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What is suffering?

What is Suffering in Buddhism?

Whether we’re talking about Buddhism or any other viewpoint, suffering is a complex topic.

Here, I’ll break down what suffering is, what causes it, and how you can stop it from rearing its head in your own life. Let’s start with the basics.

What Do Buddhists Mean by Suffering? 

The short answer: Suffering represents the true nature of existence, and most Buddhist doctrine is based around changing how we think about it.

The detailed answer: Morris Doshin Sullivan, Dharma Teacher at White Sands Buddhist Center, explains Buddha taught that if you are born, you will experience “various forms of dissatisfaction, from mild disappointment to the pain of illness and death.”

“The Buddha states that suffering is unavoidable,” adds Bret Brown, a contemplative psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner from San Luis Obispo, CA.

Therefore, understanding suffering is an integral part of the Buddhist path. It is something we all share and experience. “There are no exceptions. Unless you’re an enlightened being,” he says.

How Does Dukkha Relate to Suffering?

With these details in mind, Celia Landman, Mindfulness Counselor, and Educator at Newport Academy, explains that the original Pali word translated as suffering is dukkha. Here, du means ‘bad,’ while kkha references the internal part of a cart’s axle or its hub.

“Birth is dukkha, death is dukkha, illness and old age are dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, association with the unloved is dukkha.”

The Buddha

Therefore, instead of actual suffering, dukkha is more “like a bad shopping cart with one wheel a little off, creating a bumpy ride.” This makes it difficult to carry what’s inside our ‘cart’ without a lot of unnecessary discomforts and wasted energy, she explains.

In Buddhism, dukkha – a Pali word translated as ‘suffering’ – is the true nature of existence.

What’s the Root Cause of Suffering?

The short answer: Suffering grows when we lament the fact that 1) we will grow old, 2) our perceptions will change, and 3) the world will change along with them.

The detailed answer: Celia says that in Buddhism, suffering results when we cling to the pain and dissatisfaction caused by three states:

1. Physical Pain (Physical Pain Suffering)

We’re born into a body that will break down, get sick, grow old, and experience physical pain. “This type of pain is unavoidable, and some Buddhists refer to it as ‘ordinary pain,’” Bret points out.

2. Craving & Aversion (Psychological Suffering)

This arises from our mental fabrications, the narratives we tell ourselves, and the stories we create about our pain. “The anger, the stories of revenge, the hatred, the contraction of the mind/heart,” are all examples of psychological suffering, Bret says.

“We crave for things to be solid, unchanging, and permanent. But this isn’t the case, and we subsequently experience existential suffering because of it.”

Behind these reactions, we typically encounter either craving or aversion, which, along with “subsequent clinging, is what drives suffering,” he concludes.

3. Impermanence & Non-Self (Existential Suffering)

Nothing stays the same. Our perception isn’t going to last. The first piece of cake isn’t as good as the third. “We crave for things to be solid, unchanging, and permanent,” Bret explains.

“But this isn’t the case, and we subsequently experience existential suffering because of it.”

Whether it’s a hangnail, excessive pressure to remain mindful, or terminal cancer, suffering is a universal human experience. It’s unavoidable.

What Are Some Examples of Suffering?

“Everything from clinging to opinions and hangnails, to terminal cancer—it’s all suffering. Dissatisfaction. Not getting what we want,” Celia explains.

Even mindfulness, if approached with an improper perspective, can lead to suffering!

For example, if we feel like we’re not getting what we want, it’s easy to feel like we’re doing something wrong. And once our ego kicks in, we might “start flailing and blaming others, leading to a whole different way of suffering,” Celia adds.

“Everything from clinging to opinions and hangnails, to terminal cancer—it’s all suffering. Dissatisfaction. Not getting what we want.”

Our suffering is greatly magnified when we cling to the pain and dissatisfaction caused by three facts of life: 1) our body grows old, 2) our perception is impermanent, and 3) the world around us changes.

What Does Suffering Do to a Person?

The short answer: Suffering changes our perspective.

For example, if we were never hungry, we wouldn’t know the satisfaction of eating a delicious meal, followed by the sensation of a full stomach. Similarly, if we never experienced suffering, we couldn’t comprehend the opposite (pleasure, joy, contentment, etc.).

The detailed answer: Evolutionarily, Celia explains that “we didn’t develop in a way to appreciate not suffering.” Therefore, suffering helps us understand the state of non-suffering.

Enjoying Your Non-Toothache

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains this mental state as the Joy of a Non-Toothache:

“When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My non-toothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be happy. Therefore, I look deeply in the present moment and see that I have a non-toothache, that can make me very happy already.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Physical and Emotional Aspects of Suffering

Unaddressed, Bret states that suffering can lead to “significant nervous system and emotional dysregulation,” resulting in behaviors such as “self-harm, substance use, addiction, physical abuse, emotional abuse, etc.”

Fortunately, suffering can also result in growth. It may “cause conditions to coalesce that create opportunities for personal and spiritual development,” he adds.

The purpose of suffering is to gain a perspective that allows us to appreciate non-suffering (e.g., comfort). Just like if you’ve ever had a toothache, you can be thankful that you don’t have one right now.

Is Suffering Necessary for Happiness?

The short answer: For most people, comfort is preferable to pain. However, not all of us are necessarily ‘happy’ when we’re not in a state of discomfort.

By compassionately examining our suffering, we can better connect with humanity and potentially create a ‘happier’ planet with less suffering for everyone who lives here.

Related: What is Compassion and Why is it Important?

Suffering is a Spectrum

The detailed answer: Bret explains that he views suffering and its impact on our happiness as a spectrum. And the closer we remain to the middle, the happier we’ll be.

For example, if we experience too much suffering, our system becomes overwhelmed, we go into survival mode, and it becomes difficult to manage our daily life.

“The slightest stressor bounces us out of our emotional window of tolerance, and activates our sympathetic nervous system (i.e., fight or flight),” he explains.

At the other end of the spectrum, if we experience too little suffering, it can diminish our motivation to seek change and “blunt our ability to grow. Desire must be present to seek awakening, which typically originates from the suffering we experience,” he adds.

Suffering Connects Humanity  

Celia points out that suffering also opens us up and helps us recognize that just like us, every person will get old, sick, and lose the people they love. “The universality of suffering connects us to the entire planet,” she says.

Instead of taking it personally, we can hold our suffering with compassion and understanding and learn how to address our underlying pain. Then, we can “offer this strength as a gift to others, without getting pulled under,” she states.

The Goodness of Suffering

As humans, the bottom line is that we require the right amount of suffering to let us know when we’re following a path that isn’t beneficial—or that doesn’t contribute to our happiness. Celia calls this “the goodness of suffering.”

In a nutshell, the right amount of suffering, which is unique to each individual, may not be required for happiness. “But it may be necessary to create the appropriate conditions for us to seek happiness and awaken to our true nature,” Bret explains. 

“The universality of suffering connects us to the entire planet.”

Compassionately – and bravely – exploring our suffering allows us to follow a beneficial path in life, better connect with others’ suffering, and recognize our shared humanity.

How Can You Stop Suffering?

The short answer: Although different types of suffering are inevitable, by leaning into it and compassionately examining its causes, we can reduce its negative impact on our life.

The detailed answer: “The good news is, there’s a solution: the path of wisdom, compassion, and training the mind,” Morris says. Specifically, “to stop your suffering, the first step is to accept it.”

To outline the thought, he points to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is Buddhist meditation applied to pain management. Here, the first step is to welcome what’s going on in the body mindfully.

Not-Abandoning Our Suffering

“As soon as you stop rejecting suffering, “you stop creating additional stress around it. Then, you can remove yourself from identifying it as ‘my’ and ‘pain,’” Morris explains. 

Celia puts it this way: We can’t protect ourselves from pain, loss, and suffering. But through mindfulness, we can learn to “show up for ourselves, face whatever arises with compassion and validity, and not be afraid to remain close to it.”

She says this is called “not abandoning.” Having the courage to be vulnerable, admit that we’re suffering, hold our pain, examine it, and then step toward it with compassion.

This way, we can learn that suffering doesn’t have to stop us. In fact, when we can observe how we contribute to our suffering and recognize how to stop feeding it, it can be a source of empowerment and joy.

That Which You Resist, Persists

Suffering won’t kill us. But “running from our suffering—clinging to things like alcohol, drugs, excessive work, overexercise, shopping—will,” Celia emphasizes.

When we deny our pain, we create more pain. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to turn toward our suffering with compassion and the awareness of our capacity to hold it. When we push trough pain, we strengthen the habit of harshness within ourselves.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” she says, “when we bring curiosity and compassionate inquiry to our mind-states.”

As we strengthen our mindfulness and concentration, our positive mental states increase, and we obtain more profound insight levels. “We begin seeing the true nature of our existence, which ultimately leads to the cessation of suffering,” Bret explains.

“Through mindfulness, we can learn to “show up for ourselves, face whatever arises with compassion and validity, and not be afraid to remain close to it.”

The first step in stopping your suffering is acceptance. Running from it only creates problems. Then, through mindfulness, you can compassionately examine your demons as they arise, and learn to push past the discomfort they cause.

Bottom Line: Mindful Suffering is a Powerful Tool

Compassionately recognizing and examining the roots of our suffering empowers us to seek solutions. It also provides us with “a safe, stable base that’s not dependent on what’s happening in the world, while increasing our resources and agency,” Celia points out.

The Power to Choose What You Nurture

When we care for ourselves in this way, we can fill the part of ourselves that’s running on empty, longing for things we think the world will give us. “We have the power to choose what we nurture in our lives,” she adds.

This way, instead of a bike ride, Celia likens it to a “life ride.” When we practice mindfulness, we “sit with something wonderful, powerful,” she says.

First, we acknowledge that we have a choice in our suffering. Then, we give ourselves permission to take charge, regain power over our mind, and control the quality of our consciousness.

Otherwise, if we don’t take responsibility for caring for our consciousness, she warns, “Facebook and Amazon are more than happy to take its place.”

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