The Arising of Suffering

Life includes pain—if you slam the door on your finger, you get to experience that directly. We share pain with the other animals. But as human beings, we also live in language. Language gives us a rich world of objects, institutions, actions, and identities. It gives us a past and a future. And it gives us stories about ourselves, others, and our situation. Living in stories gives rise to something uniquely human (so far as we know), which I refer to as suffering.

Suffering results from believing certain kinds of stories or thoughts, mainly those based on strong assessments or judgments, such as:

I must do it perfectly.

I’m not smart enough to get this.

I have nothing to contribute.

Life is hard.

I’ll never get a break.

I made terrible mistakes in my past.

I’m too old to learn something new.

Nothing makes any difference.

The game is rigged in someone else’s favor.

Those kinds of people are bad.

And we can imagine many others. When we believe these kinds of judgments, we suffer. The suffering can take various forms based on the judgment: anxiety, resignation, resentment, and guilt are common suffering moods. For example, believing “I must do it perfectly” gives rise to anxiety. Believing “the game is rigged in someone else’s favor” gives rise to resentment. When we are taken by one of these moods, we stop experiencing life as an opportunity. Everything, even otherwise positive circumstances, shows up inside the negative mood.

What all of these moods share is the belief that our current story—our judgment or perspective—is true or accurate. A story is always an invention in language. Much of the time, we forget this fact and fall into believing that our stories capture the truth. They do not. The truth is beyond capture. Stories capture a perspective—one among many. A story that leaves us suffering is not valuable. There may be some value to distill from it, but that requires getting free of the general belief that it is true and looking more carefully at it. If we can see beyond our story, we can release the mood.

Moreover, as we recognize how our beliefs that our stories are true trap us, we become freer and freer of suffering. Being free of suffering does not mean adopting a Pollyannaish view of the world. To the contrary, it means being able to make clearer assessments of situations without being inhibited by our own suffering. It turns out that our suffering is a tremendous waste of energy. It reduces our effectiveness and our ability to have an impact. We serve others by reducing our own suffering.

In subsequent blogs, I will explore how we can do that.

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