What is Suffering? - An excerpt from Pain and Suffering in Buddhism.
Suffering is distinctly different from pain, but it is often confused for pain – the two words are frequently used interchangeably. Suffering may be thought of as an uncomfortable or negative emotional reaction to unwanted circumstances.
Sometimes these circumstances will be getting things you don’t want or having things happen to you that you wanted to avoid. Sometimes we might suffer over not getting what we want. Not getting a job we had applied for or not getting the grade we had hoped for in a class at school.
Our lives, therefore, are full of suffering, almost on a daily basis.
We always seem to want something that we can’t have or can’t get. We want better computers, faster cars, larger houses, more supportive spouses, better relationships, more money, better sounding stereo equipment, higher paying jobs, more status, etc. The list seems almost endless, once we begin thinking about it.
We begin to develop a feeling that life is not fully satisfactory and we spend much time worry about things. Buddhists even have a name for it, dukkha – the feeling or condition that makes us feel a lack of satisfaction with life. Not necessarily “suffering,” per se, although that may be part of it, but more a feeling that life is disappointing, perhaps characterized by such feelings as; failure, disillusionment, anxiety, dissatisfaction, dismay, weariness, etc.
“I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable.”
~ Woody Allen, Annie Hall; screenplay
Buddhism doesn’t treat suffering as some tangential branch of human experience, but rather a cornerstone of the teachings – the central theme of the discipline.
In Buddhism, we talk primarily of three types of suffering
The first is the simple suffering of suffering - the pain of being human or perhaps the pain of just being alive. We experience suffering though injury, disease, illness, ageing, even birth itself. Not every individual will suffer as much as others, but it’s clear that suffering exists for all.
Secondly is the suffering of loss or the suffering of change. This is the emotion we feel when we lose a loved one. The sense of loss can be very deep and it can last for many years. This same suffering might manifest in the loss of relationship or loss of a job. Sometimes we hold ideas or ideals very close to us and they may be disproved upon careful examination and we can feel loss from that as well. We cling tightly to things and when they are taken away, are lost or fall into dust, we suffer. Everything we have ever held dearly will have scratch marks when they are taken away.
The third type of suffering we experience we call all pervasive suffering of conditioning. As will be explain in the next section, our lives are tied up in the psycho-physical aggregates, the Five Skandhas or Five Aggregates of experience. We are conditioned by our skandhas. This present life experience sets us up for our next life experience, but since the present conditioned experience is the basis for (and is supportive of ) our next experience, the result will be the same. All our future experiences are bound up in our present and past experiences because they are all based upon our skandhas.
Now clearly the vast majority of us don’t suffer every day all day long. In fact, we get a few good days in there, where everything looks pleasant and we have a bit of fun and we forget about want and need. Still, eventually we will begin to think that even these good days aren’t good enough and we will begin to crave and suffer all over again. Life is like this. This is all pervasive suffering. This is dukkha. When we realize this, accept it, and live our lives understanding it, then we can begin to examine why and how this is so, and work to suffer less.
“There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.”
~ Woody Allen, Annie Hall; screenplay
Pain, while part of suffering, is only one part of the narrative. The suffering comes from asking oneself, “Why is this happening to me?” “What have I done wrong that I deserve this?” The pain we experience is only a bodily response, something to help protect us from damaging or permanently injuring the body, but the suffering is the story we add on top of that. The pain isn’t really optional, but the suffering is.
I was listening to a CBC interview the other day on the radio in the car. Despite the fact the radio was correctly tuned, there was static. At first the static was annoying, but the interview was so compelling that I didn’t want to change the station. I persevered and little by little, I become unaware of the static. I had become accustomed to its presence. Then, after a few more minutes, the static suddenly ceased! Whatever the cause, it ceased. The relief was palpable, experienced as a lifting of weight from my shoulders – a weight I wasn’t even aware I was carrying.
We all suffer in the way and to the extent that we, “need,” to. It is personal and it is learned and propagated through experience and the conditioning of our existence. It is what we need to do. We believe our suffering tells us something about who we are – like the scars that we bear on our bodies. Our story cannot be fully told without it. We become accustomed to whatever suffering we are experiencing and consequently accept it as a given. Then one day, for whatever reason, we let it go. Just give up the suffering around something … and the relief is tangible. The static ends.
When suffering has ended, this can be an insight moment. A point in time in which we can say, “Aha. I could have ended that yesterday, or last week or last month. I didn’t have to endure that as long as I did.” But usually that’s where it ends. We don’t usually take that insight and march it down the sidewalk. We tend to slip back into our old, “givens,” and leave it at that – happy enough that the specific suffering has ended … at least for now. We don’t take that wisdom forward into our lives or examine where that pain came from and what old habits supported it.
How Can We Reduce Suffering?
To lessen our suffering, we must first understand what, inside us, suffers. We must think about who we believe we are. What inside of us, makes us think, “This is me?” In Western terms, we call this “ego.” In Buddhist terms we might say “anatta.” If “I” am suffering, then we need to know what “I” is, how it arose and where it dwells.
The ego (or anatta) contains the code for what and who we think we are. For Buddhists it’s the product of the Five Skandhas or the Five Aggregates, which consist of;
Form. The body and all the sense organs (ears, eyes, tongue, touch, smell)
Sensation. The feeling that an object or situation is good, bad or neutral.
Perception (Cognition). Being able to determine the existence of, say, a tree or the sound of a bell.
Mental Formations. Thoughts, opinions, mental habits, preferences, aversions, etc.
Consciousness. That part of us which discerns or supports all experience.
Ego is how we recognize ourselves and it is formed and massaged by the five skandhas. We are not born with ego, in the same way we are not born with most of our fears, preferences or aversions – it’s a mental formation that is built up over time, beginning in our early childhood. This ego is an ever changing pool of information, experience, mood, desire, pain, pleasure and a hundred other experiences that come to us through our senses, filtered by the other four elements of the skandhas. By looking into the pool, we see who we think we are. We see our ego.
Of course, as our experiences, moods, desires, needs, experiences, etc, alter and shift over time, so too will the perception of ourselves change, but don’t forget, our ego is still a product of our skandhas and until that changes we are destined to experience a relatively narrow band of who and what we think we are or can become.
When we experience threat to our ego, when something comes along that interferes with the picture we’ve created of ourselves, we suffer.
Who we think we are – how the ego identifies us as ourselves – is the manifold permutations of our ever changing experiences and thought processes based on our skandhas. In a very real way, our ego is a manifestation of our skandhas.
Our Enslavement to Expectations
Until we start thinking about it, we are rarely aware that we live a life of almost constant disappointment. It’s only when a large disappointment – an acute disappointment – arises, that we really give our unmet expectations any thought.
Not long ago, I went for a job interview with a company I really wanted to work with. It was a dream job, really. I was qualified for it, motivated, well informed. I was passionate about the cause - in this case urban parks. I had two interviews that I thought went well. Sadly, I didn’t get the job.
My disappointment around this particular unmet expectation haunted me for some weeks. I won’t say I was depressed, but a certain malaise overcame me and I continued my meditation practice with a renewed sense of urgency. During that period, my meditation helped me see that disappointment is a daily occurrence. Everything from hitting every red traffic light on the way to work (or seemingly so) to learning there are no more apple pie fritters left at Tim Hortons on a particular morning to finding out the, “New Episode,” of NCSI New Orleans is actually a repeat and, “Why are these bloody people fidgeting so much during meditation?!”
These were little and meaningless disappointments for sure. No one died or went hungry because of my unmet expectations, but they none-the-less nibbled away at the edges of my awareness, causing dissatisfaction with the day, week, month. It was as if every acute displeasure I became aware of, there were a host of minor disappointments slinking in the background, hoping to keep under the radar.
As I write this, sitting comfortably in the Bandit Coffee Shop on a chilly Friday morning in November, I observe that people keep coming in, lining up and ordering. I keep thinking that I’ll get up in a moment and place my order for my coffee, but that moment hasn’t come yet. I feel a certain disappointment that these other customers keep getting in my way, as I don’t feel like standing in line and waiting. I feel they should stop coming in and I should get my coffee whenever I want it. Why do they have to chat so much with the barista? How long does it take to decide on a bloody scone? There’s only two choices the cranberry/lemon or the blueberry! It’s not that hard, people! It’s my delusion hard at work. It refuses to recognize the world works the way it works and my simply thinking otherwise won’t change that, so I live a few moments of disappointment with unmet expectations. I experience dukkha.
All this talk about expectations are not only about how I thought the world should have worked, but my expectations of myself as well. I recognized that others have expectations of me – expectations that I can’t possibly meet, if only because I don’t know what half of them are. If we think deeply about it, unmet and unmeetable expectations are all around us. In a sense, we sometimes define ourselves by the expectations that are not met, more than by the ones that are!
Getting expectations under control is not easy. Largely, they are created by what Buddhists call, “wanting mind.” This is a mind that constantly tells us the world is operating as we want it to, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It tries to give form and solidity to the ever changing and impermanent world that we inhabit. It is simply delusion and ignorance.