The End of Suffering?

©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 “dark night of the soul” 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 “royal flush of suffering” 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.

So congratulations:

Today is the beginning of the end of your suffering!

Now is it really possible for a human to live on Earth without suffering? Absolutely yes!

First, let’s 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. That’s 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 “positive” or a “negative” experience. For example, if I punch you in the arm, you’ll likely experience a physical sensation that your mind judges “bad”. By contrast, if I rub your shoulders, you’ll probably experience a physical sensation that the mind judges “good”.

For both pleasure and pain, all that’s 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 – aka “what is” – against the mind’s idea of the sensations and experiences that it thinks it should be having instead, aka “what should be”.

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 “delta” or difference between “what is” and the mind’s idea of what “should be.” In other words, suffering results whenever the truth of the present moment does not exactly match up with the mind’s idea of how things should be.

For example, let’s 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 you’re now barely surviving on disability and charity, all the while rapidly racking up credit card debt. If that’s “what is”, 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 “what is”, but instead is generated by the delta between “what is” and your mind’s idea of “what should be.” In this example, “what is” is that you are sick and in pain, you can’t work, you have depleted your savings, and you’re racking up debt, with no relief in sight; in that situation, it’s totally understandable that those circumstances may generate a lot of suffering.

Suffering really is optional, but it usually doesn’t seem that way! In this example, suffering arises because your mind’s idea of “what should be” likely involves you being healthy, working, and making money. Hence, the difference between “what is” and “what should be” creates friction in the mind that we call suffering.

One of my teachers would often say “If you woke up tomorrow with amnesia, you’d be fine!” It took me a long time to understand exactly what he meant by that, but now I see it: if you didn’t have any idea or concepts of how your life or the world should be different from “what is”, 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.)

Don’t get me wrong here; the core problem is not the mind’s capacity for abstract thinking that allows us to imagine how our lives or the world might be better. After all, the ability to imagine “what should be” is an important reason why humans have been able to develop technology and civilization! Instead, it is our attachments and expectations about what “should be” 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 “what is” 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 “what is” while releasing your attachments to the mind’s ideas of what “should be”, we’d all be Ascended Masters floating around and glowing as we all laughed and smiled and chanted the days away!

By contrast, what I’ve found is that there’s a lot of spiritually oriented material that’s 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!