It may sound strange but suffering is an opportunity, especially acute suffering. Acute suffering is suffering that is obviously present for us. We are keenly aware of it. We cannot be unaware of it. It is distinct from chronic suffering which is the suffering that passes as everyday negative moods. Chronic suffering can be difficult to see because we live with it for so long. Acute suffering is unmistakable and that is part of why it is an opportunity. By being aware of it, we can explore it and dissolve the structures creating it. And we usually discover that those same structures underlie our chronic suffering, so we gain even greater freedom than we might have thought possible.
Suffering is distinct from pain. Pain is a product of our bodies. It alerts us to conditions that are damaging to the body. In contrast, suffering is a product of our narratives. It alerts us to narratives or beliefs that are damaging to our well-being. Suffering is always a product of our own narratives or beliefs. Much of the time it appears to be caused by external conditions but that is an illusion. How we interpret the conditions determines whether we suffer or not.
Consider an example: I am suffering because someone did not return my call. I have the belief that the unreturned call means that the other person does not value me. Her valuing me is very important because if she does not value me, I may fall into the narrative that I am unworthy of being valued. My basic worth is at question, all because I did not receive a phone call. Sound crazy? Looked at without any beliefs, it does. But add beliefs to the stories and it is recipe for suffering.
What are the beliefs in the story? There are many. Start with that we have no way of knowing if the basic facts are correct. Did the person receive my call? Did she attempt to return it and fail in the attempt? Is she on a silent retreat? In suffering, we already have beliefs about the answers to these questions.
Let us presume the facts are correct and look at the deeper beliefs. It is a belief that an unreturned call equates to not being valued. But there are many reasons phone calls do not get returned. Even more importantly, what is being valued or not valued? The belief is that “I” am not being valued. But that statement involves two leaps. First, it may make sense to say that some offer I am currently making is not being accepted, but that is very different from believing that “I” am not being valued. And second, more subtly, there is the belief that “I” can be fundamentally valued or not—where is this “I” and how do we measure its value?
A phone call is made and nothing is heard back. By itself, an incomplete dance of coordination meaning little. But on top of a structure of beliefs, it becomes a source of suffering leading back to questions about one’s own worth. All of the suffering in this incident is a product of beliefs. None of it is inherent in the unreturned phone call.
As long as we believe external conditions cause our suffering, we are trapped. For as long as the external conditions persist, we must suffer. Freedom comes from recognizing where suffering arises from, namely the negative beliefs that trap us.
Chronic suffering is the suffering of everyday life. It shows up as moods that are generally present for us. Common ones are fear, guilt, resentment, and resignation. Fear may show up as background anxiety about the future, whether about preparing for a meeting tomorrow or about dealing with retirement plans. Guilt often shows up as a kind of constant self-criticism. Resentment may present itself as envy and simmering anger. Resignation may feel like apathy. Chronic suffering is usually difficult to see because the moods are almost always present. We come to believe that they represent the normal way life feels.
All of these moods are based on beliefs, usually foundational beliefs we acquire early in life. At the deepest level, they are beliefs connected to what we consider ourselves to be. Some common examples include “I am insufficient,” or “I am unlovable.” We do not generally think these thoughts. They were thought long ago and became foundational beliefs upon which many others were built. They form the deep structure for our chronic suffering.
An episode of acute suffering always connects to these underlying beliefs in some manner. Acute suffering breaks the everyday transparency and demands our attention. As such, it represents a remarkable opportunity. By exploring the acute suffering, we have the opportunity to see these underlying beliefs and dissolve them through inquiry.
We do not have to take the opportunity. We can, instead, attempt to escape from the suffering. Turning to activities that we hope will distract us such as shopping or watching sports are mild forms of escape. Turning to alcohol and drugs are stronger forms. Though the escapes may take the edge off the discomfort, they do not produce freedom. Yet even after escaping for a while, the opportunity for freedom is still there.
The key is to turn toward the beliefs, rather than away from them. In turning towards them, we explore them. We look to see just how real or not they are. I strongly endorse Byron Katie’s practice of The Work as a simple, elegant, and highly effective way of conducting an inquiry into our beliefs.* As we explore our beliefs, we reveal the false prison they have produced for us. Starting with a belief related to an immediate breakdown, we can follow it down to some of the deeper beliefs that underlie our chronic suffering, in the process dissolving them and creating freedom for ourselves.
So, welcome that next bout of suffering. Through that portal, lies freedom.
*See my post, “Dissolving Beliefs that Generate Suffering,” for an outline of Katie’s practice.