“Pain is physical; suffering is mental. Beyond the mind there is no suffering. Pain is merely a signal that the body is in danger and requires attention. Similarly, suffering warns us that the structure of memories and habits, which we call the person, is threatened by loss or change. Pain is essential for the survival of the body, but none compels you to suffer. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting; it is a sign of our unwillingness to move on, to flow with life.”

~Nisargadatta Maharaj


Why do we suffer? Although whole libraries of texts have been devoted to the issue, in reality it is not that complicated. We suffer because we want what we don’t have, and don’t want what we do have. We like one part of our experience of life, and want more of it. We don’t like another part of our life experience, and so strive to avoid it.

We want more food, more sex, more power and prestige, more love and admiration, more health and longevity, more knowledge and cleverness, and we especially want whatever others have. Terms such as “greed and envy” are often used to describe the craving and sense of present dissatisfaction that is behind all of our suffering – wanting what we don’t have.

On the other hand there is fear, hatred, and aversion, or not wanting what we already have, such as pain, sickness, loneliness, poverty, despair, impotence, old age, and death. These two — craving and aversion — alternate in a vicious cycle, which in turn serves to create and then reinforce the sense of an independent and enduring self who suffers from perpetual seeking, sense of lack, fearfulness, and stress.

If we are willing to set aside our pursuits and assumptions for a moment and really investigate the matter, we can notice how we habitually tend to cling to our “suffering” role. Indeed, the last thing we want to do is question its reality! The ego-mind loves that self-image, because it conveniently confirms its existence. “Don’t tell me there’s no sickness, old age, and death — I’ve got a whole persona invested in that identity!”

The projection of this person — “me” — into all that we think and do constitutes a narrative, or story line, of a solid and independent self, and is the basis for the fundamental ignorance that keeps us addicted to the same low level realms of conflict and strife in which most of us currently find ourselves as incarnated humans. That repetitive activity is called ignorance because we don’t realize that the “person” who seems to be in charge and ruling our lives is, in fact, just a collection of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and impulses, all dependently arising based on various causes and conditions, with no inherent existence apart from them.

In other words, the “me” which observes events, experiences, and phenomena is actually no different from the “me” consisting of all the observed thoughts, perceptions, memory associations, and emotions. All is arising in the mind, as a projection of mind. However, because mind has no inherent substance or solidity, it is said to be “empty”, and so too whatever content appears – it is all essentially empty. With the recognition that the I-thought, and the whole “me-story”, has no real basis, it dissolves. There is no self-identity presenting itself any longer.

Just as the sense of self cannot persist without dependence on conceptual designation , so it is with suffering. As Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche notes: “What is more, suffering cannot exist apart from any thought of it—it must depend upon the thought of the suffering in order to exist. Without the concept of suffering, there is no suffering in the slightest. Since it cannot exist on its own, it cannot have any objective or true existence. The fact that suffering is just a thought and nothing else is something we definitely know from our own experience. For example, people can be very upset before they go to sleep, but when they are in deep sleep they do not suffer at all, because they do not have the thought of suffering. Then when they wake up again in the morning, they do not suffer at all until they start thinking of their suffering. Once they start thinking of it, then it begins, but not before.”

Now, when we read “Suffering cannot exist apart from any thought of it—it must depend upon the thought of the suffering in order to exist. Without the concept of suffering, there is no suffering in the slightest”, we might take it to our head and make it a belief, based on some intellectual agreement, but when the shite hits the fan in our lives, any merely verbal knowledge will do us little good, and we will find ourselves granting reality to the suffering, despite our fine concepts.

However, if instead of making the liberating wisdom a mere conceptual file in our memory program, we actually explore our experience to see if it is true — that without the concept there is no suffering — then we may come upon a direct verification of the truth. We may in other words go beyond the pointing finger and actually see the moon. Then, when the conditions for suffering happen to ripen in our life, we can recognize their true nature, and refrain from any investment in them. Suffering will have no place to land, no target.

Simultaneous with recognizing the basis of all mistaken identity, we can begin to appreciate that there is a background of spacious awareness and native happiness, utterly distinct from and untainted by that whole trap of chronic suffering and dissatisfaction.This fundamental awareness does not change, whereas the person who seems to be in control changes all the time. Our concepts, opinions, emotions, judgments and preferences continuously change, but even so we typically identify with them as who and what we are. We think all this is “me”, but actually it’s just something that arises and dissolves both within and also as that space of awareness, like a breeze in the vastness of sky.

Through expedient practices such as true meditation, attention can come to rest in the open, spacious transparency of awake awareness itself. By ceasing to grant reality to whatever notions and conditioned interpretations on experience that might momentarily dance and flicker across the screen, craving and aversion have less and less power to distract and define us. By returning to the space between our thoughts for small moments, repeated many times, our sense of identity is naturally released from the small cramped cage of the self-fixation.

This is how ignorance is dispelled, because the story of “me” and its elaborated drama of suffering and lack, dissatisfaction and seeking, is seen through and recognized as a dreamy fiction, empty of independent existence, and thus is more and more replaced by the natural happiness arising from the recognition of our true nature.

I say “more and more”, because the afflictions that constitute our suffering are usually not vanquished in one stroke (by the direct, non-conceptual perception of the emptiness of the self-image, for example). The mind is so complex and the deluding vexations can be so sophisticated and powerful that one single realization alone cannot eliminate all negative states completely. Bringing one’s life into alignment with true realization takes a lot of devoted work, and the effort will encounter many obstacles in the form of “speed traps” and “sting operations” along the way, which is why genuine compassion and forgiveness is so necessary.

“Letting go” is not as easy as it sounds. After all, attaching and clinging to the separate self-sense and all of its elaborations is almost hard-wired into us by our conditioning, and the last thing the self-absorbed mind wants is to be dethroned from its power position and made to face its own essential emptiness. The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing is one thing, but the prospect of selflessness is even more daunting for most of us.

However, if we were to set aside our fears and borrowed notions about what true selflessness entails, we would begin to discover what love is – unconditional love —  unlimited by the demands for personal confirmation and gratification. Indeed, it is only in the recognition and embodiment of true love that we will at last be able to let go of the compounded burden of the suffering persona which we have imposed on our own innocence through cumulative ignorance.

The more we surrender that obsolete me-story, the more we awaken to the boundless, joyous reality that awaits us once our hearts are liberated from the attention traps of hope and fear, and the self-imposed prison cages of identification with and fixation on alternating cycles of craving and aversion. At such point, we may finally be able to enjoy this life as the adventure it is, free of the demand that it be anything other than what it is.


“I know there are some of you who believe, “Well I must have committed some great sins in the past, perhaps in previous lives, because I’m sure suffering now.” Are you really suffering? Is there such a thing? Think about that. The only reason you think you are suffering is because the world is not turning the way that you want it to. Isn’t that true? You think you should be this instead of that, you should live here instead of there, you should have this instead of that, and that’s what causes you to suffer. But when you become one-pointed, and focus your attention on your Self – with a capital S – it is virtually impossible to suffer because suffering doesn’t exist. Now you can see, perhaps, why people like Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Christ, and many others, who appeared to be suffering when they died, literally told their disciples, “No body suffers. I am not suffering. You’re suffering because you see me suffer.” That’s been difficult to understand up to now, but when you realize that you’re not your body and nothing is the way that it appears, it’s literally easy to understand.”

~ Robert Adams

See also:

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
This entry was posted in Consciousness, Nonduality, Spiritual Practice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Suffering

  1. marcel says:

    Thank you as always, Brother.

  2. Your post was very Zen. I enjoyed it.

  3. Christopher says:

    Excellent as always Bob, thank you!!

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “In the seen, there is only the seen, in the heard, there is only the heard, in the sensed, there is only the sensed, in the cognized, there is only the cognized. Thus you should see that indeed there is no thing here; this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself. Since, Bahiya, there is for you in the seen, only the seen, in the heard, only the heard, in the sensed, only the sensed, in the cognized, only the cognized, and you see that there is no thing here, you will therefore see that indeed there is no thing there. As you see that there is no thing there, you will see that you are therefore located neither in the world of this, nor in the world of that, nor in any place betwixt the two. This alone is the end of suffering.”

    ~Bahiya Sutta

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    M: All suffering is caused by selfish isolation, by insularity and greed. When the cause of suffering is seen and removed, suffering ceases.

    Q: I may remove my causes of sorrow, but others will be left to suffer.

    M: To understand suffering, you must go beyond pain and pleasure. Your own desires and fears prevent you from understanding and thereby helping others. In reality there are no others, and by helping yourself you help everybody else. If you are serious about the sufferings of mankind, you must perfect the only means of help you have — Yourself.

    Q: Must we not suffer to grow?

    M: It is enough to know that there is suffering, that the world suffers. By themselves neither pleasure nor pain enlighten. Only understanding does. Once you have grasped the truth that the world is full of suffering, that to be born is a calamity, you will find the urge and the energy to go beyond it. Pleasure puts you to sleep and pain wakes you up. If you do not want to suffer, don’t go to sleep. You cannot know yourself through bliss alone, for bliss is your very nature. You must face the opposite, what you are not, to find enlightenment.

    It is in the nature of love to express itself, to affirm itself, to overcome difficulties. Once you have understood that the world is love in action, you will look at it quite differently. But first your attitude to suffering must change. Suffering is primarily a call for attention, which itself is a movement of love. More than happiness, love wants growth, the widening and deepening of consciousness and being. Whatever prevents becomes a cause of pain, and love does not shirk from pain. Sattva, the energy that works for righteousness and orderly development, must not be thwarted. When obstructed it turns against itself and becomes destructive. Whenever love is withheld and suffering allowed to spread, war becomes inevitable. Our indifference to our neighbour’s sorrow brings suffering to our door.

    Q: Is not all suffering self-created?

    M: Yes, as long as there is a separate self to create it. In the end you know that there is no sin, no guilt, no retribution, only life in its endless transformations. With the dissolution of the personal ‘I’ personal suffering disappears. What remains is the great sadness of compassion, the horror of the unnecessary pain.

    Q: Is there anything unnecessary in the scheme of things?

    M: Nothing is necessary, nothing is inevitable. Habit and passion blind and mislead. Compassionate awareness heals and redeems. There is nothing we can do, we can only let things happen according to their nature.

    Q: Do you advocate complete passivity?

    M: Clarity and charity is action. Love is not lazy and clarity directs. You need not worry about action, look after your mind and heart. Stupidity and selfishness are the only evil.

    ~from “I Am That”, Nisargadatta Maharaj

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.”

    ~ Wei Wu Wei

  7. Empty and marvelous my friend! Me, myself and I would like to thank you for this fine essay but they aren’t here right now!

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    Sadly, victimhood has become the default attitude for many, especially those who are fixed in a belief structure in which they perceive themselves as nothing more than the body they inhabit, at the mercy of forces that are continuously thwarting their desires and threatening their very survival. Interestingly, those who blame and complain seem to get more to complain about, whereas those who are grateful seem to discover more and more to be grateful for.

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    Two Kinds of Suffering

    There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.

    ~ Ajahn Chah

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    Suffering is never experienced the way thought conceives it to be.

    Suffering is usually a ‘combination’ of a thought story and sensations.

    Take the thought story away and leave the sensations, does ‘suffering’ remain ? No, it’s just sensation.

    Take the sensations away, but leave the thought story, does suffering remain ? No, it’s just thought.

    Now put the two of them ‘back together’, does ‘suffering’ suddenly spring into existence ?

    When these two ‘elements’ come back together, is a third element called ‘suffering’ created ? And likewise, when they ‘split apart’ does suffering disappear ?

    Was there ever or could there ever be ‘suffering’ ?

    ~Aaron Wiley

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “Suffering is our best teacher because it hangs onto us and keeps us in its grip until we have learnt that particular lesson. Only then does suffering let go. If we haven’t learnt our lesson, we can be quite sure that the same lesson is going to come again, because life is nothing but an adult education class, If we don’t pass in any of the subjects, we just have to sit the examination again. Whatever lesson we have missed, we will get it again. That is why we find ourselves reacting to similar situations in similar ways many times.”

    ~ Ayya Khema, ‘Being Nobody, Going Nowhere’

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    You see people suffer and you seek the best way of helping them. The answer is obvious – first put yourself beyond the need of help. Be sure your attitude is of pure goodwill, free of expectation of any kind. Those who seek mere happiness may end up in sublime indifference, while love will never rest. As to method, there is only love – you must come to know yourself – both what you appear to be and what you are. Clarity and charity go together – each needs and strengthens the other.

    ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

  13. Bob OHearn says:

    So, again, to lay the groundwork for awakening, we must first let go of struggling. You let go by acknowledging that the end of struggle is actually present in your experience now. The end of struggle is peace. Even if your ego is struggling, even if you’re trying to figure this out and “do it right,” if you really look, you might just see that struggle is happening within a greater context of peace, within an inner stillness. But if you try to make stillness happen, you’ll miss it. If you try to make peace happen, you’ll miss it. This is more like a process of recognition, giving recognition to a stillness that is naturally present.

    We’re not bringing struggle to an end. We’re not trying to not struggle anymore. We’re just noticing that there is a whole other dimension to consciousness that, in this very moment, isn’t struggling, isn’t resentful, isn’t trying to get somewhere. You can literally feel it in your body. You can’t think your way to not struggling. There isn’t a three–point plan of how not to struggle. It’s really a one–point plan: Notice that the peace, this end of struggling, is actually already present.

    ~ Adyashanti

  14. Bob OHearn says:

    “The individual, or jiva, who is a monkey, is not ready to drop his limited existence as jiva unless he is subjected to some great upheaval or change. Only after suffering great misery and calamity, does he feel that all is false. Then he knows that there is no happiness as such in worldly things. He then comes to know what Maya is.”

    ~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  15. Bob OHearn says:

    “The challenges, and the difficulties you face as a human being through the use of the body are not karmic conditions forced upon you, or some other predetermined form of spiritual learning you must endure to ascend, but are mere consequential values you inherit from interacting with physical reality and its many combined components. Suffering is not a prerequisite for enlightenment, ascension, or any other state of bliss or mastery of spirit nature.

    Greatest insights are never the result of suffering, for if this were so then suffering would be an inherent nature and characteristic of the spirit world. The spirit world being home to the most wise and insightful beings in the multiverse. Great insights are the result of an individual becoming more receptive to the language of their feelings; the language of truth. Unfortunately it often takes some form of suffering to motivate a human being to feel anything strongly enough to act upon it, or to seek the wisdom and guidance within it. This is the value you are referring to, and yet this value need not come through the catalyst of suffering.

    There have been many noble souls who have sought enlightenment through suffering.
    They have failed.”

  16. Bob OHearn says:

    “Despite popular belief in new age attitudes, life on planet Earth is not a school for advancing through undignified suffering. This is simply humanity’s way of negating responsibility for the causes of such suffering, and not fully understanding the deeper trauma caused and its impact on the consciousness of the individual or life form. It is like saying it is beneficial for whales to be hunted and slaughtered to extinction in Earths oceans, because it will aid in the mammals heart wisdom.”


  17. Judy says:

    Wow, I was in a really bad place emotionally/mentally due to my sad story, and the way with words that the Bob character expresses is a never ending source of gratitude! Thanks for “pulling me out” again, as in most of my days it is really needed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.