Pain versus Suffering

I know a fellow who had an abscess that made him moan, and groan, and carry on in a pitiful manner. At the dentist he was told in no uncertain terms to stop complaining. The dentist had seen more than one person with a far worse abscess, with half of their face swollen up into an angry red welt, who hardly complained at all. (Technically, the pain of an abscess is caused by pressure being put on the nerve, which then sends out a pain signal to warn of the infection). Years later, this same person was able to fall asleep in a dental chair while undergoing a root canal job. Don’t get me wrong. I can imagine pain so severe that all I’d do is cry and scream. But just last week, I read a news story about a Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in a protest. He did no complaining while he burned. Not that I am saying that we should all burn ourselves. But isn’t it interesting, the different ways we all respond to pain?

What exactly is pain and what is its relationship to suffering? The other day I heard an advertizement/plea by a cancer research charity. The spokeswoman was speaking about someone who had a severe form of cancer. What she said was, “He suffered the…cancer.”

Odd how English allows one to say things in different ways. Notice that pain is a noun and suffer is a verb. And yet we confuse the two and let them stand in for each other. We say, she suffered a broken arm, rather than, she felt the pain of a broken arm.

In this online dictionary, here, ‘suffer’ is defined as covering everything from pain to loss, from distress to punishment. It also means to appear at a disadvantage. Did the cancer research spokeswoman mean he was a a disadvantage because of the cancer? He undoubtedly was at a disadvantage. But ‘disadvantage’ does not carry the emotional freight of the word ‘suffering’.

The roots of the word ‘suffer’ comes from Latin: “Latin sufferre : … to carry.” She suffered the pain: she carried the pain. At what point did the word start to mean to feel pain?

I like to think that the two concepts should remain separate. Pain is a mental/physical object, and suffering is our reaction to it. I want to define ‘suffering’ as ‘carrying the idea of the pain beyond usefulness’.

The zen story about the two monks going on a journey together: They come across a woman who is having a hard time crossing a swollen stream. One monk picks her up and carries her across. Some while later, the second monk upbraids the first because they have taken vows to avoid women. The first monk replies, “I carried her across the stream. You are still carrying her.”

Buddha said that suffering exists, that it is caused by the attachment to desires. In respect to pain, is it not our desire to be completely free of it? And yet, the reality is that pain happens. You can’t avoid it. But what is pain? If you stick your hand into a candle flame, you get pain. This pain serves a function. It is a signal telling you to take your hand out of the fire. Sometimes, of course, pain can be so persistent there is no way to pull the figurative hand out of the flame. Is the result necessarily suffering?

Buddha said that suffering is caused by attachment. As pain is not caused by attachment, it would be inconsistent for Buddha to say that pain is suffering. Suffering is caused by attachment. Suffering is caused by carrying the import of the event in one’s mind. The second monk in the story above was in no pain, but he was suffering all during his journey because he could not let the event alone. He kept rolling it around in his mind. He kept worrying about the significance of it, about the right and wrong of it. Was he envious that the first monk got to carry the woman and he didn’t? Or, how come the first monk transgressed and didn’t get punished? Or,…. Endless strings of monkey mind.

What is the significance of pain? It is a mere signal. How can it have significance beyond being simply a signal that something is going wrong, and we should do something about it if we can? What if we can’t do anything? Are we attached to the idea that we should be so powerful that we always had the ability to cure each instance of pain, whether it be our own or another’s? Each one of us, in suffering, gives the pain signal, the phenomena of it, extra import. It is when we do this, when we think that life is not fair to cause us so much pain, that we suffer. Pain is unavoidable. Suffering, in the sense with which I am applying it, is (however unconsciously) self-afflicted.

I do a pretty good job of pretending that this sciatica I have shooting down my leg in electric bolts is merely pain. My struggle is in trying not to think that the universe is being unfair to me in giving me this pain. My struggle is to not complain to myself or others. When the pain becomes distracting, I take codeine. I would probably do well if I did more yoga.

What would a life of pain be like if we could see pain merely as pain, as just a sensation, with no significance beyond its message? What would our lives be like if we gave up our attachment to the strange notion that we should live a life that is pain free, that we should live forever, that we should be strong enough to cure all the world’s ills?

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The Marriage of Desire and Suffering

Siddhartha had a historically important revelation which he formalized and called ‘The Four Noble Truths’. The first of his Truths states that suffering exists. The second states that desire exists. We learn from Buddhist commentaries that desire gives rise to suffering. But Siddhartha, by placing suffering first, seems to imply that suffering is the cause of desire.

Desire arises from suffering. Suffering arises from desire.

When we were growing fetuses, we floated in a perfect world: the amniotic sac, warm, comforting, protective, where all our needs were met. Evidence suggests that existence in the womb is so pleasurable, it can be described as all-encompassing, endless pleasure — Oceanic Bliss. But as our foetal beings grow larger, the womb we are contained within gets tighter, cramped. Then comes the great trauma of birth which saddles each one of us*, for the rest of our lives, with suffering and desire, and it does so for the simple but monumental reason that the process of being born destroys our Oceanic Bliss. Forget all that Freudian stuff about sexual trauma screwing us up. The first cause of suffering is the fact that our perfect world of Oceanic Bliss is shattered, destroyed, replaced by a hard, harsh, cold and sometimes cruel environment.

Reacting to the suffering we feel, at being forced into a rough, intransigent world, inspires our first desire: we want to return to that state of Oceanic Bliss which existed before we were born. Desire is always and only the wish to escape suffering so as to return to Oceanic Bliss. But desire is always frustrated. Oceanic Bliss cannot be regained. Frustrated desire causes more suffering, and continued suffering causes more desire to escape suffering.

The ego thinks up all sorts of strategies to return us to Oceanic Bliss. All such strategies are doomed to fail. Firstly, there are too many variables in any situation for our minds to account for them all. Lacking complete knowledge, our imaginations cannot effectively compute real future outcomes for any of our plans. Even if we attain some positive outcome, it is never up to the standard of Oceanic Bliss.

Secondly, we make the mistake of thinking that working on the external world is the way to regain bliss. The fledgling ego keeps whacking away at the new, recalcitrant world in which it finds itself, trying to fix it, manipulate it, or coerce it into fulfilling its desire. Ask any mother how determined the child is to get its way. But none of our efforts ever really works. We never return to Oceanic Bliss. We may get momentary pleasures, but they are short-lived and always pale in comparison to our (subconscious) memory of life in the womb. When our seeking after bliss fails to give substantial results, we blame the external world. We complain, seek revenge or think up more plots and schemes. And if, out of exhaustion or despair, we give up blaming the world, we often blame ourselves, sometimes to such an extent that we seek a false relief in self-damage.

Imaginary Case #1: Suffering: Jack is such a jerk he pisses me off. →Externalized Desire: He’s better stop bothering me. →On the Road to more Suffering: I swear, if he keeps on, I’m going to kill him.

Case #2: Suffering: I’m so lonely. →Externalized Desire: If only Jonny would fall in love with me, we’d live happily ever after. →Suffering: Jonny turns out to be a snake, a drunk, a womanizer, a brutal troglodyte. →Externalized Desire: Oh, if only he’d go to AA, I’d be happy again. →Suffering: Why won’t he go to AA? It’s probably my fault because I don’t love him enough. →Externalized Desire: I’ll buy this lottery ticket and win a million dollars so I can leave him and live happily ever after. Then he’ll be sorry.

And so we live our lives, striving after a past that cannot become the future.

Note from above: * excepting for a relative few of us. See more about Buddhism.