The End of Suffering?
Â©2014 Brent Phillips
Day 1: Why Do We Suffer?
One of our most powerful motivations to pursue spiritual practices is to lesser or eliminate suffering. After all, most of us experience lives filled with a never-ending parade of various flavors of suffering, including physical suffering, emotional suffering, economic/money suffering, and relationship suffering.
I am the first to admit that I did not start my spiritual journey in earnest until my first âdark night of the soulâ when a combination of injuries, chronic pain, emotional imbalance, financial devastation, betrayal by my life-long best friend, and a terrible heartbreak wiped me out and left me desperate for any remedy. It took a âroyal flush of sufferingâ to open my mind and begin a decades-long journey into deep spirituality. Hence, I have created this series specifically to allow you to learn from my mistakes and make the adjustments necessary so suffering can slowly start disappearing out of your life.
Today is the beginning of the end of your suffering!âș
Now is it really possible for a human to live on Earth without suffering? Absolutely yes!
First, letâs start with a few fundamental definitions and distinctions, in particular, the difference between suffering and pain.
As the Buddha famously said,
Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional
Indeed this teaching is a powerful pointer that can lead you to genuine spiritual freedom!
I recognize that, to most of us, pain and suffering are often seen as being almost the same thing. However, making a distinction between pain and suffering in your mind is a critical first step towards the elimination of suffering.
So what exactly is the difference between pain and suffering?
Pain is a sensation that occurs in a highly biologically evolved mind-body organism with a nervous system, such as a human. Thatâs it; pain is nothing more than a simple sensation delivered to awareness via the nervous system of a complex animal! However, when a sensation is reflexively, automatically, and instantly judged and filled with meaning by the mind, the sensation is transformed into either a âpositiveâ or a ânegativeâ experience. For example, if I punch you in the arm, youâll likely experience a physical sensation that your mind judges âbadâ. By contrast, if I rub your shoulders, youâll probably experience a physical sensation that the mind judges âgoodâ.
For both pleasure and pain, all thatâs really happening is that the organism experiences a sensation, and the mind instantly and automatically applies meaning to it. Truly, no sensation is good or bad, except the mind makes it so!
Quite simply, suffering is what happens when the mind applies negative judgments or meaning to a sensation or experience. More precisely, suffering is a result of the mind comparing the sensations and experiences that it is present to â aka âwhat isâ â against the mindâs idea of the sensations and experiences that it thinks it should be having instead, aka âwhat should beâ.
Fortunately, if you can learn to become aware of and interrupt this process to break the pattern, it really is possible to reduce and eventually even completely eliminate suffering from your life.
A useful model for understanding suffering is to see suffering as the âdeltaâ or difference between âwhat isâ and the mindâs idea of what âshould be.â In other words, suffering results whenever the truth of the present moment does not exactly match up with the mindâs idea of how things should be.
For example, letâs say that money problems are causing a lot of suffering in your life; maybe you got sick and were forced to quit your job, and youâre now barely surviving on disability and charity, all the while rapidly racking up credit card debt. If thatâs âwhat isâ, you are likely experiencing a lot of suffering, especially if you have no idea of how to recover your health and prosperity.
However, notice that the suffering here does not result directly from âwhat isâ, but instead is generated by the delta between âwhat isâ and your mindâs idea of âwhat should be.â In this example, âwhat isâ is that you are sick and in pain, you canât work, you have depleted your savings, and youâre racking up debt, with no relief in sight; in that situation, itâs totally understandable that those circumstances may generate a lot of suffering.
Suffering really is optional, but it usually doesnât seem that way! In this example, suffering arises because your mindâs idea of âwhat should beâ likely involves you being healthy, working, and making money. Hence, the difference between âwhat isâ and âwhat should beâ creates friction in the mind that we call suffering.
One of my teachers would often say âIf you woke up tomorrow with amnesia, youâd be fine!â It took me a long time to understand exactly what he meant by that, but now I see it: if you didnât have any idea or concepts of how your life or the world should be different from âwhat isâ, there would be no friction in the mind, and hence no suffering. In the extreme, someone who was constantly being punched in the nose – but yet had no basis for expecting life to be any different – would experience a lot of pain but no suffering; this is how most animals live. (Of course, to be precise I must point out that the amnesia would have to wipe out both conscious and subconscious memories to eliminate the delta and stop the mind from creating suffering.)
Donât get me wrong here; the core problem is not the mindâs capacity for abstract thinking that allows us to imagine how our lives or the world might be better. After all, the ability to imagine âwhat should beâ is an important reason why humans have been able to develop technology and civilization! Instead, it is our attachments and expectations about what âshould beâ that create the suffering. Indeed, a high spiritual vibration human still engages in thinking about how to make the world a better place, and likely takes action to create value and serve others; the difference is that the master has no attachment to those ideas or expectations, and hence they do not create suffering.
In other words, if you can let go of your idea of how things should be, and simply be present to âwhat isâ with a minimum of judgments and meaning added by the mind, suffering will begin to vanish.
Of course, if this was as easy as just acknowledging that you need to surrender to âwhat isâ while releasing your attachments to the mindâs ideas of what âshould beâ, weâd all be Ascended Masters floating around and glowing as we all laughed and smiled and chanted the days away!
By contrast, what Iâve found is that thereâs a lot of spiritually oriented material thatâs pretty good at pointing you to the top of the mountain, but provides little or no practical step-bystep support on exactly how to get you there. Fortunately for you, the rest of this series is devoted to exactly that purpose: to show you how to embody and live in transcendent spiritual truth in your normal, day to day life, and eliminate suffering forever!