A Few Thoughts on Suffering


“Suffering is a law of life, and it is essential during this step to acknowledge our own pain or we shall find it impossible to have compassion for the distress of others.”  – Karen Armstrong, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life

Suffering is a term I have always had trouble understanding. In my limited reading on Buddhism, I read a quote from somewhere, that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Since then I have heard many use suffering as justification of having that experience as their life.

It is my understanding that it is Buddhist in nature, but have found opposing thoughts on this in today’s negative climate. But, if you really think about it, there is a lot of truth in it.  Pain is a fact of life as we grow older, and few are exempt. We don’t normally define ourselves by our pain, but we usually define ourselves as suffering from pain or the state of the world or in some other way, which allows us to stay in this definition, rather than moving forward in life in spite of any pain we may feel.

When I was in Airborne training in the Army, I was in great shape, but there were many mornings that I had to move through the pain I would feel during a 5 mile run in uniform and combat boots. It was clear that I could move through the pain if I set my mind to it, but suffering would only have occurred if I had chosen to stop running and quit.

So, why do we choose to suffer?

In many cases, we choose to suffer, because, in our suffering, it becomes a way to define ourselves. Nothing else of note is going on for us, and suffering becomes the fact of our being, our reason to be. It becomes our story, just like being happy or successful! Most of the time we suffer not because we are in physical pain, but because we are not willing to let go of something in our past that would resolve itself in “self-forgiveness.” Instead of doing the necessary shadow work, looking into our darker side, we just try to forget about it, and for a while, the buried problem goes away, until something happens to trigger the issue and up it pops saying, “Hey, remember me?” Then, all of a sudden, we are not worthy again.

The only way to move away from suffering is to acknowledge our pain, physical or mental, and try to figure out why it still has a hold on us. If we truly want to identify as something other than our suffering, we can accept that we have pain and consciously choose that we no longer identify as a sufferer and identify ourselves as Jim or Jane or an internet marketer, a spiritual coach, or even a successful survivor of whatever we have transcended in our lives and live as such. 

-rev jim

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