There isn’t a religious tradition or philosophy out there, modern or ancient, that hasn’t attempted to tackle the problem of suffering. In fact, why people should experience pain and suffer at all is a fact of life that humankind has been wrestling with since… well, probably since the very first moment we suffered!
While some have attempted to explain why it happens, others have focused on dissecting it as a phenomenon, trying to either reduce it, or investigate whether pain can, to some degree, be put to good use. Some have even suggested that our resistance and wrestling with the concept of pain and adversity is itself causing us to suffer. The Buddhists tell a story that goes like this:
Long ago, there was a farmer who had problems. He was advised to go and see the Buddha, who was wise and would help him sort his life out. The Buddha asked him why he had come.
“I’m a farmer,” he said. “I love farming, but the problem is that sometimes there’s no rain, and we really struggle those years. Of course, sometimes we have the other problem, and there’s too much rain and the floods destroy everything.” But the man didn’t stop there.
“I also have a wife, Buddha. I love her, truly, but sometimes we don’t get on. To be honest, occasionally, she gets on my nerves. And my kids! They’re lovely kids. They’re great. Sometimes, though, they misbehave like you wouldn’t believe...”
The farmer went on and on like this. His in-laws were bothering him, he had money worries, he’d often tossed and turned in bed at night wondering about the meaning of life, and his left knee hurt. The Buddha listened patiently, smiled, and simply said, “I can’t help you.”
The farmer was astonished.
The Buddha continued, “Every person has 83 problems, every one of us. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe you can do this or that to fix them, but once one problem is gone, another one springs up in its place. More problems are coming – for example, you will lose your family and loved ones one day, and you yourself will die. That’s a problem you certainly can’t do anything about.”
The farmer, probably beginning to regret his visit, couldn’t help but ask angrily, “Well, I thought you could help! What’s the point of everything you teach if you can’t solve my problems?”
“Well, I can maybe help you with your eighty-fourth problem,” he said.
“Eighty-fourth problem? Well, what’s that?”
“It’s that you want to not have any problems.”
This attitude underlies the general Buddhist perspective, which is that pain is inevitable, and it is our clinging to or resistance to that experience that causes us problems. In other words, if we practice non-attachment and stop fighting with reality, we can learn to live peacefully in a world that will always contain problems.
The ancient historical Buddha would have likely found our current day obsession with happiness and success and ease quite amusing. All of Buddha’s four “noble truths” are in some way about suffering, not blissful, perfect happiness that frees us from the troubles of the world forever.
If you’re a person living in the modern industrialized world, though, you probably view suffering quite differently from the Buddhists of thousands of years ago. You might not even believe that you do suffer – isn’t suffering something that poor starving children in Africa do? You might look at your own boredom or malaise or low self-esteem as a mere mental health problem rather than call it something as dramatic as “suffering.” But that’s exactly how the Buddhists would characterize it.
They would call countless everyday experiences suffering: loving someone a little more than they love you, feeling uncertain about your job, getting old, looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, feeling disappointed that you didn’t achieve more with your life, or quietly wondering what the point of it all is… all of this is suffering. When you're stressed out, frustrated, worried, depressed, annoyed, overwhelmed, resentful, or fearful… then you’re suffering.
Call it anguish, stress, unhappiness, dissatisfaction – all of this happens because we are grasping hold of something that is by nature impermanent.
Importantly, in this worldview, suffering is everywhere and unavoidable. Since life is always changing, we will one day have to face losing what we have now. In other words, it’s not possible not to suffer – illness, death, confusion, relationship breakups, and conflict are all a non-negotiable part of life. The Buddhists would say that the way forward is not to fight this fact but to work with it. The idea, then, is not that we vanquish suffering or run away from it, but rather that we find deeper meaning and understanding in the inevitable experience.
What is suffering? Some people would say that it is the tendency to wish that things weren’t the way they are, i.e. to be like the farmer whose main problem is that he thinks he should have no problems. We can see this perspective on suffering in many different philosophies and worldviews, not just Buddhism.
Imagine you are in love with someone and announce your feelings only to have them tell you they don’t see you that way. It feels awful. But why? Some would say that the awful feelings stem from our faulty interpretation, not from the experience itself. Maybe we have a deep, unexamined belief that we don’t deserve to feel bad. That we are required in life to get what we want. More specifically, perhaps we’ve told ourselves that this person loving us back is a condition for our own happiness.
But is it? Is there anything in objective reality, however you define it, that suggests that your awful feelings are somehow a mistake?
We arrive again at what some would say is the root cause of suffering – our attitude. We experience reality (that is, we experience that it changes, is impermanent, and occasionally hurts) and we try to deny it. For example, we stubbornly do whatever we can to prevent ageing, and deny that we are getting older. When we lose something, or someone dies, we rail against the fact and fight it, believing it is an injustice. When luck doesn’t favor us, we call it “unfair.” It’s all just many different ways of saying, “the way things are isn’t right. They should be some other way.”
Right now, try to think of all the things you believe are missing from your life: money, a relationship, a good career, and so on. Now, imagine a person who has this thing you want. Look at them and ask yourself honestly, is their life genuinely any better than yours? Are they spared any suffering that you aren’t? Are they completely immune from disappointment and bad days and feeling ungrateful? Truth is, even though they have the thing you want, they too will have to say goodbye to it at some point.
To summarize this perspective on suffering, we can put it this way: pain is inevitable, suffering is not.
What’s the difference between pain and suffering? Aren’t they the same thing?
Imagine you are stung by a bee. It’s completely unexpected, and the pain quickly fills your body, bringing tears to your eyes. In a flash, you’re angry – stupid bee! What’s the point of a bee stinging you like that, for no reason? And then it dies anyway? You start shouting and yelling, cursing your luck, and wondering what you did to deserve such a random bit of agony to come your way. You’re in a bad mood the rest of the day, even snapping at someone who asks if it’s still hurting.
Let’s pick it apart. The bee sting? That was just life. Bees exist, humans exist, and occasionally a bee will sting someone. Today that someone was you. You’re a flesh-and-blood body that can get damaged, so when a bee stings you, it hurts like hell. So far, so good. We are looking at what the Buddhists would call reality. Life is impermanent, things change, and sometimes it hurts. We are in the realm of pain. In fact, your body cannot help but automatically respond to pain – tears in your eyes, redness and swelling on the skin.
But that’s not all there is in the story. There is also the big, complicated story you tell about the pain – it’s unfair, stupid, why did it have to happen, etc. The anger you feel is not a direct result of the bee’s stinger entering our flesh. You are the source of that anger, or more accurately, the stories you tell about that bee sting cause the anger. Long after the pain has faded, you’re still in a bad mood. You snap at someone. You are now well in the realms of suffering.
If you are alive, you will experience pain. This is inevitable. No escape.
But we do have a choice about how much we suffer.
The facts of life are what they are, but our experience is heavily determined by how we respond to and interpret those facts. So, we can see that there are two ways to understand and deal with the fact that bad things happen to us:
1. Try to eradicate pain itself
2. Try to change our perception of that pain
The Buddhists would say that number 1 creates more suffering since eradicating pain is a metaphysical impossibility. You’ll exhaust yourself just as surely as you would trying to argue away mountains or the sea. They exist, whether we like it or not. Number 2 doesn’t remove the pain, but it does remove the source of the suffering – us.
We’ll see some version of this big idea in several different forms throughout this book. The early Buddhists understood something powerful: that as much as we don’t like it, there really isn’t anything we can do about the pain in life. That leaves us to control what we can – our relationship to it, our perception of it, as well as our behavior and belief.
Ideas like, “the world is unfair and has victimized me” or “I don’t deserve this” actually have no basis in reality. They come from within us. These beliefs lead to depression and anxiety and a world of problems – not the pain itself.
Of course, proponents of this worldview would say that just because pain is inevitable, it doesn’t mean we are doomed to sit down and take whatever life throws at us. We can take action, solve problems, set goals for ourselves and achieve them. However, you might notice that none of this constructive action requires us to suffer. In other words, suffering doesn’t actually help.
Pain is just pain. It comes, it goes.
But pain plus our resistance equals suffering. And this can go on forever if we want it to!
Buddhists and psychologists alike talk about the power of “sitting with” an emotion rather than going to war with it, trying to run away from it, or clinging to it in the fear it will disappear (hint: it will!). Though it might seem like a defeatist attitude on the surface, accepting and acknowledging pain actually means you’re able to let it pass (hint: it also will!). The burn of the bee sting will fade, your hurt and surprise will dissipate, and the pain of unrequited love will diminish in time.
This particular take on suffering is not the only perspective, though. In the much-loved book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes convincingly about his understanding of suffering and how we can make sense of it. And he should know – being a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps, he lived while his parents, brother and pregnant wife were all killed.
Pain is one thing, but Frankl describes something most of us can truly not conceive of. He had everything stripped from him. In fact, this was what inspired him to write so passionately about what they couldn’t take away – his dignity. His ability to choose his response to events that he did not choose. His conscious will and the decisions he would make about what his experience meant to him.
He says it succinctly: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As a matter of urgency, Frankl discovered his own psycho-spiritual authority, his own strength, and his own power. We’ll look at Frankl’s perceptive in more detail in a later chapter. For now, basically, his life was evidence that growth and evolution were possible, even despite an unspeakable of adversity, distress and deprivation.
So, he talks about it in terms of stimulus and response. The pain is a stimulus, but what will our response be?
Pain is a purely physiological response. Your body has evolved sophisticated mechanisms to keep it safe, and that typically involves an involuntary neurochemical response. But, Frankl talks about that “little space” beyond what is automatic. When we are aware, we can decide what we will do next. We choose whether that pain completely destroys us, or whether it catalyzes a deeper transformation in us. We decide whether we’re going to grab hold of annoyance or outrage or disappointment, or whether we’re going to move on and focus our attention elsewhere. We can decide to blame or forgive. We can decide what stories we want to tell about what has happened to us, and why.
What Frankl brought to the discussion of suffering was the question of recovery. We can endure, tolerate and accommodate adversity. But what if we could also grow from it, and be stronger and better than before? What if crisis and pain were an opportunity to learn?
Those inspired by Frankl’s writings took a very empowering and dignified approach to the fact of pain. They looked at things like anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, hopelessness, loneliness and existential suffering, and saw that much of it came down to the meaning we ascribed to experiences. Our beliefs, our mindset, our personal myths and narratives – all of these things allow one person to see a catastrophe as a new beginning, and another as a complete failure.
So, rather than asking what suffering is, we can also ask where it is. The Nazi captors who imprisoned and tortured people in concentration camps undoubtedly inflicted incredible pain on those people. But in truth, the prisoners themselves took that pain and did very many different things with it. Some collapsed and gave up hope. Some were defiant. Some deliberately chose to believe in the goodness of human beings, forcefully asserting their will to something greater, despite the atrocities around them.
So, is the suffering out there or in here, within us?
If we are depressed, what portion of our experience comes from events outside of our control, and what portion is explained by our expectations, interpretations, self-talk, narratives, beliefs and biases?
Today, cognitive behavioral therapists will say the process goes a little something like this:
• We experience pain (for example: we fail an important exam)
• In that brief moment afterwards, we begin to have negative thoughts or entertain beliefs and assumptions about this pain we experienced (maybe we think, “I’m an idiot” or we start to blame ourselves for not studying harder).
• These thoughts then lead to feelings (like shame, anxiety and self-doubt). They may also, at the same time, lead to physiological changes in our bodies (higher cortisol levels, muscle stiffness).
• These feelings and sensations then feed on themselves and spiral out of control (you feel bad about feeling bad, and so on and so on).
• In time, these thoughts and feelings may even start to manifest as behaviors and actions that further deepen your suffering (you give up studying and don’t bother on the next exam, either).
The thinking goes, however, that if we are aware of the above process and can consciously step in to change it, we can go a long way to reducing suffering – basically, anything that happens after the second bullet point!
In this way, this perspective is similar to the Buddhist approach in that suffering is not dealt with directly but indirectly. We reduce the problem of suffering by addressing how we respond to inevitable pain. We are not in charge of the pain, but we are in charge of how we deal with it. This book considers countless different approaches, tactics, and techniques for making suffering work for us. But you’ll notice that, even though they come from vastly different theoretical underpinnings, they each acknowledge that we are never really able to remove pain from life completely. In fact, trying to do so will likely win us more suffering, not less!
We might find this basic premise echoed in many different philosophies and ideas around suffering, including the now increasingly popular ancient school of the Stoics. Thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca have offered their version of a healthy, constructive approach to the inevitability of pain in life. Their view can be nicely encapsulated in the famous “serenity prayer” which says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I cannot accept and the wisdom to know the difference.”
They, too, understood that the good life is one that is lived with a healthy and realistic attitude towards external limitations that we have no control over. While they acknowledge that there is also scope for action, and we can always take personal responsibility for our lives, we need to understand what we can influence and what we must simply learn to live with, accept or embrace. As with the other theories we’ve considered here, life is improved not because suffering and pain are eradicated but because we become better at understanding, accepting and overcoming it.
• There are countless theoretical approaches to understanding the universal problem of suffering. We start with the Buddhist conception, which sees pain as an inevitable and natural part of life, which is transient and always changing. Therefore if we attach to what is impermeant, we will suffer when it changes.
• The parable of the farmer and the Buddha shows that our biggest problem is that we believe we should have no problems.
• In these views, suffering occurs because, paradoxically, we think we should not be suffering!
• Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. Suffering is pain plus our grasping, resistance, attachment or identification. Thus we can greatly reduce our suffering by changing how we deal with pain.
• The serenity prayer teaches us that we need the wisdom to discern between what is in our power to control (our mental reaction to pain) and what isn’t (the pain itself).
• According to Viktor Frankl, in the brief moment after pain, we have a gap where we can pause and decide what response we would like to have. We may evolve mechanisms to respond automatically, but we also have the power to choose our response if we are conscious.
• Cognitive behavioral psychologists recognize a similar principle, and explain how our minds can trap us in suffering. We experience pain and then immediately create a thought about it. This thought creates our feelings and a physiological reaction, for example, stress and tension in the body. In time, these feelings spiral out of control and manifest as behaviors that reinforce our original thoughts.