What is Suffering?

Enlightenment is sometimes described as the liberation from suffering.

There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is part of life. The pain you feel when you hurt yourself, the pain you experience in losing a loved one – these types of pain are a natural, necessary and inevitable part of life.

Suffering, on the other hand, is the pain you create yourself – through resistance to reality. For example, if you think you should not be ill, that life is unfair, or that something should not take that long, you are suffering from your thoughts. So, “suffering” is the pain that is caused by thoughts that you take to be true.

A large part of the thoughts that cause suffering arises from the misconception that you are an independent, separate part of reality. In all kinds of subtle ways, this misconception causes you not to see and experience reality as it is. Your knowledge, experiences, opinions and concepts have solidified into something that you now experience as your identity. It forms the person you think you are, the image you have of yourself and the image you want to show to your environment. You feel the need to maintain, monitor and protect this identity. You cannot but constantly think how you can respond to the image that others have of you, or to the image that you want others to have of you. Apart from that you also have to meet all sorts of expectations, and you can probably only sustain this form of “personal brand management” by pretending to be different from what you are, and by pushing away feelings, thoughts and experiences that seem unfitting. But deep inside yourself you know all too well that you are “unreal”. There is good reason why courses that promise “authenticity” are sought after on a large scale.

Once the illusion that you are a separate person has really been seen through, and once you have freed yourself from all the concepts and “truths” upon which your life has been built, you will come to realize your true nature – a transformation often referred to as “self-realization” or “awakening”.

Both losing yourself in the illusion and the possibility of self-liberation that you carry in you, are natural processes. The gradual creation of your own identity and so-called personality as a child is a natural and necessary step to “function” as a human being with and among other human beings. Losing sight of the fact that you are much more than just this “identity” for a substantial period of time is a logical consequence. How could it be any different? You grew up in a society where almost everyone lost sight of their true nature. You adopted what everyone around you was doing and you thought it was normal. Because when you feel something is missing, you will go outside looking for stimuli like food, career, knowledge, information, and so on. But one day you will find that what you are really looking for is not to be found outside, and that you have simply found a temporary kind of substitute for an essence that you seem to be missing.

However, that essence has never really disappeared. That would be impossible. How could that which you really are ever disappear? The only thing that has happened is that as a person you took yourself as substantial and “all there is”. But somewhere, deep down, you have always known better. And out of this knowing, there has been this continuous, subliminal and insistent sense of dissatisfaction that has left you searching. Although the feeling tends to be annoying, and it should be, it is ultimately a precious gift: it represents your compass with which you can find your way back to what you really are. The way back to reality – into the midst of life, and beyond suffering.