Last time, I wrote about how suffering arises for us. I made the distinction between pain, a biological process, and suffering, which requires living in language. “Suffering” is a strong word. Sometimes it is easy to see that we are suffering: something acute has happened and we believe that life will never get better. But much of the time, I think we do not realize we are suffering. It is the background in which we live. It is “just how life feels.” I have found that recognizing suffering for what it is, is a powerful step for getting free of it.
My standard for suffering is anytime I am not experiencing life as an opportunity. Consider that standard: in the course of a day, how often does life not show up as an opportunity for you? If you find yourself saying that is a ridiculous standard, I invite you to consider that you are suffering more than you realize.
I have been playing with a taxonomy of suffering for a while. I have experimented with a variety of distinctions, but I keep coming back to four basic moods of suffering. I call them moods in the sense that the German philosopher Heidegger used the term: a mood opens the world to me in a certain way. The mood I am in colors all aspects of my experience. We can understand ourselves as always being in a mood, so the point is not to be free of our moods: it is to be free of our suffering moods.
My taxonomy identifies four basic moods of suffering: fear, guilt, resentment, and resignation. These are names of large classes, each which would include variations. We can embody more than one of these moods, but I generally find one is dominant for an individual, at least for a period of life. I will give a brief explanation of each class here, including noting some of the variations.
The Moods of Suffering
Fear: a mood in which we look to the future with dread. To be afraid means to be living with the belief that I am likely not up to the challenges ahead. For many, the mood would be more recognizable as anxiety. Another variation would be self-doubt. Fear and its varieties take away the joy of life. Children in a loving environment have little fear. They encounter life in the moods of wonder and play. Everything is something to be discovered and the best way to discover it is to play with it. Fear is the opposite: that which is unknown is potentially threatening and play disappears to be replaced by a sense of dread.
Guilt: this category contains the moods oriented to the past with regret for what one has done or who one believes oneself to be. Shame and self-loathing are variations. These all involve a core belief about one’s own unworthiness. In a mood of guilt, people’s thoughts regularly punish themselves for their past deeds and who they believe they really are.
Resentment: this class of moods involves negative assessments of others, which help define who we consider our self to be. In this mood, we see others as having acted against us or having gained unfair advantage over us. Variations include jealousy and envy. Though the assessments appear directed at another, they are ultimately assessments about our self. In resenting, I make myself a victim. Envy and jealousy position me as incomplete because I lack what another has. Anger is a frequent emotion tied to these moods.
Resignation: This class of moods are based on the belief that I do not matter and cannot affect anything meaningfully. Apathy is a variation: nothing matters. They are the moods of self-negation. A milder, more common version is the mood of overwhelm. They may all appear to be about an outside situation, but at their root, is an assessment about our own inability to affect the outside situation. Often these moods feel like depression.
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A mood creates the space in which we experience life, creating our feelings about situations and even influencing what we believe to be true. In a resentful mood, for example, we are more likely to believe another is intentionally acting against us. Because the mood gives rise to how life shows up, it is very difficult to see. Our suffering comes to be understood as the way life feels and how it is. Suffering becomes our everyday experience.
When I am suffering, the first step is to recognize that I am suffering. The recognition changes my perspective from being blindly immersed in the mood to being aware that I am possessed by a negative mood. The recognition by itself rarely shifts the mood completely, but it does give me compassion for myself and reminds me not to take my thinking too seriously. I have found being aware of these classes of negative moods helpful for recognizing my own suffering.
My next pieces will focus on both the wonderful moods in which we can live, and how to transition from these to those.