I used to talk about suffering as if it were either caused by, or an intrinsic part of, conditions and circumstances in my life (both inner and outer circumstances). For instance, if my suffering took the form of depression, I might have said I was depressed because of a chronic physical illness or because my marriage was falling apart. Yet, I began to consider another possibility. If my knee hurts and I am suffering, maybe the suffering is not actually the same feeling as the physical pain in my knee. In other words, perhaps my knee can hurt, and I don’t necessarily have to be suffering. Similarly, would it be possible to have a wave of sadness or anger move through me and experience it as simply energy moving — a form of Love — rather than as suffering?
Why is this important? Well, it’s possible (maybe probable) you are suffering in some way, and you want to feel better. You might assume that if whatever you are struggling with (physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually) is fixed, cleared, cleansed, healed, let go of, released, or otherwise vamoosed, then you will no longer be suffering. But if suffering is not tied to your inner or outer conditions and circumstances, then just because the conditions change doesn’t mean you will stop suffering. If suffering is not caused by, or intrinsic to, our inner or outer circumstances, then what is it?
Definition of Suffering
Suffering is the inner experience we have when we believe (or “attach” to) thoughts/concepts/models that conflict with our perceived reality or conflict with Reality Itself.
The first way we suffer is when we don’t like what’s happening, or more accurately, we don’t like what we perceive is happening. Of course, our perceptions can easily be mistaken, especially when we are assuming what someone else is thinking or feeling. Whether our perception of what is happening is accurate or not, suffering comes when we believe the thought, “It shouldn’t be like this.” My husband might leave the dishes in the sink, and if I believe a thought that says he should have washed them, I’ll have an inner experience I might call “annoyance” or “agitation.” I’m suffering because what I believe should have happened is not what happened (it’s not reality). Notice that if I didn’t believe he should have washed the dishes, I wouldn’t be suffering. My suffering has nothing to do with whether he did the dishes or not, but it has everything to do with if I believe he should have or not. Similarly, I might have an emotion arising within me (like anger), and, due to past conditioning, I believe the thought, “Anger is bad. I shouldn’t be feeling anger.” The result is an automatic repression of the emotion, a process often referred to as resistance, which is equivalent to suffering. (I will speak more about resistance a bit later.)
The second way we suffer is when we believe something that conflicts with Reality Itself. A simple but profound example is when we believe we are not good enough… not smart enough, not competent enough, not strong enough, not happy enough, not safe enough, not loved enough, not healthy enough, not evolved enough, not spiritual enough, etc. With a little inner reflection, we easily notice the suffering we experience when we believe these thoughts and how it affects our lives in profound and far-reaching ways. We suffer when we believe we are not good enough because it conflicts with Reality. It is an untrue belief at the deepest level of our Existence. Although somewhat esoteric, the realization and embodiment of our True Nature is a core theme in my approach, which I discuss thoroughly in, “What Is Healing? on my webpage.
If you have been around the block in the self-help world, you have probably heard the all-too familiar, “What you resist, persists!” While this may be true, what is resistance exactly? Resistance, in my view, is equivalent to suffering in that it is the inner experience we have when we are in internal conflict with reality (perceived reality or Reality Itself). We could be resisting something happening outside of us (e.g., “I don’t like that my hubby didn’t do the dishes.”) or something happening within us (e.g., “I feel angry, and I don’t like to feel angry.”)
In our Healing journey, it often comes down to resisting a natural flow of energy within us. For instance, emotion is simply a flow of energy that moves through us like a wave when it is allowed to flow naturally. However, we often learn when we are young that some emotions are wrong or bad to feel, and so we resist (repress) them. It is when that natural flow of energy hits the wall of resistance within us that we have the inner experience called suffering. Often, this experience is what we might label as something like “anxiety” or “fear” or “panic,” depending upon the intensity of the natural energy trying to move through us. (This experience can take many forms, not just anxiety.) Believe it or not, we can also resist energies that we might call joy, or passion, or excitement, because we learned those were wrong to feel when we were younger. In this case, we have the same inner experience of suffering (in the form of anxiety or whatever other form it may take) when that energy hits the wall of resistance within us. Again, suffering/resistance occurs when we believe a thought that says what is happening should not be happening. If I believe a thought that says I shouldn’t feel a certain emotion but the reality is that the energy of that emotion is present, then I am suffering/resisting.
The Nature of Suffering
Now, I’d like to discuss an aspect of suffering you may not have thought much about. If we are suffering, we want it to stop. That might seem obvious, but this is actually one of the most important breakthroughs I have ever had. Let me put it another way: intrinsic in the nature of suffering is the desire for it to stop. We have no choice in the matter. If we are suffering, we cannot talk ourselves out of wanting it to go away. No amount of contriving and affirming will make that desire disappear, even if we deny it. And when we try to affirm this desire away, we are simply adding yet another layer of resistance and suffering, compounding the issue. The desire for suffering to stop and the suffering itself are forever linked together. I call this the “cycle of suffering.” Being caught in this cycle feels like being caught in a gigantic feedback loop with the same information being regurgitated over and over. (By the way, this seems to be what’s actually happening from a physics standpoint: see Mind Candy: Theories and Explanations on my webpage.) And what happens when we have a desire for the suffering to stop? We will try to find ways to make it end. We will search, seek, analyze, plan, experiment, cajole, beg, plead, and try just about anything to make it go away or “heal” it. Unfortunately, all of that searching is a part of the suffering itself. It cannot lead to anything other than suffering, even if the conditions themselves shift and morph into other forms. This is the trap I’ve been caught in most of my life. At least it has kept me busy!
When I had this realization, I immediately understood that just because we are caught in this cycle of suffering doesn’t mean there is nothing else to who we are. Many of us do not realize there is anything else to us. Our entire lives have become almost entirely about trying to control and avoid what we don’t want (suffering in any form). We have come to believe this is all there is to us and to our lives, even if we don’t realize it.
We can begin to look at suffering in an entirely new way through what I call the process of Healing. This is not healing in the traditional sense most of us think of when we think of healing. The process of Healing begins by noticing there is more to who we are than the cycle of suffering we are caught in, that there is “something else” to us. We begin to turn our attention toward this broader aspect of ourselves and, from that perspective, form a new relationship with the suffering. This is a process of deep self acceptance. Through this process, we begin to fully express our unique gifts into a world that desperately needs us to show up in this way.
Would you like to read more about the process of Healing? Check out the section on my webpage entitled, What Is Healing?
In Gratitude & Love,