On “Suffering”

These are some of my thoughts on the question of “suffering” and whether it can be surpassed in life. This is a personal prospective from my own life experience and as a practitioner of deep Tantric meditation and from a lifetime of study and practice in various Indian traditions, especially of Kashmir Shaivism. My medical career including 9 years as an emergency physician taught me much about suffering, and about compassion. – Paul Van Camp MD

Arunachala Summit, Tamil Nadu

Starting with some Definitions

Suffering: n.1. The state or experience of one that suffers.  2. Pain.

Suffer: v.  to submit to or be forced to endure; to feel keenly; to labor under; to put up with especially as inevitable or unavoidable; to endure death, pain, or distress; to sustain loss or damage; to be subject to disability or handicap.

Notice that to suffer or suffering refer to the subjective experience(s) of the one who suffers. And not about the specific circumstances that cause the suffering.

Duḥkha in Sanskrit is the corresponding term.  Unhappiness, uneasiness, pain, sorrow, trouble, difficulty, distress. The fundamental unhappiness of life. The opposite is sukha: n. ease, easiness, comfort, prosperity, pleasure, happiness.

Some of the types and sources of suffering include:

Existential – A fundamental and pervasive unhappiness of human life. Includes alienation. Fear of death and its approach and inevitability. Lack of meaningfullness in life. Fundamental doubt (śanka). Unquenchable dissatisfaction or non-fullness of being. Bereft. Fear of rebirth (saṃsara), or of hell, damnation, or non-existence after death. Feeling of having been abandoned by God. etc. Painful emptiness. Futility.

Mental / emotional – Mental distress (from intrinsic or extrinsic causes). From mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, etc. Worry and fears about the future in any arena including disappointment of expectations or hopes, etc. Stresses in one’s present circumstances. Feeling overwhelmed or incapable. Regrets and ruminations, resentments, anger etc. over one’s past or past traumas. Effects of being victim of emotional abuse (personal, group or systemic). Guilt, shame, resentment and blame. Painful memory traces (saṃskara). Disappointment and grief from losses of all types (loved ones, opportunities, livelihood, wealth, health. Loss of hopes or expectations. Enslavement, exploitation, repression.

Interpersonal – Suffering imported or taken on from others in suffering. Empathic suffering, communicated or witnessed. (Also is a source of compassion.) Suffering for the plight of other groups, communities, all humanity, animals, etc. Suffering inflicted by others, whether intentional (abuse, torture, exploitation, repression) or incidental and unintentional.

Physical –  Physical pain from injury, trauma, or a physical condition. Effects of injury from accident or caused by oneself or by other(s). Torture. Illnesses of every type and their myriad painful effects. Physical hunger and thirst without the means of satisfying basic needs. Environmental pain from excessive heat or cold, exposure, etc.

Overcoming Suffering- Is it possible and how?

In considering all of these and certainly other sources of suffering, most of them appear inherent in human (relative) life and therefore: It may be seen as inevitable that life will be accompanied by multiple forms of pain, difficulties and challenges. However, suffering abides in the subjective experience of the one who suffers and not in the events or circumstances themselves. So is it possible to transform the experience by some means, some transcendence of suffering, to abide temporarily or permanently beyond suffering altogether? 

The spiritual traditions that have originated in India teach that this is possible in life. These include Vedic teachings (Vedas and Upanishads), the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita (Vaishnava), the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the teachings of the Buddha (Pali Cannon) and subsequent refinements of Buddhism (Madhyama, Zen, Dogzen), the non-dual teachings of advaita vedanta and the Tantric teachings including Kashmir Shaivism.

This achievement is called mokṣa meaning liberation, enlightenment, complete essential or spiritual freedom. It is taught explicitly as a state beyond all suffering. Further, that this can be achieved while still living in the human body (jivan mukti). It is also famously named nirvāṇa. Not only is it taught that this liberates the person from saṃsara, meaning “wandering” as lost in life and in afterlife, cycles of rebirth, etc. This is taught as a state free from all forms of suffering including “illness, old-age, and death”! How can this be? Is it possibly true that such a state exists and is accessible?

Well it appears to be so that at least some humans have achieved this state of nirvāṇa or enlightenment in life and have reported and taught others that this it is truly available and achievable. I cannot doubt that the Buddha (“Awakened One”) himself achieved this state as is well recorded. Certainly there are others throughout history, saints and masters of consciousness throughout history, and on into our own century. For it is true that “One example proves the entire category.”: If one person has ever achieved such a state in their life, then this is at least a possibility or evolutionary potentiality for every person. It is perhaps the evolutionary destiny of human beings.

The means of achieving this (upayas) are the entire practice traditions and teachings and lineages devoted to liberative practices (sadhana). But just a few points are consistent keys or themes to be considered for oneself. These I will briefly highlight:

Identity – The fundamental and highest teaching in all of these traditions is that the true and deepest Self, that which one truly is, is not the mortal body nor mind. Nor any form of limited identifications, such as limited ideas of “myself”. Rather the True Self (capital S) is the field of Consciousness Itself which is transcendent to, and prior to, any temporal limited embodiment. “Consciousness is the Self” (Caitanyam ātmā) declares the first Shiva Sutra. Other forms include: “Tat tvam asi” (“Thou art That.”), “Aham Brahmāsmi” (“I AM Brahma”) and “Śhivo’ham nanyo’smi” (“I am nothing that is not Shiva”). Brahma and Shiva being mythic deity names that refer actually to that Absolute Consciousness, which is the Self. So dissolution of all limited identifications through profound practices, towards abiding in a state of knowing that the Absolute Consciousness, unchanging and unconditioned, is truly what and who we are, even as we continue our life’s journey at relative levels. We “transcend and include” the relative through meditative realizations.

The anava mala – Teaching on the three malas. So if we are immortal, boundless, unlimited and utterly free individual manifestations of the universal oceanic Consciousness, an individual light-life-wave manifested out of the Absolute, then why cannot we easily melt back into unity with that highest essence from which we came? Just as a wave subsides back into the oceanic wholeness? This is the teaching of the anava mala, of the sense of atomic smallness and perceived imperfection or non-fullness of the individual self, embodied into relative life. This is the actual root source of suffering. And yet it is necessary in order to be embodied as an individual. The release from the anava mala is the entire journey of sadhana that begins with śaktipata when one’s life is touched by Grace and the journey begins searching for ultimacy, ultimate truth of our being and connection with the divine.

The root anava mala of smallness, imperfection and non-fullness in turn gives rise to two other forms of deluded perception. These are the mayiya mala, that the conceptual mind and thought are bound structures of differences, of one vs. another, etc. and is unable to perceive the underling unity of all life and all beings. Then the karma mala which constructs the perception of being separate authors of our personal actions. This is the delusion where we fail to recognize that the entire universe is interconnected and acts with and through us, supporting our actions. These ideas are all explored elsewhere in depth (including some of my blog posts). What is certain as that they give rise to much of the forms of suffering in life.

Desire – The Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist “4 Noble Truths”, as in many other eastern teachings, declare that “desire”, craving or grasping (kāma) is at the root of all suffering. Is this true? Certainly much suffering is the result of desire and the pursuit of limited, ultimately non-fulfilling and ever changing desires. St. Paul the apostle said: “I have learned in whatever situation I am therewith to be content. . . For it is easier to abandon the first desire rather than deal with all of the other desires which follow.” The practice of contentment in Sanskrit is called saṃtosa, and the state of contentment is tuṣṭi. This leads to the state of one who is outside of or away from all desire, vairāgya, defined as absence of worldly passion, freedom from all desires (vi -away from + rāga -desire). It is a carefully calibrated sort of detachment. (See also Yoga Sutra III.50 and others.)

Kriṣṇa taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that to achieve liberation, unity with Brahma Absolute (Brahmanirvāṇa) required a certain type of detachment. This was not renunciation altogether, as is often misinterpreted. Arjuna was a warrior and not a sannyasi renunciate. Rather it is an “abandoning” (tyagata) of attachment to the fruits of one’s actions. Famously: “karma phala tyāgata“. (Bh.Gita II.47, II. 71-72, IV.20). In other words, we are responsible for what we do, but not for outcome.

So I arrive at the perspective that indeed life, relative life lived in the circumstances of a householder human being, is inextricably filled with ongoing challenges, losses and pain. They are simply a part of life. And yet huge sources of pain and suffering can be removed and set aside through correct liberative practices such as our deep tantric meditation. For by that means we daily remove or “burn” the seeds of suffering arising from impressions (saṃskaras) of past experiences containing traces of suffering. (dogda bījā niyaya) And at the same time we receive the impressions of connecting to the transcendental Source in meditation and accumulating daily vāsanās (positive impressions) for liberation. And by this means suffering that has yet to manifest may be avoided. Heyaṁ duḥkham anāgatam declares Yoga Sutra II.16.

Additionally, the transformation of lived identification with the physical body, the mind, and the ever-changing circumstances of life give way towards identity with and as the Highest Self. The ātma or puruṣa which is our own ever-present Consciousness that is identical with, and never separate from, the Absolute Universal Consciousness. This comes to be known and realized directly, however gradually (usually) or suddenly (occasionally). And with this the fear of death and the circumstances of the limited and temporary association with the body/mind are dissolved. That is indeed freedom. And through whatever circumstances: difficulties, challenges, losses, physical pain, illness and even “old age and death”, those lose their power of us and allow one to live in contentment and existential peace at root and at depth.

Ma Ganga (Ganges) in Varanasi