“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.”
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