Why Do We Suffer?

Four Noble Truths

Suffering Exists

Have you noticed?  Suffering exists.  In myriad forms.

From the minor irritations we encounter each and every day to overwhelming states of anxiety, depression, envy, and countless others.   In macro forms like war, cruelty, hunger, poverty, and addiction.

Another word for suffering is frustration. Or discontent.  The continual feeling of subtle dissatisfaction that underlines our life.  Even when we have it good, we’re still trying to make it better.

So how can we end suffering?  The first step is to understand it.

It is said that there are three types of suffering:

  1. The suffering of suffering – outright, blatant suffering.
  2. The suffering of change – when a pleasurable experience changes and  becomes the source of suffering.  For example, the death of a loved one or heartburn after a delicious meal.
  3. The all-pervasive suffering of conditioning – this is subtle and far more difficult to understand.  It’s the fact that in every aspect of conditioned existence there’s the potential for future suffering.

What Causes Suffering?

Mental states are the primary cause of suffering and they propel us into harmful actions, which bring further suffering.  But they occur as the result of our past actions (karma) so there’s a dynamic duo en force.

For example, violence typically results from anger and aggression.  Wars are the result of hatred and a sense of division.  Thus, harmful actions are triggered by a mental state.

It is said that there are six root destructive emotions:

  • Ignorance
  • Desire
  • Anger
  • Pride
  • Doubt
  • Beliefs (for example, the belief in “I” and “Mine”

And there are twenty subsidiary destructive emotions if you care to boil it down a bit more.

Why do these negative mental states arise?

They arise from misperceiving the world and projecting more than what is onto reality, onto a person, a business, a situation, a country.

Our tendency is to see in black and white.  This person or this country or this situation is all bad, in the case of hatred. Or eminently desirable, in the case of desire or greed.  This incorrect perception fosters destructive mental states and these drive us to harmful actions.  And the cycle of suffering goes on and on, until you cut the circle.

This active misperception, known as ignorance in Buddhism, is based on these three mistakes:

  • Seeing what is impermanent and transient as permanent.
  • Seeing what is interrelated and interconnected as independent.
  • Seeing an autonomous self where there isn’t one.

So the cause of suffering is karma and destructive emotions; these are rooted in ignorance, the misperception of reality.

An End to Suffering

If we come to understand that the deeper cause of suffering is the misperception of the nature of reality, we know how to undo suffering.  We can follow the bread crumbs back home to the village of peace, compassion, and wisdom.

Following the Path

That’s the spiritual path and its aim is to end suffering.  It is replete with a variety of methods to that end.

Of them all, mindfulness – also known as calm abiding meditation – is fundamental and essential.

If suffering comes from the mind, then it’s imperative to keep a constant awareness over all your thoughts and emotions. You need to have an early warning system in place.

When a negative thought or emotion arises, knowing full well that it contains the seed of suffering – for yourself and, perhaps, others – you can dismantle it with the proper antidote or method.  When a positive thought or emotion arises, you can reinforce and multiply it, creating a new habit.

In the backdrop – like the sky – you practice holding the awareness of impermanence, interdependence, and emptiness as the larger space of your mind and the nature of reality.  This is the wisdom that  informs your actions.

Without mindfulness, we act willy-nilly propelled by whatever thought or emotion pops into our mind.  Often causing a mess and sometimes much worse.

So it’s simple.  If you want to be happy, be mindful and engage in positive actions.  If you want to avoid suffering, be mindful and disengage from unwholesome actions.

Yes simple, but not easy.  After all, we are attempting to change a lifetime of habitual patterns.  So we proceed with a sense of gentleness towards ourselves, an acceptance of our imperfections, and self-forgiveness.   We face forward and keep moving, knowing full well that training the mind requires diligence.

As Buddha said in his first teaching, the root of all our suffering in samsara is ignorance. Ignorance, until we free ourselves from it, can seem endless, and even when we have embarked on the spiritual path our search is fogged by it. However, if you remember this, and keep the teachings in your heart, you will gradually develop the discernment to recognize the innumerable confusions of ignorance for what they are, and so never jeopardize your commitment or lose your perspective. – Sogyal Rinpoche, Glimpse After Glimpse

This is the essence of the Buddha’s first teaching, after he attained enlightenment, called the Four Noble Truths:

  • The Truth of the Cause (Origin) of Suffering, which is to be abandoned
  • The Truth of Suffering, which is to be understood
  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, which is to be actualized
  • The Truth of the Path, which is to be relied upon

There’s so much in these four lines to reflection upon.  Imagine what it would be like if we were able to truly take them to heart.

What are your thoughts on suffering?  Do you believe that suffering begins in the mind?  Do you believe there’s a way to end suffering?

Image:  Rigpa Wiki

Did you like this article?  If so, please share the link with your friends.  Thanks for your support!  You can also connect with me on Google+ or the Always Well Within Facebook Page.  With love, Sandra

22 thoughts on “Why Do We Suffer?

  1. Sandra,
    I believe there are some people who feel that if you’re not “suffering” you’re not really living. I know people like this. They’ve become addicted to being martyrs and victims and for them “suffering is not optional.” They have no interest in changing and seeing the reality of their choice in this matter. They refuse to accept responsibility for their lives. Suffering and being a victim gives them an excuse to do nothing about it. They think, “This is the way life is…..” It’s hard to be around and watch people create misery after misery in their lives.

    • Hi Angela,

      This is true and so sad, some people are so embedded in suffering that there seems to be no way out. We can offer prayers for them or dedicate our meditation practice on their behalf with the wish that they may see a glimpse of light and begin on a path to freeing themselves. Thank you for mentioning this.

    • Angela, I have relatives like the ones you describe and find it so sad that some people choose to live this way. Today I interviewed an 80-year-old who went sky-diving and a 90-year-old who plays Solitaire on her computer and e-mails. They were so inspiring to me. Sandra, thanks for asking whether suffering begins in the mind. I think it depends: if something traumatic happens like a death of a loved one, then we grieve. Whether this is the same suffering, I’m not a psychologist, but it feels like suffering. Prolonged suffering is in the mind.

  2. Hi Sandra,

    My experience is the same as yours. I need to know how I make myself suffer, then the path of the breadcrumbs home becomes clear. In fact, what I discover when I untangle habits – those are the breadcrumbs – each feeling, each thought that is seen as a misunderstanding.

    I love your suggestion to realize that we are the emptiness, and the understanding that only then does wisdom inform choices. Otherwise, choices are made from fear and confusion – and many lives show that, for sure. But choices coming from emptiness, that is when we shine.

    Beautiful post.

    • Beautifully said, Gail. Sometimes we are striving so hard to manage and keep up the mask, that we aren’t even aware of our suffering. There are so many subtle and complex forces coming together. Yet we can untangle the habits as you describe so well.

      Emptiness is of course the ultimate!

  3. Suffering is totally, completely in our thoughts. Even physical suffering is our interpretation of the bodily sensation. In all cases, it is a choice and can be changed. Understanding and being able to utilize this concept in my life has been so empowering and freeing. It brings peace every time.

    Meditation has been a tool to increase awareness of this, but I am getting pretty good at it in the every day consciousness.

    • Debbie,

      It’s fabulous to see how you are increasing your awareness both in meditation practice and in life. Your story is an inspiration that we can transform the greatest suffering into freedom. It’s not all a piece of cake, but there is a way. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. hi Sandra, thanks for this easy to digest article about suffering. Being minddful of suffering is difficult. In our day and age (with marketing and emotional messaging) retailers, movie producers and ad makers does not want us to be mindful. The less mindful we are, the more movies we watch, the more cars we buy, the more vacations we take:) I can just imagine it if they started commenting to this post. They would hold up signs: The more you suffer, the more you need x,y,z. Yes, there’s a solution for everything:) Even suffering!

    Suffering for me, as I’ve come to experience, is exactly like you point out – active misperception or ignorance. Thinking the temporary is permanent. The way I came to realize that it’s not, is being shook up by the temporariness of what I thought was permanence. It took several such life events to realize that. It’s no fun to come to terms with temporariness but it does leads to wisdom (or waking up from suffering) No:)?

    • Vishnu,

      I with you entirely on the way that what we perceived as permanent can really shake us and wake us when we realize it’s not! I’ve had several such life events myself. Sometimes they can shock us into solidifying more, but if we are fortunate they can difficult but freeing. It’s been a little easier for me each time, but not without challenges entirely.

      It’s true, manufacturers and marketers believe they have the answers to all our suffering!

  5. Here’s a quote from one of my Shambhala teachers. “Suffering is always a result of arguing with reality. It’s reality’s message to you that you’re going to lose.” I laughed when I heard that. It’s so true. It seems I suffer most when I struggle most, whether it’s struggling with circumstances, difficult emotions, or things I can’t control (but want to!).

    Just a few days ago, I was struggling mightily with some difficult emotions. I started to do what I usually do, which is to distract myself with reading something, watching TV, doing a chore, or running an errand. Instead, I saw what I was doing and decided to try something different. I went straight to my meditation spot and plopped down. I used my breath to breathe into the painful places, and gradually, the agitation diminished and the pain became tolerable, and then melted. Wow, I thought, this stuff really works! Ha!

    Thanks for a tender and insightful post.

    • Hi Galen,

      What a terrific way to stare suffering right in its face. This stuff really does work! Of course, we have the habit of getting stuck for a very long time, so it takes time to undue and actually remember that we have skillful means at our disposal to dissolve suffering.

      Thanks for sharing your story of transformation. It is so inspiring. It’s all about transforming one story and one moment at a time.

  6. Wonderfully articulated revision of suffering. I’ve been debating w/Buddha on the nature of “desire.” I think I may need to study Sanskrit to understand his message more clearly: often, at least in pop-Buddhism, there is the notion that suffering ends with the “cessation of desire.” I have been wondering whether or not the teaching is actually more of a “refinement of desire.” I know much of my suffering comes from wrong desire, and the results of acting on wrong desire; that said, my “lust for life” is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It would be a massive commitment to relinquish all desire.

    In Hesse’s Siddhartha the Buddha feels “neither pleasure nor pain.” He doesn’t want for anything, but I feel the same threnody of gentle despair as Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”

    I don’t want to suffer, but there are some, as you say, inevitable sufferings that are part, I hope, of the refinement of desire. What do you make of the “desire,” in Eastern thought?

    Thanks Sandra,
    m

    • Hi Mark,

      Great question. Clearly, while we are on the path we need positive “desire” to propel us forward on the path. If you take a look at the 51 mental states, 11 of them are virtuous or, if you don’t like that word, wholesome.

      So yes, we do need to get out of bed in the morning (good point!), positive motivation goes a long way in that regard, and discernment helps us make the right choices, which lead to less suffering for our self and others.

      There are three different kinds of enlightenment, but I think it would be safe to say that fully enlightenment beings have gone beyond attachment (desire) and aversion and dispelled ignorance.

      Now what that really looks like is difficult to fathom as it is beyond words, beyond thought, and beyond description. If we think about it intellectually, it sounds like a lump on a log. But if we take a look at someone like the Dalai Lama, someone we might consider enlightened or very close to it, he’s far from a lump on a log. He is an active individual with great compassion, yet despite all the suffering he sees in the world he describes himself as happy and says he has no trouble sleeping at night. I would guess this is due a great deal to having let go of attachment and aversion.

      Clinging is the very nature of suffering.

      So I think your idea of the “refinement of desire” applies while on the path, but not necessarily once enlightenment occurs. That doesn’t mean that Buddhas don’t engage in wholesome actions. It’s just an entirely different ballpark.

      That’s my take! Thanks for the stimulating question.

  7. Very insightful and well written post – I appreciated reading this today. As a change artist, I love all the emotional teachers and working through each one, maybe not at the moment, but as soon as I can pause and find breath. I like them because they mean I am moving towards balance and wholeness; they are the guides to instruction.

    I do have a difficult time with people who constantly are suffering. I do know that many females are trained to be the victim…I understand this cultural thing but when someone knows better, I do not comprehend why they will not change. Can suffering be that comfortable?

    Thank you for your beautiful sharing and very clear words

    • Patricia,

      This is such a great attitude! I admire your openness to “emotional teachers.”

      I honestly think that we all operate with a load of unconscious material directing the show. I think that’s why it can be hard to see your own problem and then actual step up to change. I don’t think anyone truly wants to suffer, but it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. Understandably, it’s hard to be close to someone who is suffering if they seem they aren’t open to change.

  8. Hi Sandra, it’s been a long time. Great to be back in the blogosphere. And yes, I believe I’m on track for being back. In response to your post, I think one word that keeps coming to my mind is “Empathy.” It’s come to mean a lot to me recently. It’s the way we are mindful of the truth of suffering around us. To not simply hear the news report and feel sad for those who are hurting, but to feel their pain. What changes does that inspire us to make? Great post.

  9. Thoughtful article..and amazing comments!
    I think we suffer because we are “told we must”..we buy into the story that first we “struggle” then we succeed..so we struggle and wonder why we are caught in struggle instead of experiencing “success”..Struggle is suffering and then we become comfortable with suffering, it becomes our status quo because we no longer feel is as detrimental..
    In my life, when I invest my energy into being fully present to the moment as it is, not as I wish it to be, I am able to feel gratitude for the abundance in the moment and great peace in all circumstances. I create, I work, but it is from a place of peace and with a sense of joy. If I feel anything other than peace and joy, I remove my self from the moment and regroup with meditation, a quick gratitude list, something outside. If I feel anything other than peace and joy, it is because I have allowed my focus to be redirected..external exists, but only has bearing on my internal when I allow it to…

    • That’s a really interesting analysis of why we suffer, Joy. It contains many insightful points.

      I love your methods for moving around suffering by stopping to regroup and reconnect with peace and joy. I’m impressed because I know you really do this. If we could all see suffering as a sign to stop and shift, it would make such a difference in the world!

  10. A wonderful overview of the Buddhist perspective on suffering. I think suffering, like joy, is a very individual thing. I’m not sure it can be reduced to a formula. What is suffering to one person may be an exhilarating adventure to another. I think there needs to be more respect and tolerance for a variety of outlooks.

    • I agree wholeheartedly that suffering depends so much on our perspective. When we have more tolerance, that itself creates less suffering. Thanks so much for this perspective.

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