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What is the philosophy of suffering? Why do even good people suffer?
If you’re having a bad day, you might be wondering what you did to deserve it. The truth is, suffering is completely normal and doesn’t reflect on you as a person. Though, there are ways you can cope with this revelation to make it easier.
Below we’ll explore the philosophy of suffering by discussing why we experience it and how to combat it.
Is There Meaning in Suffering?
As much as we can discover our life’s meaning through positive things, we can also find meaning in the negative, specifically through suffering. According to Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl, the philosophy of suffering states much of it is unavoidable in human life—we’re going to lose loved ones, experience losses, and one day die ourselves—but if we view it as a challenge to overcome, something to do with dignity and bravery, then life can have meaning up until our last moments.
Suffering can be an achievement in the way we handle it. This is an especially important concept for Americans, who often feel pressure to be happy and avoid unhappiness and suffering. This pressure makes us ashamed of unhappiness and suffering, instead of supporting the view that suffering can be noble, something to be proud of if it has meaning.
If we can find meaning in suffering, then that means life has meaning unconditionally. No matter what situation you’re in, your life has meaning.
- A lot of concentration camp prisoners worried that if they didn’t survive the camps, then all their suffering would be meaningless—as if to continue living is the ultimate meaning.
- In contrast, Frankl hoped that their suffering had meaning regardless of something as “happenstance” as survival. Logically, if suffering has no meaning unless you survive, then that ultimately means that life has no meaning since eventually we all die.
The Three Forms of Suffering
According to Frankl’s philosophy of suffering, there are three main forms of suffering—pain, guilt, and death—and there are three corresponding ways to find meaning in it:
- Change personal suffering into personal triumphs. Once we find meaning in our suffering, it almost ceases to be suffering. This is closer to the idea of sacrifice.
- Use guilt about past actions to help us improve future actions.
- Let life’s transitoriness—the fact that we’ll die—inspire us to take action responsibly.
Sometimes, we can experience suffering so great that it seems like there can’t be any purpose or meaning in it. Many concentration camp prisoners felt this way. But what if there were purposes beyond our ability to comprehend? This is the idea of a super-meaning: that there might be a purpose to our lives that we are totally unaware of and can never be aware of.
And perhaps we can find some comfort in the idea that it actually might be beyond our intellectual capacity to understand the purpose or the meaning of our suffering.
- Animals are often used in medical testing to help study diseases and find cures. Objectively, they suffer through repeated injections, physical discomfort, and sometimes death—but their suffering can have great meaning for us as humans. Would those animals be able to comprehend the meaning of their suffering?
- Likewise, is it not possible that our suffering could have meaning that we can’t even conceive of, even if it has meaning on a higher level we can’t comprehend?
If Suffering Is Inherent, Why Talk About It?
Many people might assume that viewing the philosophy of suffering as a fact of life may mean some people might have trouble finding meaning in it. But as Frankl said, just because there’s meaning in suffering, doesn’t mean you should constantly have to live through it. You should try to avoid suffering as much as possible to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Viewing suffering as a fact of life may seem like it just causes more suffering, joins psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler and the Dalai Lama in their book The Art of Happiness. It therefore might seem best to avoid thinking or talking about suffering.
But there’s additional context in the Buddhist tradition that makes this discussion of suffering not only valuable but necessary, says the Dalai Lama. Buddhists believe that you can eliminate suffering. In Buddhist philosophy, ignorance, hatred, and craving create suffering. When you start eliminating those root causes of suffering, you move toward freedom from suffering.
How to Ease Suffering
You’ve just learned that the philosophy of suffering states that most of it is inevitable. Now you’ll learn how to ease this uncomfortable feeling. When your suffering has meaning, you have a greater chance to fight it. It’s because you understand that you deserve a chance to grow from a negative space.
Here are five ways to ease suffering to create peace of mind.
1. Accept Your Suffering
Acceptance of suffering is the first, integral step toward eliminating it, says the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness. If you can’t accept that life is suffering, you’ll only ever apply temporary solutions to your suffering. You won’t free yourself from its root causes of ignorance, hatred, and craving.
There are also a few key things that you should remind yourself if you have doubts about accepting your suffering:
- When you accept suffering, you don’t add to your suffering. Accepting suffering keeps you from imposing additional layers of suffering on yourself, says the Dalai Lama. Much of your suffering stems simply from the belief that you don’t deserve to suffer. Understanding that suffering must happen frees you from the painful feelings that things should be different.
- Accepting suffering is not the same as surrendering to it. The Dalai Lama notes that accepting suffering is not the same as rolling over to it. Our purpose is to seek happiness. It’s natural and right that even though we accept suffering, we also try to reduce it.
- Accepting suffering involves understanding its source. Beyond accepting suffering, also understand it, advises the Dalai Lama. Reflect on what makes you suffer and why. When you put your finger on it, formless suffering takes shape. You then can reduce or eliminate it.
2. Take Responsibility
After accepting that suffering is a normal part of life, you need to accept responsibility for what’s causing your suffering. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck says there are three important realities you must accept to accept responsibility:
- Problems can only be solved after you’ve taken responsibility for solving them.
- We often try to avoid the suffering of problems by making them the responsibility of someone else, but if you say something is not your problem, you will not solve the problem.
- Taking responsibility for a problem is a practice of discipline.
Through experience and self-reflection, usually over a long period of time, we can get a realistic sense of what we owe to the world versus what we owe to ourselves. Parents can assist children in the process of accepting responsibility by recognizing opportunities to address a lack of responsibility, as well as opportunities to discourage a sense of responsibility that is unrealistically high. This requires time, attention, and effort, and is usually uncomfortable for all parties. However, the hard work to take responsibility for our own actions leads to less suffering because we’re much more aware of our faults and can grow from them.
3. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness
In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön asserts that cultivating mindfulness through meditation is the first step in learning how to cope with suffering. It also allows you to use painful experiences as catalysts for experiencing peace in your life.
In meditation, practice being with your experience in the present moment—whether it’s painful, enjoyable, or a mix of both—and accepting it. Notice without judgment whatever thoughts and feelings come up, then let them go and return to the present moment. The purpose of meditation is not to rid yourself of unpleasant thoughts or feelings, which is impossible. Because mindfulness leads to clarity and spaciousness around your thoughts and feelings, it helps you to not get swept away by your hopes and fears in hard times.
Additionally, you can see your habit of escaping certain emotions because you’re paying attention to your experience. You can then develop the ability to let your emotions be present without indulging them or repressing them. Chödrön explains that this mindful awareness can translate into your daily life if you practice meditation regularly. You’ll develop inner acceptance and peace, despite how your outer life may look.
Chödrön teaches that only the present moment is real—the past and future are illusions. We all think about the past and future to escape the discomfort of everything we don’t know and can’t control. Therefore, as you learn to be more present, you may feel vulnerable because you have nowhere to escape to mentally. And Chödrön explains that when you have nowhere to hide from reality, your heart will open more fully to yourself, others, and the world.
How to Meditate
Chödrön teaches a form of mediation called Shamatha-vipashyana and outlines the basic steps:
- Find a flat, level seat and sit with your torso upright, legs crossed comfortably in front of you, or with your feet on the floor. With your eyes open, gaze softly at the floor ahead of you and relax your jaw.
- Lightly focus your attention on your exhaled breath without trying to change it.
- Relax and accept whatever arises in your mind and body, even unpleasant thoughts and feelings. As thoughts come up, gently label them as “thoughts” with an attitude of kindness and understanding toward yourself.
- When you feel distracted, come back to the sensation of your breath and scan your physical posture to reconnect with your body.
- Keep trying to notice your thoughts, label them “thoughts,” let them pass, and focus your attention on your breath.
4. Cultivate Compassion For Yourself and Others
When Things Fall Apart also teaches that one of the most powerful ways to stay afloat during times of suffering is to cultivate compassion for yourself and others. In Tibetan Buddhism, the path of cultivating compassion for yourself is called maitri, which translates from Sanskrit to loving-kindness. By practicing maitri, you can make friends with yourself—trust and lean on yourself—and feel more connection to and belonging with others.
The first step in learning Maitri to overcome suffering is to develop compassion for yourself. For many people, it’s easier to feel loving-kindness toward others—they instead feel hostility, hatred, and shame toward themselves. But Chödrön asserts that it’s never too late to start practicing self-compassion and become your own friend.
Not to be confused with self-improvement or building confidence, self-compassion is about learning to accept yourself unconditionally, not fixing or changing yourself. The first step toward self-compassion is understanding that your thoughts, emotions, and memories are all impermanent and not representations of who you really are. You can think of yourself as the sky and your thoughts, emotions, and memories as different kinds of weather passing through—we don’t look up and think the clouds are the sky. We understand that the sky is much bigger than all the weather it holds. In the same way, you are much more than the emotions and thoughts you experience, and remembering this can help you be more patient and kind to yourself.
When you encounter suffering in your life, self-compassion and mindfulness can help you slow down and experience your feelings with kindness and care. Chödrön teaches that it’s important to be kind to yourself during difficult times because this helps you develop a trusting relationship with yourself that you can lean on. Additionally, when you develop self-compassion, you’ll be able to have compassion for others and you’ll discover that you are just one small part of a greater whole.
Compassion for Others
When we suffer, we can get stuck in only caring about protecting ourselves, which leads to isolation and more suffering. But if we can connect our struggles and pain to the struggles and pain of others, we can transform negative experiences into an experience of open-hearted connection and kinship with all life on this planet. Chödrön explains that when our suffering is at its peak, if we deliberately try to feel tenderness for the suffering of other living beings, we can break through our self-absorbed isolation. In this way, compassion can heal us.
Chödrön teaches that the most powerful way to experience peace and joy is to connect with others in mutual suffering and pain. You can do this through a meditative practice called Tonglen, which means “giving and taking.” In Tonglen, your personal suffering can become a path to compassion.
To practice Tonglen, breathe in and imagine you’re inhaling the suffering of others. Then, breathe out the wish that all beings experience freedom from suffering. You can also practice this by noticing and naming the negative feeling you’re having as you breathe in and breathe out compassion for everyone who’s currently experiencing the same emotion or feeling. For example, if you feel lonely, first acknowledge the feeling to yourself and as you inhale and imagine breathing in the feeling of loneliness. Then as you exhale, breathe out kind and loving thoughts to everyone in the world who also feels lonely in that moment.
5. Take Time to Indulge in Little Bits of Goodness
Suffering in life is guaranteed. This idea is present in every major religion, and it’s obvious from everyday life. Outcomes are unequal. People are born with different abilities. Some people get worse treatment than others. As he states in his book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson’s daughter suffered from unexplained juvenile rheumatoid arthritis for decades, enduring years of chronic pain and risking amputation. There is little more to question the sanity and justice of the world than having an ill child. What kind of god would allow this to happen?
One response to this is to hate your god or the universe for these outcomes. Stretched to its extreme, this becomes hatred of existence, and the desire to destroy existence itself. When practiced, this leads to genocide and mass murders. Clearly, this is evil causing suffering in the name of suffering, and not the right response.
Another response, which only partially mitigates the suffering, is to acknowledge that limitation is critical to making existence meaningful. When Superman was created as a comic book character, he had infinite powers and could overcome any situation. This became boring. There was nothing for him to struggle against, so he couldn’t be admirable; no lesson for him to learn, so he couldn’t grow. In response, the writers had to make him weak to kryptonite to make his stories interesting.
Peterson could have wished for his daughter to have an indestructible metal skeleton, or an inhumanly high threshold to pain. But then his daughter would be changed to a different person, even a monster. What can be loved about a person can’t be separated from their limitations.
Peterson’s advice for dealing with suffering is to notice little bits of goodness that make existence tolerable, even justifiable. See the girl splash happily into a puddle with her rain boots. Enjoy a particularly good coffee or book or conversation. Pet a cat when you run into one. Life can have bad moments, but there are good moments that make up for it.
Now that you’ve learned more about the philosophy of suffering, you have a better idea of how to deal with it. Suffering isn’t something you should be scared of. As long as you embrace its existence, you’re on your way to living without it.
Did we miss any important points about the philosophy of suffering? Let us know in the comments below!
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