Well, all the polls have confirmed it. It’s not the death we’re afraid of, pretty much all of us recognize, and to one degree or another, accept that one day we’re going to be dead. More specifically, the polls tell us, our most common fear of death is actually expressed as a fear of pain and suffering that might precede it. I find this quite relieving. That old ‘fear of death’ myth has been wiped off the slate. Gone, gone, gone beyond. It feels good to have the weight, of one fear anyway, off our shoulders. We’re not afraid of death. Amazing. And now that we’ve basked in this glow, dare we look at the fear of pain and suffering?
Pain vs Suffering
Pain is a phenomenon of the Body and Suffering is a phenomenon of the Soul.
They’re two completely different things. Our Illness Care System assures us though, that our pain and ‘discomfort’ (that is the term used) will be managed and mitigated by medicine, treatments and other interventions. What is not necessarily discussed, however, is that every medicine, treatment and intervention brings it’s own side-effect and discomfort. So we try to find the right balance to meet our needs , if not all of our wants. But what about the suffering? Currently, our medical system’s response to relieving ‘relentless discomfort’ begins when life pro-longing interventions cease. Pain and ‘discomfort’ mitigation becomes more aggressive, with the full awareness that it is, or may be, hastening death. Suicide, other-assisted or not, is also an intervention to terminate pain and suffering. We also know about the many alternative practices that have been demonstrated to be effective for managing pain. So what about the suffering?
WARNING: Enter At Your Own Risk
Suffering is all-pervasive; it is suffuse within us. Suffering is as present as the air we breathe. Suffering pretty much sucks. Suffering just is. Yes, this is Buddha’s First Noble Truth, does anyone disagree with the assessment? The degree of suffering at any one time may change but it’s pretty much a constant companion; sometimes it’s the guest that’s stayed a wee too long. But Buddha also said ‘there is relief of suffering’. There is no implication that it ceases to exist (a metaphysical concept), only that there is relief.
How Do We Suffer? Let Us Count The Ways
We suffer when: we don’t get what we had hoped for; we lose something precious, or not; we become afflicted; we grieve; we feel misunderstood; we feel taken advantage of, targeted; we see a loved one suffering; we open our eyes, and hearts, to the profound suffering of others – poverty, abuse of power, natural disasters and otherwise; we feel guilt (Catholic, Jewish, or Own Grown); we crave what someone else has; we envy another’s position or status; we’re victimized; we’re living the human condition; we’re dying.
Have you ever tried to compare your suffering to someone else’s? It’s worthless. It’s futile as regret (Emily Dickinson). It’s dumb. There is no comparing. Each suffering is unique. The good news is that It Doesn’t Matter how much we are suffering, there is Always something that can make the suffering Bigger. This is a very good place to be for practicing Mindfulness: being aware of what’s going on, on the inside and the outside. It even has the potential to nurture Gratefulness, Humility, and even Compassion.
The Relief of Suffering Starts
Just as we try to find the balance point when managing physical pain, we need to find the balance point for managing suffering. One way to start this is to learn about suffering, so we begin to collect information, data, our experiences. Data, information is objective. So we have to be able to look at suffering with Detachment. This means that what I’m looking at is Not MY Suffering, it is just suffering. When I breathe air it is just air, not My Air. It’s as much a part of my living, though, as the blood running through the veins of this body.
It is only then that I start to add meaning to the information, the experience of suffering. This is an important place. There an infinite number of ways, or meanings, we may attribute, and it is this meaning, this interpretation of our experience that is the fodder of our conclusions come beliefs, become actions, become the stories we tell, become the life we live.
Look around some more. Collect more data. How do other people respond to suffering? Teachers abound, both, the good examples and the horrible warnings. ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl remains an iconic good example for me.
Suffering Is Neither Good Nor Bad
But, I do think, Suffering plays a vital role in our lives. Suffering can definitely be a motivator or an immobilizer. Suffering enables us to be empathetic and sympathetic. It also enables us to be pathetic. Suffering is a great teacher. People are great perpetrators of Suffering. Suffering has the power to change. Suffering need not be interpreted as a poor-me affliction. Suffering, as in Grieving, is a good thing – within limits. Suffering can be acted out violently or, “in a gentle way shake the world.”
Do Not Cling to Suffering – Remain Detached
Following is a schematic of how we self-generate our beliefs, and how easily we can find ourselves mired in a life of, you guessed it — The Big “S”, suffering.