On the Nature of Suffering

We all do it.  We all know it.  But what is it?

Suffer comes from the French suffrir which comes from the Latin word sufferre; meaning sub (below) and ferr (to bear). 

The English origin of the word ‘to suffer’ is ‘to bear from below’.  There is a sense of oppression involved in ‘to suffer’ – something heavy, something larger than ourselves bearing down on us.  

Suffering is difficult to carry. Difficult to bear. We feel trapped, mired in pain. This feeling, thought or emotion is large and heavy.  We are overwhelmed.  We see no way out. And because of this, suffering is difficult to manage.

Suffering makes us feel small and helpless.  Suffering is scary business.

Just as the first step to solving a problem is to recognise that the problem exists in the first place, the first step to alleviate suffering is to recognise it is there.  This can be surprisingly difficult. 

Layers of guilt (I did something wrong so I should be suffering), shame (I am a bad person so I should be suffering) and denial (I am too special to be suffering) can conspire to prevent us from meeting our own pain.

Much of what oppresses us (suffering) is supported by family and cultural narratives, not to mention misdirected needs for self-protection.

For over two millennia human beings have devoted themselves to thinking about suffering; what it is, why it happens, and how to end it. 

Suffering is the grain of sand that lies at the heart of a pearl.  The pearl is The Four Noble Truths. That pearl lies at the heart of a 2500-year Buddhist tradition.

According to the First Noble Truth, suffering (dukkha in Pali) exists.  Suffering is a fact.  Yet there are those of us who would deny suffering in the misguided notion that our own suffering is not ‘good enough’.

There is no hierarchy of suffering. 

One’s own suffering is no better or worse than the suffering of another.  If suffering were a competition the ‘winner’ would be the one who has suffered the most. 

When no one wants to win, there is no competition.

The Second Noble Truth states that suffering happens because of desire or attachment.

In the early Buddhist traditions (specifically Theravada Buddhism) of 2500 years ago, desire was to be avoided at all costs because all forms of desire were thought to cause suffering.  

Over the millennia (throughout Mahayana Buddhism) there have been on-going discussions regarding the relationship between desire and suffering. 

Esoteric Buddhist belief (Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Shingon Buddhism) realises that we can use desire skilfully to alleviate suffering.  Skillful desires are the cause of well-being and unskillful desires are the cause of suffering.

The Third Nobel Truth states that suffering can end.

And finally, according to the Fourth Noble Truth, suffering can end by following the Eightfold Path – an ethical framework for daily life which deserves another blog post.

The path to end suffering begins with the recognition that we ourselves carry suffering within us. Without an intimate recognition of our own relationship with suffering we cannot begin to heal ourselves. And we continue to create suffering in the lives of all of us – including ourselves. 

To deny suffering in ourselves is to deny our own humanity.

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