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Pain and suffering: Buddhism show us that only one is ‘required’

Pain and suffering, are they an inevitable part of life? Buddhism provides a unique perspective, and it has fascinated me since I first read about it (and I’m still exploring it!).

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

This quote is often attributed to Buddha, though there is some dispute around this attribution. However there is no doubting the spiritual significance (and the guidance it offers).

The Meaning of Pain and Suffering in Buddhism

In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word “dukkha” is commonly translated as “suffering.” However, the original Sanskrit has more breadth. Dukkha encompasses not only physical and emotional pain but also a sense of discontentment and unease that can permeate our lives.

And while pain may be a physical sensation or emotional distress, suffering goes beyond these immediate experiences. It includes our craving for permanence, our resistance to change, and our attachment to desires that can never truly satisfy us.

Buddhism teaches that by understanding the nature of suffering, we can transcend it and find lasting happiness.

Here’s how I think about it (Buddhist scholars would find this very simplistic, but it works for me!):

  • When I bang my toe the pain is physical, it’s inevitable. Then, if I then spend the day berating myself for being so stupid, that’s suffering. It’s a choice, it’s ‘optional’.
  • If I say something foolish in a meeting I may feel some immediate emotional pain, the frustration and annoyance in the moment. However, if I keep reliving that moment over the following weeks, and I dwell on it and experiencing the emotions again, that’s suffering. It’s a choice, it’s optional.
  • Perhaps I make a foolish investment, and I sell at a loss. There’s a ‘pain’ in that experience. But if I let that experience have an impact on my sense of self-worth, that’s unnecessary suffering.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

The Three Types of Suffering

To gain a deeper understanding of suffering, Buddhism categorizes it into three types:

The Suffering of Suffering

The suffering of suffering, also known as “dukkha-dukkha” (!) refers to the obvious pain and discomfort we experience in life. This includes physical pain, illness, and emotional distress. It is the direct experience we feel when confronted with unpleasant situations or circumstances (as described in my examples above).

To avoid unnecessary suffering, my tip: resist the temptation to keep reliving the pain. Cultivating mindfulness can help.

The Suffering of Change

The suffering of change, or “viparinama-dukkha” refers to the suffering that arises from an inability to accept change. It is the recognition that our experiences are fleeting and subject to change. We suffer when we cling to stability and permanence.

To avoid unnecessary suffering: my tip, learn to navigate change. Embracing newness in your life can help.

The Suffering of Existence

The suffering of existence, also known as “sankhara-dukkha,” is the most fundamental form of suffering. It arises from our misunderstanding of the true nature of reality and our attachment to a distorted view of the world. This type of suffering stems from our ignorance and delusion, which lead us to seek happiness and fulfillment in external circumstances and material possessions.

To avoid unnecessary suffering, my tip: work to understand your values, and cultivate a greater sense of purpose.

The Path to Liberation from Suffering

Of course, Buddhist philosophy is far more profound than my own personal musings. Buddhist teaching offers guidance on how to alleviate our own suffering and attain lasting happiness. This path, known as the Noble Eightfold Path, consists of eight principles and practices that lead to the end of suffering.

1. Right Understanding

Right Understanding, the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path, involves developing a deep understanding of the nature of suffering and the causes of suffering. It requires recognizing the impermanence of all things, the interconnectedness of life, and the illusory nature of the self.

By cultivating this right understanding, we can gain insight into the true causes of our suffering and begin to transcend it.

2. Right Intention

Right Intention, also known as Right Thought, involves cultivating wholesome intentions and attitudes. It requires renouncing greed, detachment from worldly desires, and the commitment to non-harming and the promotion of well-being.

By aligning our intentions with compassion and kindness, we can reduce our own suffering and contribute to the well-being of others.

3. Right Speech

Right Speech emphasizes the importance of using our words mindfully and skillfully. It involves refraining from lying, harmful speech, gossip, and frivolous talk. By practicing right speech, we can cultivate honesty, kindness, and clarity in our communication, which contributes to harmonious relationships and reduces the suffering caused by misunderstandings and conflicts.

4. Right Action

Right Action centers around ethical and moral behavior. It requires refraining from harming others, stealing, and engaging in unethical actions. By practicing right action, we create the conditions for a peaceful and harmonious existence, minimizing the suffering caused by our own harmful actions.

5. Right Livelihood

Right Livelihood focuses on engaging in work that is ethical and contributes to the well-being of oneself and others. It involves avoiding occupations that cause harm or exploit others. By aligning our livelihood with ethical principles, we can find fulfillment in our work and reduce the suffering caused by engaging in unethical practices.

6. Right Effort

Right Effort emphasizes the importance of making a consistent and sustained effort to cultivate wholesome states of mind and overcome unwholesome ones. It involves letting go of negative thought patterns and cultivating mindfulness and self-awareness. By practicing right effort, we can break free from destructive habits and reduce the suffering caused by our own unskillful actions and tendencies.

7. Right Mindfulness

Right Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and aware of our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations in the present moment. It involves cultivating non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of our experiences. By developing right mindfulness, we can cultivate a deep understanding of the impermanent and interconnected nature of reality, reducing our attachment and aversion to experiences and ultimately alleviating our suffering.

8. Right Concentration

Right Concentration is the practice of developing deep levels of concentration and mental focus through meditation. It involves training the mind to stay focused on a single object of meditation, leading to heightened states of concentration and insight.

By cultivating right concentration, we can develop the mental discipline and clarity necessary for transcending suffering and attaining liberation.

Pain and Suffering: Conclusion

Whether you are an amateur philosopher such as myself, or a learned scholar of Buddhism, these perspectives on pain and suffering offer practical insights.

By understanding the distinction between pain and suffering, and recognizing that most of our suffering is optional, we can work towards lasting happiness.

Written by colinwbates
I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and be happier. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog! You can also find me on LinkedIn.

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