A Commonsense Approach to the Problem of Suffering

Pain and Suffering

by Jayaram V

The Buddha said that the world is full of suffering. All the spiritual and religious traditions that originated from India recognize suffering as the central problem of life upon earth. They all try to resolve human suffering in their own ways, with or without divine help. In them you will find various speculations on whether and how suffering can be resolved, mitigated or endued.

Broadly speaking, their central theme is the same, that the most effective solution to suffering lies within you by knowing how you respond to it and remain undisturbed by it. In other words, if life becomes tough, you have to become even tougher. You may fight with the external forces that trouble you and suppress them like a true warrior. However, it is much better if at the same time you also suppress the factors in you which produce suffering, whereby you will increase your chances of remaining peaceful and undisturbed. The purpose of this discussion is not to go into those philosophies and approaches, but to present a few commonsense observations about suffering and how it can be resolved or mitigated.

What is suffering?

The first step to resolve suffering is to understand what suffering means. For most people suffering means when they have pain or unhappiness. It is the most general and visible forms of suffering. However, suffering is not just pain and sorrow, nor the opposite of happiness and pleasure. If you think it is, your solution to suffering will be limited and ineffective. You have to view suffering in a broader perspective as anything that disturbs you or your peace of mind.

The extreme definition of suffering views suffering as ubiquitous and the most distinguishing characteristic of mortal life. It encompasses all types of suffering and equates living with suffering. Everything that you experience in life is a source of suffering or the consequence of suffering, be it an emotion, desire, feeling, thought, relationship, gain, loss, aging, sickness, birth or death. From this perspective, even happiness is a source of suffering because it does not last forever. When it is gone you will feel dejected and lapse into your negative moods.

For the seers and sages, the very fact that beings are caught in the transmigration of souls and the cycle of births and deaths is why mortal life is synonymous with suffering and should be renounced to achieve eternal happiness through liberation. From this perspective, all the modifications in your mind and body should be considered suffering because they arise from suffering and contribute to suffering. Birth is suffering. Death is suffering. What happens in between is also suffering. The world is filled with suffering because it is impermanent and provides neither comfort nor security nor love nor happiness on a lasting basis. Therefore, trying to find permanent happiness in this world is delusional. If you want to escape from suffering, you must find better methods to escape from it forever.

The condition is similar to those who spend their lives inside prisons. They may go through the motions of life, and outwardly they may appear normal, but beneath their bravado and composure, and their struggle to fit in and adjust to the life within the prison system, they cannot avoid feeling sad, lonely, and miserable. Freedom is the most precious thing in life. Many people do not realize it and keep giving it away. In this world you cannot secure happiness, security or comfort without bartering away your freedom. It is the only asset that you have to secure happiness, but your circumstances do not let you use it according to your will. The world rewards you to the extent you bind yourself to things, and to the extent you put chains around yourself to confirm to its standards and expectations. In the process you may win the approval of others, but you have to give away much of your freedom and feel conflicted.

Whether you view all human experience as suffering or only certain aspects of it, the truth is in this world you cannot avoid feeling unhappy, disturbed, unfulfilled, undermined, disrespected, ill-treated, threatened, betrayed, or miserable. You are in conflict with the world, and your mind and body are also part and products of it only. Therefore, even if you escape into a cave you cannot escape from the world and the suffering it produces in you. When you are disturbed, you cannot pay attention, think properly or make right decisions, which creates further suffering.

It is true that you cannot totally escape from suffering. However, you can reduce its incidence by addressing its causes or by cultivating better responses to the situations that produce it. This is the most commonsense and realistic approach. Suffering is caused by numerous factors which are either external or internal. You cannot control every one of them. Therefore, it is better to resolve some and endure some by cultivating inner strength, sameness and equanimity.

Two ways in which suffering arises

If you examine your suffering carefully, you will realize that it mainly arises in two situations.

  1. When you do not get what you want or like.
  2. When you keep getting what do not want or like.

Both situations make you unhappy and disturbed. They arise from your lack of control and due to your involvement with the external world as you try to search for happiness and fulfillment in it. I, both situations, if you want to stay calm and composed, you have to change your thoughts and control your emotional responses. You should be in control when you succeed as well as when you fail. For example, if you do not get what you want, instead of feeling depressed you should see why it happened and learn from your experience to change your methods or your response. If you keep getting what you do not want, again instead of losing hope or feeling frustrated, you should know why it happened and try to change your response.

In both cases, it is you who should make the difference, not the external factors that seem to rule your life. When you have no control over situations and when you cannot avoid them, you should learn to endure them and learn from the experience, without breaking up from inside. They are the commonsense solutions to control what you can and endure what you cannot. If you are prone to anxiety, anger or fear, you must either control your thoughts or change your response. This is the way of the wise ones. They learn to stay calm and cheerful, despite the external triggers that produce them. Whether in success or failure, in gain or loss, they know that it is the way of life and the solution to their suffering is in them rather than outside them. They know that they can choose to deal with a problem with wisdom rather than suffering from it with ignorance.

There is another situation, which is rather complicated. Some people feel chronically depressed and miserable for no apparent reason. They know that they are unhappy, but cannot explain why. For them suffering become a vague and diffused feeling, like a subterranean fire, that rages within them destroying their peace and happiness. In such cases the problem is physical or psychological, which is difficult to resolve since the causes are hidden or not easily known. They may be even rooted in their past lives or in their subconscious minds. Hence, a lot of it can only be endured as part of one’s karmic burden, by cultivating strength and equanimity. If you know anyone who suffers from chronic unhappiness, treat them with respect, compassion, love and consideration. It is the best you can do, as these unfortunate souls are the living incarnations of extreme suffering as if they are chained to it by an accursed fate.

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