I once sat in a room of people and heard a woman confidently tell us, “Your suffering is not a food shaped hole; it is not a alcohol or drug shaped hole; it is not a shopping spree shaped hole or a sex shaped hole!”. That was when I learned to stop cramming stuff and people into my seemingly never ending black hole of “suffering”. Then I was faced with myself stripped raw with no more temporary pacification and anesthetic. Horrible!!!! The suffering intensified into unbearable waves of emotion.
Then one day I was crying uncontrollably in a bathroom stall, that “ugly crying” you don’t want anybody to see. When I emerged from the stall a woman stared blankly back at me and asked if I was alright. I told her about my intense emotional pain and prior situations in a burst of graphic doom. Calmly, she watched me wipe my face of resolving hysteria and told me point blank, “I don’t see anybody in this bathroom torturing you. You are doing this to yourself.”. Nothing was ever the same after that day. I was forced to change my perceptions or live in cognitive dissonance.
I have long ponder the aspects of suffering, namely expectations and impermanence. I have held onto quotes such as “Expectations are seeds to resentment.” and “Suffering is in the eye of the beholder.”. Some say suffering is a basic characteristic of existence. So are we all doomed to suffer? At some point, we will all encounter pain, but suffering is variable. Our perceptions, expectations and ability to process the situation will determine the depth and duration of suffering. Don’t forget, there is no guarantee that life will be free of physical illness, injury or mental/emotional pain.
When treating patients, most people identify their suffering as physical or mental pain or “dis-ease”. These are the broad categories most complaints fall into.
- Physical Pain
- Physical discomfort due to the effect of an illness, for example a fever, aches and malaise from a viral infection.
- Physical discomfort due to metabolic imbalance such as gut hyper acidity.
- Physical discomfort due to an injury such as a broken bone or sciatica.
- Mental / Emotional Pain
- Mental / emotional discomfort due to the effects of undesirable interpersonal interactions including disappointment, jealousy, anger, anxiety, fear, violence, abuse, loss, rejection… the list goes on.
- Mental / emotional discomfort due to internally constructed expectations that were not met.
That may seem a bit too simplistic, but let’s look farther. In the case of physical suffering, one may be able to change the conditions that caused the suffering. For instance if a person is suffering from a gastrointestinal digestion dis-ease, they can change their nutrition and supplement appropriately. In the case of illness or injury one would seek treatment or modifications until remedied. There may be pain till a remedy is achieved, but suffering is not required. This said remedy is also contingent on ability and access to help, adequate knowledge and resources. and Some people may at this point, start to say, “Yah, but what about in THIS case?”. Good, I invite comments and discussion on this blog.
Now, what about the case of chronic pain, illness or terminal conditions? What about that suffering? First determine if the chronic physical condition is only causing physical pain or has it morphed into mental/emotional pain? If it is purely physical, the person will seek methods of relief, adapt or tolerate, even if terminal. No person is guaranteed painless perfectly functioning body, however, we are all guaranteed the death of our physical body. I came to accept that very early in life as I stared at a tattoo on my Dad that read, “Death is certain.”.
Now mental and emotional pain is a totally different ball game. Above, I listed many causes and bundled them under the umbrella of “discomfort due to the effects of undesirable interpersonal interactions.”. First I want to look at violence and blatant abuse. This is something that is unprovoked, unexplained and or unavoidable and can be harder for the recipient to process and transmute. This type of emotional suffering may take more time, dedication and proper guidance to transform.
Emotions such as disappointment, jealousy, anger, anxiety, resentment and fear are often referred to as “demons” or “vitiators” of harmony, balance and healthy alignment. These types of reactions to life are often based upon expectations and expectations of permanence, whether positive or negative. An expectation is a strong belief that something will happen in the future. When expectations are not met by a person, place or situation how does one react? If the resulting emotions lead to suffering, one must ask why did I assume the only outcome was fixed upon my expectations and why did I not consider my response rationally to an alternative, possible or unknown outcome?
I really enjoyed listening to a satsang by Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati once that emphasized expectations and suffering. Here is a paraphrase of the analogy. You have a heater. You know that the function of the heater is to warm the air. Fast forward to a hot day, why would you expect or resent the heater for blowing hot air on you? This can be cross processed to relationships and interactions. Sometimes adverse emotions are purely due to the fact that we have not rationally assessed the persons true nature, yet we expect something contrary, such as cool air from a heater.
If I had more time I would also discuss how our personal expectations can be skillfully manipulated and controlled by society. I am not saying this is good or bad, but mention it for a moment of self reflection on where expectations come from and how they shape our perception of happiness or suffering.
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” – Buddha
Impermanence is another important concept to consider in life. Buddhism addresses impermanence in a very rationale manner and proposes that there five processes guaranteed: the process of growing old, falling sick, dying, decay of things that are perishable and the passing away of that which is liable to pass. Impermanence is the fact that things will last only for a limited period of time. This facilitates unpredictable change which can be pleasurable or uncomfortable. Change happens whether we like it or not! Consider all the changes that happen in health, family, age, friends, jobs, perception, location, freedoms, opinions, nature, weather, technology etc. Suffering comes from not being prepared for and not being able to mentally digest these five facts of life and so many other events that fall in between.
“The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”― Thich Nhat Hanh
These musings are not meant to discredit, degrade or dismiss the suffering of anybody in any way. Suffering is so subjective and personal. It is important to have a trusted wise confidant and social support system to work through pain and dis-ease at any stage of life and self development. I have sat and held the hands of thousands of people in my career. Their biggest regrets are not living to the fullest, cowering in doubt, fear, insecurity, resentment and anger.
So for today, enjoy your life now while you have one. Look inside and strive for moments of stillness, contentment, simplicity, love and rational life acceptance. Enjoy what health you have while you have it. Experience the delicate pleasures now while you can. Spend quality time with those you love while they are still in physical form. Make your wrongs right while you are still able to. If you wait and miss out, because the opportunity was impermanent, you may then exclaim, “Why me? How come this had to happen to me? That was not fair! Life sucks! I wasn’t ready!”.