Why do we suffer?
Because of my long life and wide range of experiences, my best friend believes that I may have some valuable insights to offer, and she recently asked me to share some of those insights by answering some questions.
The first question she asked was: “Why are we here?”
I told her that that was a biggie, and that it contained all the other questions about our lives and how we live them, and I asked her to think of a more specific question, so after some thought, she asked me: “Why do we suffer?”.
I thought about this and realised that it might be better if I answered it from my own perspective, so the question became: “Why do I suffer?”. So here goes.
To begin to answer this, we must be aware that there are two words here that need defining:
- What do we mean by ‘suffer’?
- Who is this ‘I’ that is doing the suffering?
Firstly, we mustn’t confuse suffering with pain. Pain is neither good nor bad, even though we usually judge it to be bad. It’s neutral. It’s just a signal from the body that an imbalance exists which needs our attention.
Suffering comes from the fact that as we’re self-aware, aware that we exist, we tend to think about the future. If we feel a pain in our bodies, we may start to worry that it could be a sign of something more serious, and so there is fear.
It’s this fear that is the suffering – it’s this psychological reaction to the pain that is the suffering. If we could just be in the present moment, and not project into the future, and just accept that there is pain, then there would be no suffering. The suffering is caused by the never ending treadmill of thinking that goes on in our minds, the endless ‘what ifs’. If we could quiet our minds, stop the flow of thoughts, we could be aware that pain exists without the psychological suffering that thinking causes.
Animals seem to accept ‘what is’. If they are in pain or discomfort, they just accept it. If an animal is in pain, it will usually find a safe concealed place to lie down, to curl up, and just wait until things change. It is not waiting as we wait, in anticipation of some future outcome; it’s just being in the present moment.
It accepts, without judgement. Therefore it cannot suffer, because all suffering is caused by judgement. If we judge any experience to be bad, we suffer. If we can accept ‘What Is’, without judging it to be good, bad or indifferent, then our suffering ceases because we’re just experiencing the flow of life.
Secondly, there is also the suffering caused by our unwillingness to accept that change is inevitable. The ego doesn’t live in the present moment. It’s a product of our past experiences and memories. It cannot tolerate uncertainty, the unknown, which is what the future is. It wants to know what is going to happen, and when, and so it tries to control the future, and fails.
It tries to move towards comfort and away from discomfort. In fact, it believes it has the power to control the future in such a way as to eliminate discomfort, to only experience comfort. It fails to realise that these are two ends of the same stick, and that whatever ‘is’ will change into its opposite, that nothing lasts.
We cannot achieve anything that lasts. Even when we’re ‘happy’, there is always an underlying awareness that it won’t last. Even when we’re successful, we’re always aware that it‘s not permanent. Even if we’re wealthy, there is always the concern that we might lose our wealth, and so the ego has to come up with ways of protecting it.
Thirdly, the ego is always aware of the certainty of death, over which it has absolutely no control. In fact, all suffering is caused by fear, and the greatest fear we have is the fear of death.
In short, suffering is caused by our unwillingness to accept ‘what is’, by our wanting things to be different. If we can accept things the way they are, we can avoid suffering.
This doesn’t mean being fatalistic, just sitting and letting the world go by. We can still have desires and ambitions. They aren’t the problem. It’s the attachment to the outcome of our desires and ambitions that causes the suffering. It’s the ‘I’ll be happy when….’ syndrome. This is the main characteristic of the future-oriented personality, which is most of us, most of the time. The problem here is, that the future-oriented person cannot experience the present moment, which is the only time you can experience anything.
The future-oriented person always has a goal, but when that goal is achieved, a new goal takes its place. This personality type is never at peace with ‘what is’, is always looking to the future to bring peace, but peace is in the journey, not the destination, not the goal.
It boils down to this: If you can’t be at peace now, if you can’t be happy now, whatever your circumstances, you will never be at peace, you will never be happy, you will never be free from suffering.
Who or what is this ’I’ that suffers?
This is a very important part of the question, and is fundamental to our understanding of suffering, for if we can’t identify this ‘I’, if we can’t demonstrate that it exists, then we would have to accept that suffering is not real, that it’s an illusion.
I know – that’s a bit mind-blowing, but let’s inquire further and see where it leads.
Each one of us feels that we’re the centre of the universe; that there is ‘me’ and then there is everything else; that I am a separate being, contained within a bag of skin.
We intuitively feel that there is a ‘me’, the observer; that there is everything else, the objects of observation, and that there is the process of observing. Three separate things. But what if this isn’t true? What if there is only one thing? What if everything is part of one ‘whole’?
My bag of skin and bones is not separate from everything else. It relies on everything else in order to survive. It is said that the air you are breathing was in the lungs of a Chinese person just 48 hours ago; that some of the molecules of air that you are breathing were in the lungs of Hitler, Jesus, and everyone else at one time.
Just consider the meal on your table. Think about the number of people who were involved in getting that food to your table, from the people who planted and harvested the food, the farmers who raised the livestock, the pickers, the packers, the drivers, the sailors, the pilots, the wholesalers, the retailers, the shop workers, the list goes on.
We are totally dependent on thousands of other people for everything we have in life. We are interdependent with the whole of humanity – and with the plant and animal kingdoms.
But, this is just the physical side of things. What if we are connected at every level – physical, mental, psychological and even spiritual. (But that’s another question)
So that we can begin to search for this ‘I’ that suffers, we must examine the ego, and inquire if it has any basis in reality. The question we have to investigate is: ‘Who am I?’
But, who is asking the question: ‘Who am I?’