Pain and suffering


A while ago I published a note called About Suffering. I re-read it recently and thought it was very interesting but I also felt that something was missing, that something important about suffering was not there. In that note I was talking about suffering as one whole, but actually suffering can be seen in three different ways.

–  The first one is pain.

Pain is unavoidable. If we hammer our finger, we feel pain. It lasts for as long as it lasts and then it goes away. As bad as it may feel, pain is very useful because it lets us know that something is wrong. If we didn’t have pain, many things that the body suffers would go unnoticed and the body could die. Because of pain we pay attention to certain things that we otherwise wouldn’t notice. Of course, it’s not nice; nobody likes pain, but is a very important mechanism for living, for existing.

Pain also has another physiological benefit, more hidden and not so obvious as the first one. Pain lets us know that our bodies are very fragile, that they are mortal, that they will die. In our modern societies this recognition is not considered important; we run away, we hide from this knowledge. But not so long ago, it was a regular practice to keep in one’s house a skull as a reminder of the reality of our own death.

We tend to live our lives completely unaware of the final destination of these bodies, and that unawareness is seen in the way we often misuse our time. Pain can be a useful reminder of the reality of our existence.

–  The second way to understand suffering is what could be called “real suffering”. Real suffering is when we actually experience something that hurts us. We are programmed as human beings to love and cherish certain things; for example we are programmed to love truth and when we see truth being hurt or being denied we suffer. We are programmed to love peace and harmony and when we are exposed to violence or brutality we suffer. We are programmed to love life and when we experience death we suffer. But real suffering is ennobling; it’s something that, rightly taken, can make one grow, can make one understand. Real suffering is quiet and deep and silent.

But we don’t come around pain and real suffering very often, at least not daily. It’s rare to hammer one’s finger and it’s rare to experience death. At least for us, who live in these modern societies, in these kind of sterilized worlds. Suffering is much more “available” for people who live in war zones or in starving African countries, for example. But we definitely experience a lot of “unnecessary” or “useless” suffering.

–  The third way to understand suffering can be called “unnecessary” or “useless” suffering and it is the residue that may appear after pain or real suffering is experienced. It is a creation in my own head: “I hammered my finger. What an idiot I am!” This “what an idiot I am” is something that is added to a fact, in this case the fact of hammering my finger, but it is something that is not directly dependant on the fact. It is a story, a creation born in my own head.

When somebody I love dies, of course there is suffering. And, at the same time, it is a fact of life; we are all going to die, we just don’t know when. The fact of real suffering, as I mentioned before, is deep, profound, and silent. But then, after the suffering or the pain is expereinced, the unnecessary suffering may appear. And it is loud, very loud: “Why did it happen to me?! This should not have happened!! I am going to be alone! Nobody cares for me!! I am scared!”

All these are stories I create in my head. And these stories are not directly related to the fact of what happened, but are completely dependent on my own history, on my past, on what my parents thought me (consciously or unconsciously), on what I picked up from society. The essence of unnecessary suffering is a thought or a group of thoughts. A story.

Pain and real suffering last for a while, but not very long. Unnecessary suffering can go on for days, weeks, months and even years. Why? Because it is not a real emotion, but a powerful sensation born of thought, and thoughts, especially negative ones, have the ability to reinforce themselves by creating justifications (more thoughts), which in turn create more reinforcement which creates more justifications which creates…

But unnecessary suffering does not have to happen. It just requires a very simple (BUT NOT EASY) switch in my head and when something negative happens, instead of saying “this shouldn’t have happened”, I may say: “It happened. I just don’t know why”.

We know so little about our existence, about the reason why we are here, about life, about death. We know so little, so how can we judge anything? What do we really know? We live on this planet in the Universe. The planet Earth, if we could look at a picture of the whole Universe, is smaller than a grain of sand. What do we know about the whole? We have no idea. So any story that we create in our head is just that, a story, not the truth. We cannot know the truth because we don’t know the whole. All our regrets for example, are just that, stories; all of them, every one of them, is nothing but unnecessary suffering. They are just a story, a point of view we choose to believe, one that happens to create suffering.

This is a very large idea, and my aim here is to simply introduce this knowledge: there are three different, very distinct aspects of suffering. Two of them are unavoidable, but one of them is a choice. And a choice always depends on a quiet mind. If my mind is agitated, it can’t make any distinction and so everything becomes suffering, everything becomes pain. But with a quiet mind, there is the possibility of a choice. The fact is always a fact, but the story that comes after the fact is my choice. And although some facts may create pain and real suffering, it is only in the story where misery is created. Misery is not a fact. It is only a thought, only a point of view; it is unnecessary suffering. It is suffering that does not need to exist.



There are 3 comments

  1. Andreea

    I totally agree – a calm and quite mind could make you see so many great possibilities that one is not able to see knelt of unnecessary pain.
    We all know how it feels to suffer, few know how to make that switch very simple, but not easy in their head.

    So, I guess, the big question to you is how to do it? I read so much about techniques of meditation, I try to be more aware and grateful of the good things happening in my life.
    I am aware keeping a quite mind needs a lot of exercise, just like exercising a muscle.
    But how would I know that I am on a good track?

    1. Carlos

      For me a quiet mind is a mind that is not so shaken—neither positively nor negatively—by events, by what happens outside, by what happens to me. Epictetus had said: “The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.”
      This is the compass, this is how you know if you are in a good track. In yoga is called equanimity. It does not mean you are not affected by things, quite the opposite. Because your attention is not lost in hoping for a particular turn of events (to feel good as opposed to feel bad) you can actually feel things much deeper. But it means that those events neither make you happy nor unhappy. Why? Because as you understand more and more (and as you very well said, it is a work that needs practice, lots of practice) you don’t depend for your happiness in the things that happen or don’t happen to you. Instead, as your understanding of presence grows, you will start to see that your happiness IS your presence.

      Your question has inspired me to write something more about a quiet mind. Hopefully I will be able to do it soon in a new note.

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