Why does suffering hurt so deeply?

Why does suffering hurt so deeply?

David speaking about why suffering hurts so deeply.

Dear friends,
Today we will be talking about suffering, and especially why it hurts so profoundly and relentlessly and why it isn’t like getting a cold or having a tooth pulled, where this is pain and mental discomfort that may persist for a while but eventually subsides, with the pain having been limited in a way we understand. The conundrum and vastness of suffering has confounded me for most of my life. Growing up, I would ask my mother about it, but she never had answers beyond “that’s just the way it is, get used to it”. My father seemed to think that all of the pain, including acute agony, was beside the point because God was in control and would someday make it all go away. Understanding was not necessary, we just needed to bear it. 

I really tried hard to believe that, but now in my old age it is only through the teachings of the Buddha that I have come to understand why human suffering – my suffering – tends to bring about a chaotic stumbling through life from the start of it to the end of it.  
Fortuitously, we are heirs to a tradition of practice that works.  Perhaps unexpectedly, however, the practice, at least for me, takes place in the mud and all the other the low places, not on the mountain tops.  It is a practice of imperfection, not perfection.  
I think we are all, each of us, quite frightened to be here in the first place. And when we look into the eyes of others, we usually see that they are at least as frightened as we.  We are afraid of our suffering, we are afraid of our past, we are afraid of the future, and we are most afraid of the present. It is difficult, in fact terrifying, to acknowledge just how frightened we are.  Yet one of the gifts of Buddhism is the understanding that what we fear is merely what we have reified, which leaves the door wide open to a complete cure from our misperception if we can muster the willingness to look closely at our own experience.  Eventually, seeing that we have somehow managed to make something out of nothing, it then becomes critical to learn how to see through phenomena in a way that renders them less solid.  This becomes the work of meditation.
The Buddha-to-be seems to have been very frightened as a young man, even with all the privilege of his station in life.  His decision to leave home can perhaps be well understood as his primary reaction to fear and the resulting wish to overcome what he found to be intolerable, namely the facts of sickness, aging, and death.
After his own liberation, he went looking to share what he had discovered with former teachers and friends.  He eventually found the five ascetics that he had originally been living with.  We are told that as he approached them, one of the practitioners whispered to the others to be wary and to not listen to anything he said.  Yet he had a lot to say, laying out the basis then for all of the teachings he would give for the rest of his life.  It all has to do with suffering, and the essence of what he said at this very first meeting is preserved as the Four Noble Truths:

  • There is suffering in this world, and a good deal of it.  This does not mean that suffering predominates in every moment, because suffering is impermanent like every other phenomenon.  Indeed, momentary awakening, which is temporary relief from suffering that occurs often throughout our lives, should be recognized for what it is.  But unfortunately, it can fade quickly and we are right back where we started.  

    The thing that is needed in order to do away with suffering in any moment is to recognize it.  This is painful to do, however, because we are already off-balance and stumbling from the pain that is coming at us.  We have to gather ourselves while we are in this state.  It is a wonder that it ever happens at all!
  • There are causes of suffering, the two main ones being self-seeking ignorance and craving, but the dimensions of suffering go far beyond these two causes.  This complexity is partly what makes the problem of suffering so pernicious.  We will have more to say about this a little later.
  • There is an end to suffering.  This is the good news.  The Buddha’s message seems to have been especially focused on this fact.  Buddhism, then, is not some kind of nihilistic teaching about how awful things have to be, but rather just the opposite.  The Buddha insists there can be freedom from suffering, temporarily or permanently, regardless of outward circumstances.

    Putting an end to suffering, however, requires that we stop being passive recipients of it.  We need to take active steps toward our liberation.  And we need to do this all while being exhausted and nauseated from the seemingly endless patterns of suffering that confront us and that we engage in.  The Buddha points the way, but we have to do the work.  By the way, we also need to let others do their own work, but we can discuss this at some other time.  This is a big part of equanimity.

    In order to free ourselves, we look at the insubstantiality of all phenomena, without looking away.  The insubstantiality is not just a curiosity or a quirk of our world but rather how things really are.  Looking without turning away, we realize that a self cannot establish itself within the stream of impermanence, nor have we ever seen such a self.  When we see this clearly, we take this fact and this practice to be enough for us, without the need to get caught up in philosophical debates and notions of existence.  ​
  • And finally, there is a path to reach the end of suffering.  One enters the path with sincerity and already a sense of relief right at the outset.  There is an intuition that this is indeed a valid path and one that, if approached with a measure of faith, will result in a complete unshackling from suffering.

Kinds of Suffering

The Buddha noted three kinds of suffering.  First, there is the suffering of suffering, which includes birth, aging, sickness, and death.  This is all those things that happen to us and over which we have no control.  This kind of suffering is so extremely painful because it can all seem so unfair (and so unnecessary).  Why can’t this be an Eden?  Why was I born into this?   And I think these kinds of questions (although perhaps made more sophisticated over time) stay with us until very late in life, although they may not be acknowledged or admitted.  We feel so vulnerable, so sick, so afraid.
Then, there is the suffering of change.  With this variant of suffering, things we like are seen as pleasant, but when we really see their nature, we understand they constitute only a partial and momentary relief from the general background of suffering.  So even in these pleasant things we can sense the presence of suffering.  This hurts so much because we feel tricked, so let down.  We did not notice the suffering contained within the pleasant, and now the world has had another laugh at our expense.  
Finally, there is the suffering of conditioning:  We can’t hold onto anything.  Nothing in this world can bring us the kind of happiness we really want at the bottom of our hearts.  We settle for what we have, but what we have is merely a concession to reality.  We go looking but find no abiding entity having an independent essence, including ourselves.  Because everything is conditioned, nothing is complete in itself, including ourselves.  Everything is falling down, leaning on other things, themselves as unstable as everything else.  Something is missing.
Practice #1:   Here is a practice that aims directly at the experience of suffering.  It is called “contemplation of suffering.  This practice is included in the 4th abiding in satipatthana known as contemplation of dhamma, but the Buddha provides no direct explanation on how to do it.  That’s okay because all we need to do is try what makes sense to us and see how it works.  
I recommend as a start, that one would simply note the presence or absence of noticeable suffering.  This can actually be done at any time during the day and is something I have taken to recently while out walking and during other activities. I simply ask, “Am I suffering right now?”  If so, the question then becomes “why”? 
During sitting meditation, if no suffering is noted, one rests there.  If suffering is noticed, one could look at the contours of the suffering.  What is the suffering about? 

Dependent Origination

On the evening of his liberation, the Buddha discovered the ways in which the sense of self is created and suffering is perpetuated.  He called this dependent origination, which is a detailed way of understanding causality as it applies to human life.  It turns out that one of the reasons suffering hurts so much is because it is embedded in this chain, the links so intricately locked that they are like a spider’s web.   And when we try to pull ourselves out, the whole rest of the web hangs on to us.  Since this chain describes both how we create the self and how suffering works to imprison us, it became the signature discovery of the Buddha.
The Buddha said that one who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma and that one who sees the Dhamma sees him.  Therefore, we know that this teaching is very important and we should try to understand it. 
I have read numerous interpretations of the meaning of the entire chain as well as its individual components, and what I can say with confidence is that most likely nobody really knows exactly what it means.  The 12-chain, 3 life, version in the Visuddhimagga has significant problems, and the moment-to-moment 1 life model has problems as well.  We are left to figure it out for ourselves, which is perfectly fine if we accept that any teaching should be testable in practice.   
First, let’s look at the 12-chain model.  In doing so, we must keep in mind that the links are not necessarily meant to be consecutive in time, one leading to the next.  Also, they mutually condition each other, so it has aspects of a web as well as a causal chain.
Now Let’s look at the Natika Sutta here:  This sutta describes the chain of dependent origination as a series of nine links, rather than the more common 12-link series, and provides an understanding that can be employed as a powerful form of practice.


Ignorance is the basic problem.  In the chain of dependent origination, ignorance refers to not knowing about conditionality and the consequent self-seeking that this causes.  Ignorance causes craving, and craving is an expression of ignorance.  The practice of awareness of impermanence is especially effective in loosening up the grip of ignorance.  
In Thailand there is the expression, “Don’t scoop poop with a short handle.”  This refers to the task of cleaning the wooden toilet.  So in cleaning up our mess, we should scoop past the craving and go all the way to ignorance.  Or we can anywhere on the chain, for example with clinging or becoming and go back to contact or feeling, depending on how long the handle of our scraper is.  We just don’t necessarily stop our inquiry with the mess that is closest to us
Contact creates background suffering, like suffering of change 
Here is where we first feel our intimacy with the world, yet it is a connection simultaneously felt as painful because with contact there seems to be a default sense of separateness from a world that appears to be happening to us.  Thus, there is immediately a profound estrangement coloring every conscious experience.   Contact occurs when the ears and sound are joined by consciousness.  Sound waves may be impinging on the ears for a long time, but I am not aware of it until consciousness joins with the natural functioning of the ears.  Now my world suddenly includes this sound, where moments before it did not.  It becomes clear that sound does not come from, and is not contained in, something coming only from “over there”.  Sound, then, is ontologically complex like every other conditioned phenomenon.
I make my world by creatively selecting one set of sensory impressions over all others in the large field that impinges upon me.  Additionally, the sensory impression may be so strong that it simply overwhelms all others.  In either case, I later manipulate this contact in habitual ways that create the whole problem of suffering.


Feeling is how the sound is for me.  It will be automatically felt as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Here’s where contact with the “outer world” becomes even more intimate.  But it is a kind of superficial intimacy.  Even if the feeling is pleasant, we know that it will change and that we have not control over it.  It is not exempt from participating in the suffering of change.
Neutral feeling is very interesting because it is said to be a basis for further ignorance.  Neutral feelings tend to be background experiences, flattened out so much that we take them to be unimportant parts of our experience.  This tendency to ignore can become the basis for dismissing many other aspects of our experience, thereby limiting the view of a whole variety of mind objects. 
Practice awareness of feeling.  This is the second abiding in satipatthana vipassana.

Craving Hurts Again and Again

The Buddha described three kinds of craving:  craving for sense pleasure, craving for becoming, and craving for extinction.  Craving for sense pleasure makes fools of us.  Sense experience seems so real and compelling, and we may believe that the more we consume with our senses, the more we are living.  
Craving creates time, and it is precisely our relationship with time that creates much of our fear.  The subsiding of craving can bring about a lessening of fear from this source.  Sometimes, moments in meditation become timeless.  We should consider the meaning of this.  
Craving for becoming is about adopting and believing that our conventional identities are essentially who we are in an ultimate sense.  So I may believe that on the very deepest level I am husband, progressive, chemist, teacher, and so forth.  And there is a childish element to all of this.  So I may go looking for “my true self”, which does not exist anymore than any other concept of self.  When we strongly identify with conventional identities, we create all kinds of problems for ourselves.
Finally, craving for extinction is about wishing that we were not here and wanting to check out.  This thing that we seem to have been carrying around with us for a long time – the self – is a burden for us, although usually unacknowledged as such.  We simultaneously cling to it and wish we could separate ourselves from it.
Clinging is perhaps even more painful than craving.  With clinging, the object has been grabbed onto and taken inside the sense of self.  In addition, clinging marks the beginning of gross identification, to be made even stronger with becoming (the next step in the dependent origination scheme).  There are four objects of clinging in the Buddha’s teachings.

  • Sense pleasure – this is when one’s primary motivation in the moment, above all other considerations, is to bathe in sense pleasure (including the mind sense).
  • Views – Clinging to the rightness of one’s views, which is based on craving.  It is also a symptom of the fear of general vulnerability in this world. 
  • Rites and rituals – this stems from the belief that rites and rituals in themselves can bring spiritual freedom.  But, of course, one needs to do one’s own work.  Mere outward observances and activities will not help.
  • Doctrines of self –  this includes all doctrines of self, including not-self.  

The story of Crazy Horse.
Becoming hurts terribly
With the next step to becoming, we are really in a fix.  Perhaps our biggest problem in life, in terms of how much it robs us of peace, is the problem of becoming.  The Buddha considered the whole question of “Who am I” to be beside the point because ultimately no abiding, independent, self is findable.  The continuous search for it causes untold suffering.  It’s not that we suffer from mistaken identity but that we make the search for identity such a consuming project.  
Birth is the completion of suffering
The “I” becomes fully formed at this point, while at the same time intuiting its own fragility.  The “I”, born of everything that has come before, now aches with suffering.  The primary reason for this is that the sense of self is so gathered into the suffering, so entwined in it.  So to let go of suffering one has to let go of both the craving and the ignorance.  This is a tall order.    
With birth, the “I” has now, unfortunately, developed strong enough self-defenses to attempt to discourage the meditator from calling its very existence into question.  Such defenses include doubt and restlessness, among others, so these need to be worked with.
However, we can let go of sense of self in a somewhat limited way, as we have discussed, by letting go of becoming, which addresses the conventional ways in which we and our culture think of ourselves.  This is the most important obstacle standing in the way of an important kind of release called stream entry.  Stream entry lets go a little bit of the self in terms of its conventional designations and yet this is enough to loosen things up quite a bit.  Although self has been born of suffering, it is the same self that now enters into spiritual life.  We have now set out on the eightfold path.
Practice:  We see not-self by practicing awareness of impermanence.  Practice with this, especially watching things fall away.

Common Problems After Birth

  • The Eight Worldly Dharmas
  • The eight worldly winds are all suffering, even the outwardly positive ones.  That is the trap.  See Lokavipatti Sutta AN 8:6. See also Vimalakirti.  Loss and gain, happiness and sadness (or sometimes pleasure/pain), praise and blame, shame and fame.  Note how these pairs create such selfishness (e.g., “happiness” almost always reflexively refers to my happiness).  Because of this, the search for my happiness is problematic almost from the outset of the project.
  • We create suffering as we carry out unskillful actions.  What plagues us is that we know better and know that we know better.  And we do it anyway.  All these tornadic patterns that suck us in and spit us out and turn us into automatons.
  • We grieve our old mistakes.  Sometimes we think we cannot forgive ourselves, and that hurts.  So we hold onto them.
  • Shame around old mistakes is an extremely unhealthy pattern.  We create secrets in the darkest parts of ourselves and hide them.  Then we beat ourselves up for them and become attached to “the wounded self”.  When we put things behind our back and out of reach of our practice, we end up hurting much more than if we were to use the practice to shine light on these unwanted parts of our past.
  • If something bad has happened to us, we may ask, “Why did this happen to me?  Do I deserve this?”   These are all very painful thoughts and do not help anything.  Bad things don’t happen to us because of “bad karma” in this or previous lives.  Bad things happen to us because of causes and conditions in this life often beyond our control.  Life is difficult.  We have to stop imagining that it’s our fault. 
  • Doubt can occur in our practice because we may go looking for psychological insights from vipassana meditation and don’t find any (because that’s not its purpose).  Or we look for something important in sensory input itself, with the belief that there is something very special waiting for us there.  But only if we shift attention to the impermanence of sensory input do we gain insight leading onward to freedom.
  • It also is discomforting to not know.  Therefore, to adopt the strategy of not knowing requires a great deal of curiosity and courage.  It requires developing a tolerance for the inconceivable (Vimalakirti).  We intuit that things are ultimately not knowable, and this is true.  Such realization can be either very painful or freeing.  What we are required to do is to let go of our arrogance so that living in humility becomes our refuge.  It is the one thing that cannot be taken from us.  It is a simple, pared down way of seeing life and being with people. 

Practice contemplation of mind to see all of these influences in the mind, especially craving, pushing away and ignorance (is the meditator seeing flow in experience).

​A Word on Efforts to Heal

We often try to heal from suffering by pushing it away.  But when we push away one thing in our experience we end up pushing away everything else because everything is connected in an interdependent web.  Pushing away is often an unconscious process.  As such it is an absolute impediment to freedom.
The 4th Noble Truth, the path to healing, is strong medicine.  The eight path steps are at the same time strenuous and supportive.  One can feel it right away, but that doesn’t always make it easy to do because maybe we will continue to make big mistakes right up until the time of our death.  Learning never stops, nor does the need to give ourselves credit for the work we are undertaking.  Because this work is the work of imperfection.  It is messy and lowly work, and we should never trick ourselves about that.

Thank you for sharing the Dhamma today.

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