Open Questioning

What is Suffering?

What we call “suffering” is impossible to pin down because “suffering” is not a static thing. Ask yourself, "is this painful and raw experience 'suffering' before we judge it as such?"
  • Question: I am thoroughly enjoying your book Elizabeth…Temporarily I needed to put down HH Dalai Lama’s book “The Middle Way” & Patrul Rinpoche’s “In the Words of my Perfect Teacher” because I was beginning to feel I wasn’t ready for these teachings…however you have made the concept of Buddha’s teaching on the “Middle Way”, a bit easier for me to currently grasp… At the moment my question stems from pg. 49 “what is suffering before we objectify it”? My initial though or counter question is “how could one even objectify suffering when suffering (pain, angst, despair, etc…) truly stems from emotions…feelings. How could one possibly “objectify” a feeling or an emotion ? Am I thinking in too literally here ? with metta, Jude

    Response: Hello Jude, thank you for your question. I feel this question calls for a deeper query into the experience of suffering. Does suffering only stem from emotions? Or does it have a conceptual component too? And suffering – as you described as pain, angst, despair – are these not also emotions? What happens when we stay open in the face of strong experiences without labeling them? We may find as we probe a little deeper into what we call ‘suffering’ that it may not be as easy to pin down as we may think – that suffering (and any experience for that matter) is fuller than the ideas we have about it. This is what I am getting at in the book.

    When we look deeper into an experience of “suffering”, discomfort or dissatisfaction we may find many things happening. For instance, just the fact that we call an experience “painful” has a lot of concept or beliefs behind it. We already have decided that it is something we don’t want – this is how we objectify an experience. In other words, there is some aversion to the experience itself that impedes our ability to experience it in a fresh way.

    It would be hard to say what comes first, concept or emotion. But it would be hard to find an emotion that was not ignited by and mixed with some sort of thought or belief…some kind of concern or worry. This is why, when a situation we consider difficult changes, it changes our way of thinking and we find emotional relief. So we can say that suffering has a strong conceptual component.

    Suffering also has strong emotional and physical components. If we only had ideas and no emotions or physical sensations that accompanied them we probably wouldn’t experience what we call suffering. We wouldn’t have what we call “feelings” about anything. Emotions have strong physical manifestations. They affect our nervous system, our heart rate, circulation, digestion, brain activity and so on.

    So I was questioning in the book the nature of suffering because we tend to just shut down and say, “I’m suffering” without really examining it. Suffering seems to be a combination of many dynamic factors…it’s quite raw and vibrant if we don’t shut down. But it is hard to relax and experience the fullness of it.

    To objectify something means to see it in a one-dimensional way. To see something as one-dimensional requires that we contract around it – narrow our experience. This is not just a conceptual process but emotional and physical too. Our body doesn’t feel relaxed when we are suffering.

    What I am suggesting is that nothing is one-dimensional – all things are full and open-dimensional because they are changing and open to interpretation. As a realization this is quite liberating because it means we are never stuck. Where do we draw the line between suffering and happiness? Sometimes what we consider painful leads to a greater understanding and sense of wellbeing. Sometimes things that excite us have challenging consequences.

    What we call “suffering” is impossible to pin down because “suffering” is not a static thing…it is not even suffering before we judge it as such. It is the rich expression of our nature. To understand suffering without contracting around it is freeing and deepening as an experience: the same energy behind suffering can give way to compassion and clarity when we don’t shut down around it. This is why I am calling “suffering” into question.

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