What is Suffering?

The first noble truth of Buddhism is: There is suffering. It should be understood. I remember the first time I learned about this teaching. I was at a bookstore in the Dallas area sometime around 1991. I was with my parents and my son, who was still in a baby stroller. Near the cash registers, there was a carousel of tiny books. I don’t remember what the book was called, but it was about teachings of the Buddha. Casually thumbing through the pages, I saw, “Life is suffering.” Immediately I knew it was true. I’d spent the last 21 years experiencing the suffering of childhood trauma. It was liberating to read the words. I put the book down and did not read more on Buddhism for several years.

I believed what many who have studied the Buddha’s teachings believes. That suffering was the point of life. This is a misunderstanding of what the Buddha meant when sharing the four noble truths, though. The suffering of life is not in the living itself. It is in how we relate to our experiences. Suffering is inevitable because we resist life’s transience. We resist the very nature of life, which is, in part, to feel pain and sadness; to feel the discomfort of change and loss. It is not the loss itself that causes the suffering, however. It is our judgment of it. It is our resistance to it.

How that resistance manifests as suffering is not always easy to see.

When we talk about forgiveness, we often discuss suffering. Forgiveness is a process we can use to help alleviate suffering when the emotional pain we feel is the result of the past hurtful actions of ourselves or another. We forgive those who hurt us, and the pain goes away.

Interestingly, after hosting many workshops over the past eight months, I have noticed an unexpected phenomenon. While a person’s chronic suffering is apparent to me (furrowed brow, raised shoulders, rigid body movement, a sullen gaze, intellectual preoccupation, or physical pain), they don’t seem to make the connection between their habitual state of dis-ease and the need to heal. They appear to intellectually recognize the need to forgive (why else would they come to a workshop called The Power of Forgiveness), but they don’t always see what they are sacrificing by living with their pain.

In part, this lack of recognition of one’s suffering is due to not being able to identify suffering for what it is. Many of us live in an ongoing state of distress for so long we don’t see it. It’s just the way we are. But that is not true. The way we are intended to be is light and free, natural and comfortable.

In Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the author discusses the idea that human beings have the capacity to relate to personal suffering as a good thing. Arguably, it is. How else would we learn? As someone who has experienced her fair share of suffering, it would be naive of me to think it has not served me. In fact, the power of forgiveness is in finding true gratitude for the painful experiences of life. But, to change—to heal—we must release our resistance to feeling the pain and allow it to move through us.

Not suffering is not the same as being happy all of the time. Emotional pain is a part of life. We make mistakes. Others do things that cause us to feel hurt. These things happen because life is for learning. Suffering, on the other hand, happens when we become attached to the hurt we feel when we embody the sadness, anger, humiliation, or guilt. When this happens, the feelings themselves become harder to identify.

One common outcome of suffering I see is self-righteous indignation. This is particularly hard to identify as suffering because being self-righteous feels good. Take a minute and test this. Close your eyes and think about something you know you’re right about that others (or one other) just don’t get. What do you feel? If you’re doing the exercise diligently, you might feel a little buzz, an airiness. You feel a little high.

The reason for this is that being self-righteous actually causes the release of dopamine and endorphin in the brain. It feels like your high because that is exactly what is happening. This biological response makes self-righteousness addictive.

But, why do we do it? From where does the impulse to judge and be indignant come? It originates from the same place all coping mechanisms come from: the avoidance of emotional pain. We feel hurt, reject the feeling, and respond by whatever means we can. For many that coping response is indignation.

Under this framework, suffering becomes harder to pinpoint. It can even temporarily feel good. Other elusive forms of suffering include apathy and prejudice. We create aspects of a worldview (belief system) that protect us from seeing the things that once caused us emotional pain. We separate ourselves from it with numbness or judgment. This is an admirable coping mechanism, but it is still just a way to survive. It is not a way to learn the lessons we are here to learn and grow. If we want to grow, we have to feel the discomfort that is a part of life.

Understanding our suffering—accepting it—is vital to learning to forgive. We cannot heal what we do not see. To dislodge your attachment to perpetual suffering, try this exercise.

  • Get quiet. Close your eyes. Take 5 minutes to calm your mind and raise awareness of your body and breath.
  • Now, notice any discomfort you’re feeling in your body or, perhaps, as a result of incessant thoughts.
  • Think of what or who you hate. What have you spent a fair amount of energy on today judging?
  • As you think of these things or people, how does your body respond? Does the discomfort you feel increase?
  • Now, using the power of imagination, breathe into the area of the body where the unease begins. Just imagine it releasing a little or a lot.
  • Note any related emotions that emerge. These are the feelings you’ve been protecting yourself from feeling. Don’t judge them. Don’t resist them. Just feel the sadness or whatever comes up.
  • After 5-10 minutes, come back to the body. Take a deep cleansing breath and open your eyes.

If you feel residual emotions, do something active or write in a journal. Allow all the emotions to fully move through you without attachment.

This exercise is not forgiveness, but it is a good start. Acknowledging the resistance we have learned to make friends with is the first step in the process. With this increased awareness of your pain, you have new motivation to forgive. You have your starting point. It is time to begin freeing yourself from the limitations of the past.