don’t feel like doing.
Everyone intermittently feels like quitting in the face of suffering.
While this is a normal reaction, know that there’s another way.
While it’s not easy, I’m of the belief that we can train ourselves to enjoy life’s challenges.
When we practice shifting our perspective, we can grow our spiritual wealth, re-imagining our internal landscape and relationship with suffering.
In this way, we can enjoy more time liberated on the mountaintops of the mind.