Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pain vs. Suffering

Many people practice spirituality because they want to cease feeling negative emotions. They think that if they grow enough spiritually they can transcend pain, anger, sadness, fear and the other negative feelings we experience as human beings. When after a period of significant spiritual growth they still find themselves experiencing the difficult emotions they become disheartened believing they must be doing something wrong. In fact, they are. Though, the mistake is not with their practice it is with their expectations. Spiritual practice simply promises that we can cease to add suffering on top of the negative emotions. Take for instance losing a job. I was laid-off once and the experience was painful and scary. Those feelings should have been enough except that I added suffering on top of it by thinking I’m a complete failure, that my fiancé will not marry me now, that I’ll never find another job, that I’ll run out of money, etc. I stopped living in the present and started making countless projections about the future. If I had just felt the feelings and stayed in the present the experience would have been far easier because in the end I realized I’m not a failure, my fiancé didn’t leave me and we’re now married over four years, I found other jobs, and just when I was about to zero out my checking account I received a paycheck.

In more practical terms Carl Jung calls this experience “neurotic suffering.” To illustrate imagine that we have a project to complete that we don’t want to do, like washing dishes. We’d rather be enjoying other things so we avoid doing the dishes, but we can’t fully enjoy the other activities because we know we’re procrastinating. If we just washed the dishes we wouldn’t be happy about it, yet when it was complete we would be free from the task. By procrastinating we not only still have to engage in the activity we don’t enjoy (pain) we can never be fully free until the dishes are washed because we’re feeling irresponsible (suffering).

In Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths it says that life is suffering (the first Noble Truth) and that there can be an end to suffering (the third Noble Truth). Many people misinterpret this to fit the idea that life is painful, difficult, sad, scary, etc. and that there can be an end to pain, hard times, sadness, and fear. However, we cannot know the positive emotions without also having the negative ones as well. The only way we stop the negative feelings is to stop being human. Our spiritual journey is not about becoming a superhuman being that no longer experiences emotions. It is about no longer making the negative emotions more painful because of the baggage we put on top of it. To live in a spiritual state we simply feel the pain fully without the addition of suffering.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous John said...

This is very helpful, are you trying to say that suffering is only a mental "pain" and that Pain is only a physical "pain"?

At 3:41 PM, Blogger David Treanor said...

Yes, suffering is what we add to the pain with the negative thinking that interject into the pain of the moment. See my example about getting laid-off in the middle of the first was painful losing my job, it was suffering when I started to think that now I'd never work again, that my fiance would not marry met, etc. All the things I "thought" (better yet, feared) would happen never did. So, in addition to the unavoidable pain I had avoidable suffering.


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