Dealing with Unnecessary Suffering
Summary: This essay is about how we create unnecessary suffering by our thinking, behavior and actions which is avoidable, and how we may overcome it.
Suffering is inherent in life. Who does not suffer? Even when you are happy, a part of you may still be suffering subconsciously. The seers of ancient India knew it. It formed the core of many ascetic traditions of the subcontinent, who suggested different solutions and approaches to the problem of suffering. The Buddha echoed the same sentiment when he declared that birth was suffering, aging was suffering, sickness was suffering, death was suffering, feeling sorrow, pain, grief and despair was suffering, association with what you disliked or separation from what you liked was suffering, and in short the whole life was full of suffering.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, believed that all life forms suffered, but humans suffered even more because they were self-aware and endowed with reason and at some point they would realize how meaningless and purposeless the whole existence was. According to him the ability to contemplate the past and anticipate the future made humans subject to new forms of suffering since they could be haunted by the past and have feelings of remorse and regret.
This discussion is not about resolving the existential suffering which the Buddha or Schopenhauer talked about, but about unnecessary suffering, or the suffering which is avoidable, which we unnecessarily create or aggravate with our faults and falings and which we can resolve through careful planning and preparation. The idea of unnecessary suffering is mainly used in the context of animal welfare legislation and in animal care to prevent unnecessary cruelty to them. However, it is not just animals which are subject to unnecessary suffering by humans. We inflict unnecessary suffering upon ourselves and upon others by our actions.
There are essentially three main causes for suffering namely the acts of god or accidental causes (adhi-daivika), external causes or those caused by others (adhibhautika), and internal causes or those caused by oneself (adhyatmika). The last one is again of two types, physical causes and mental causes. We have little control over the first, since chance plays an important role in creating them. We have some control over the second type since we can learn from experience and take preventive measures to deal with them. With regard to the third type, we have greater control over them because we can identify the causes and learn to deal with them. It is where we have an opportunity to reduce unnecessary suffering which arises from our actions and those of others. The following are a few examples of how people may subject themselves to avoidable and needless suffering.
Worrying about things that do not matter
People often become emotionally involved with matters that should not concern them at all. Yet, millions of people become involved with social or political issues, which do not help them at all but cause them unnecessary stress and emotional disturbance. For example, some people in India commit suicide for a political cause or when a popular leader dies. It is unnecessary, yet they do. People spend sleepless nights when their favorite sports team loses a game, or when a movie of their favorite film star fails at the box-office. People also resort to violence and fistfights over petty matters and silly arguments. These are a few awful examples of how people become involved with unnecessary problems, which do not directly affect them and which create avoidable suffering.
Exaggerating our fears
People tend to be excessively pessimistic about the outcome of negative situations. They imagine worst case scenarios, think negatively and expect the worst to happen, rather than thinking through situations and estimating probabilities. It leaves many people constantly worried and anxious about their problems and insecurities. According to many studies people experience acute anxiety when they feel threatened due to exaggerated fears as their perception and thinking become distorted and as the repressed fears and insecurities of their past resurface. We also live in difficult times, where our fears are fueled by attention catching news stories and headlines that inflame public opinion with negative news and worst case scenarios. One cannot totally eliminate fear. However, we can reduce a lot of suffering by being realistic and objective about the threats we face and keeping our emotions under control.
When a problem is not resolved in time it becomes a crisis. Some people are proactive. They anticipate problems and resolve them before they even arise. However, many do not pay attention until a problem become serious and stares in their face. They ignore early warning signs and let problems simmer until they reach the boiling point, be it a health issue, a child’s aggressive behavior, a deteriorating relationship, a pending house repair, a letter or a complaint received from someone or growing debt. They do it because of fear and anxiety, or because they believe that it is too stressful to deal with such problems. Problems cannot be wished away. They do not disappear if you ignore them or delay your response. Pending matters mentally exhaust you as they create vague anxiety and sap your energy. Some problem may disappear with time but many persist and gather intensity. It is better to deal with your problems in time so that when new problems arise you are fresh and ready to deal with them.
Negative thinking makes people lower their expectations and expect bad things to happen. Negative people also more likely experience depression, low self-esteem, fear, anger, aggression, insecurity, and anxiety which may lead to many health issues, besides preventing them from seeing things clearly or thinking rationally. Therefore, pessimistic people are more vulnerable to unnecessary suffering, which can be avoided if they learn to think realistically and carefully analyze and consider all probable outcomes rather than fixating upon the worst. According to some studies, pessimism also lowers the life expectancy of people. Fortunately, pessimism can be overcome by changing our thinking and responses and by becoming actively involved in problem solving and goal oriented actions.
In simple terms, negligence means failure to do what you are supposed to do, or act as responsibly as you should, or failure to honor your duties and responsibilities. In life you have many duties and obligations towards yourself, your family, others and the world in general. Failure to honor them can lead to many problems and suffering not only to you but also to others. It is the same as ignoring your problems. However, negligence may be either intentional or unintentional, which is not the case with the other. Intentional negligence may arise from inertia, lack of interest or motivation, wrong priorities, or unwillingness to take risks or deal with the problems of life. One can minimize such problems through self-discipline, attentive actions, proper checks and balances, committing oneself to one's duties and responsibilities.
Lack of preparation
Failure creates a lot of suffering for most of us. Most of the time we fail because we do not try enough, prepare well or take care of the basics. If you want to succeed in any endeavor, you must prepare well in advance and put your heart and soul in it. There is no better alternative to success than knowing what needs to be done and execute it with complete resolve. To succeed in life, you must prepare yourself for success and be ready to manage it when you reach the goal. You must be willing to work hard, organize your resources and make necessary sacrifices. If you do not do it, you will end up facing failure, disappointment, shame and guilt, which in turn increase your suffering and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. It is true even with regard to simple tasks such as giving a speech or making a presentation or negotiating for a pay rise.
Lack of control and discipline
Self-control is the ability to control your desires and natural urges or delay immediate gratification. It is also the ability to stick to a chosen course of action to achieve desired ends. Using discipline and control to regulate your life does produce some suffering since it requires effort to control your desires, craving and need for gratification. However, their absence is even more problematic and leads to many problems and disappointments in life. When people lack discipline, they fail to reach their goals or desired ends as they become easily distracted or fail to persevere. They may also succumb to selfishness, bad habits and unhealthy behaviors, which lead to unnecessary suffering.
Repeating the same mistakes
Failure is inevitable in many aspects of life. Since we are imperfect, we do not necessarily complete every task in the first attempt. Hence, we must learn from our failures to make progress and avoid being stuck. Suffering is a sign that some aspects of our lives, behavior or actions need improvement. Its essential purpose is to teach us lessons. When we do not learn from our failures and mistakes, we continue to repeat them and continue to suffer. You can avoid a lot of suffering by learning from your past, and not repeating the mistakes which caused you pain and suffering in the first place.
We continue to entertain many irrational beliefs, prejudices and assumptions, which we might have inherited in the past from our parents, teachers, elders, peers and society in general. They lead to rigidity, narrow-mindedness, flawed opinions, self-fulfilling prophecies, selective perception, immature behavior, over generalizations, assumptive thinking, unrealistic responses, maladjustment and defensive behavior, which in turn create a number of problems and unnecessary suffering. It is therefore necessary to subject your beliefs to reality check according to your own experience, reason, knowledge and observation. You should also verify the assumptions that are hidden in your decisions, opinions and conclusions.
Becoming stuck in the past
Your past can be a source of unnecessary suffering if you become stuck in it and refuse to live your present moment. Life is never static. So is the world. They keep moving on, whether you move with them or not. Some people cannot get over their past failures, failed relationships or past pains. They keep repeating the old tapes in their minds and wallow in misery, feeling the same old pain, unresolved conflicts, and negative emotions such as fear or anger, even though the rest of the world moved on, and circumstances have changed. Simply because certain events happened in the past, it does not mean that they will happen again. Wisdom teaches that one should adapt to changing times and move on.
Not letting go
To avoid being stuck in the past, you should let go of it by cultivating an attitude of detachment and understanding. Know that we are all imperfect and we all make mistakes. There is no point in hanging on to your past memories and unnecessarily suffering from it. Whatever you cling to is a potential source of suffering, which includes your past and your memories associated with past events, especially those which are painful. Hence, you can avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering in life by learning to forgive and forget. If you keep accumulating grievances, frustrations, complaints, anger and bitterness, you will be subjecting yourself to a lot of negativity, stress, and unresolved anguish. You can overcome it by changing your thinking, perspective and attitude, realizing that it happened in the past and it is no more relevant to your current situation. You can also leave behind your painful past, by acknowledging your mistakes, forgiving yourself and others, cultivating compassion and focusing on current goals. If you refocus your mind on present happenings, you can make peace with yourself and with your past. You can also reduce suffering by removing all the clutter from your life and simplifying it. Give away whatever you do not need instead of hoarding things.
When we examine our lives, thinking and actions, it becomes clear that we create a lot of unnecessary suffering, which can be avoided with careful planning, discipline and effort. If you want to lighten up and make amends with yourself, you should examine your life to see how you create your own suffering and make yourself vulnerable to negativity, a lot of which can be avoided. You cannot remove all suffering from your life, but you can mitigate a lot of superfluous suffering, which arises from your thinking and behavior or your internal causes.
You can also identity the external causes such as your friends or relations who complicate your life or cause your pain and suffering with their actions or their behavior and attitude so that you can appropriately deal with it. By removing negative attitudes, beliefs and habits, thinking through your problems, learning from your experience, staying in the present, dealing with your negativity, anger and hatred, letting go of your past, adapting to the changing times, freeing your mind from assumptive behavior and irrational thinking, focusing upon what you can do rather than what you cannot do and being realistic, you can reduce a lot of unnecessary and avoidable suffering that directly arises from your own actions and those of others.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Bhagavad-Gita on Suffering
- Mental Liberation: Achieving True Freedom
- Basic Spirituality for Worldly People
- The Basis For Spiritual Life
- Conquering Fear
- Freeing Your Mind From the Inner Dictator
- How To Escape From Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Limiting Patterns?
- Making Peace With The Imperfections of Your Existence
- If Peace Is All You Want
- Ten Reflections For a Spiritual Person
- Why is Life Such a Struggle?
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Causes of Sorrow And Suffering
- The Many Faces of Sorrow and Suffering
- The Yoga of Sorrow, How Impermanence and Suffering Can Change Your Life
- The First Sermon Of The Buddha At Saranath
- Handbook for the Relief of Suffering by Ajaan Lee
- The Right View Regarding Suffering in Buddhism
- Tanha or Craving in Buddhism
- The Role of Meditation Pain, Illness and Death