One of the questions we all face at some point in our life – and one that may also haunt us for a while – is the question of suffering. Why am I having these experiences? What did I do to deserve this? Why is this happening to me? And so on. I’ve written on this before but it’s been coming up again.
First, let’s define 2 words.
Pain: “Physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury.”
Suffering: “Experiences we’d rate as bad; subject to things we’d rather not be.”
Note the difference between pain and suffering. Illness and injury can naturally cause pain. Perceived loss can cause what we might describe as emotional or mental pain. However, how we are with that pain determines if we suffer for it or not. Pain does not equal suffering. People in pain can experience profound happiness. And people simply perceiving loss can experience profound suffering.
Pain is the way our system tells us something is wrong. If we resist the pain, the signal will continue. Suffering will ensue. However, if we acknowledge the pain, allow the pain to be there, the signal is heard and the pain will ease off. Allowing pain can certainly be challenging but healing is much faster if we’re not fighting the experience.
Suffering on the other hand arises when we resist pain or we judge things happening “to” us as wrong, bad, unjust, unfair and so forth. This judgment is a form of mental or emotional resistance. And it’s always because we’re taking it personally. When don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements) asks us to find our truth, he tells us “Don’t take anything personally“. Life happens. Making it about a “me” just separates us from what is here.
Resistance itself is natural. We call it inertia in physics. Where it becomes troublesome is when we throw up some fire to sustain a position. That’s the part that taps our energy and causes more difficulty. When we resist when it’s time to move or change. When nature is pushing for a new point of balance and we come increasingly out of balance. (you may notice the gunas Tamas and Rajas here)
Note the well-worn saying “what we resist persists“. In other words, if we resist, we suffer and continue to suffer. What we want least, we get more of. And ofttimes, we then resist it even more, amplifying the original suffering. Our inner life can become a battleground but we come to experience this as normal.
It’s a tricky lesson to learn as we have many old habits in our response to events. But while some pain is inevitable in life, suffering comes from our response to it.
If we can culture awareness of our emotional and mental dynamics, we begin to discover that suffering is actually a choice. If we can take a bit of a step back out of our drama and just see how we’re playing it, this becomes increasingly obvious.
At first we’ll realize we’ve fallen into it again after the fact. Doh! Then we’ll notice it while it’s happening. And finally awareness will be clear enough to catch the reactive impulse while it’s arising. Then we can choose not to react and not to judge. Not to make it personal. We can choose not to suffer. It is neither inevitable nor required.
Sometimes, a big one will let go. We’ll realize we’ve been holding something in an intense grip for eons. Our grip will release, we may feel a brief wave of emotion, then a wave of relief. A load has been lifted, a shadow has passed. We may notice a big upsurge in energy as it’s no longer consumed holding the dam. Whew!
When people ask questions like “why did God create suffering?” or “If there is a just God, why did this happen to me?“, they do not understand this. Pain exists to signal something is wrong. If we heed the call we can resolve it and heal. But if we resist or judge bad what life is bringing us, we will suffer. In fact, much illness and thus pain arises just because we’ve been resisting for so long. We call it stress. God didn’t create it – we did.
This does not mean we intended to suffer. Only that we didn’t understand this, we didn’t have the awareness, and we didn’t have good examples of people who lived this. There is no blame here. That’s just more making wrong. Many of us have been carrying our suffering for a long time, as a kind of shadow and burden. In the vast cycles of time, as a group, we’ve lost awareness of these simple principles. We need to give ourselves some slack. Learn to just be again.
I’ve mentioned before about effortless meditation. One of the many benefits is deep rest and the resulting healing. Another is culturing that awareness that allows us to see and choose and be.
The profundity of this cannot be overestimated. Suffering hides the truth of who we are. It takes away our birthright of joy. It separates us from love and wholeness. It hides the divine. And yet, it is just a fog. Suffering is not a thing, it is just an energy of resistance.
Instead, choose awareness. Choose Joy. Choose peace.