Pain & Suffering on the Spiritual Path, Part One

The Yogic Perspective on Suffering, Part One: Why We Suffer & the Crucial Distinction Between Suffering & Pain 

 Throughout human history, a few key questions have occupied our thoughts, two of which, unquestionably, being: “Why do we suffer?” and “What can we do to better navigate the pain inherent in life?”  In our next three articles here at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’ll take a look at how the Yogic tradition endeavors to make sense of these enduring issues, as well as the tools it offers us for better navigating the inevitable pain & suffering of life. 

 Today, we’ll begin with the basics, that is what the Yogis perceive to be the root cause of suffering and why this understanding is crucial — not only to liberate ourselves from suffering, but also to effectively support others in doing the same.  In our next articles, we’ll follow this with an exploration of the concrete steps we can take rise above suffering, and finally conclude our discussion with a look at what the Yoga tradition considers to be the greater purposes of suffering — that is, how suffering plays a central role in helping us to evolve and grow. 

 Pain vs. Suffering  

 The first thing to understand about the Yogic perspective on suffering is the pivotal distinction between “suffering” and “pain.”  Superficially, the two may seem identical, but the Yogis believed there is a significant difference between the two that can prove invaluable in freeing ourselves from suffering. 

 “Pain,” or pida in Sanskrit, is of course a natural and inevitable part of life.  We experience pain when we touch a hot stove or step on a sharp rock — obviously not pleasant, but helpful in that the discomfort teaches us to avoid actions that are harmful to us.  And, because life contains an inevitable variety of experiences — smooth rocks and sharp rocks, both metaphorically and literally — it is essential to accept the fact that we will naturally experience pain just as surely as we will pleasure. 

 “Suffering,” or dukkha, is, by contrast, understood by the Yogis in a very different light.  Where pain is inevitable, “suffering” is when we take that pain, either real or imagined, and begin to build from it a series of thoughts and their resultant emotions that are themselves painful — often far more so than the original stimuli. 

 For example, imagine you are eating lunch and suddenly experience a sharp pain in a tooth.  You might then ask: “Was that a filling?  Did I just crack a tooth?”  Depending on your temperament, your head may quickly fill with thoughts of dentists, discomfort, and considerable expense — all of which often proving far more painful than the original sensation.  Obviously, occasional pain in a tooth is inevitable and largely out of our control, but the “projections” or anticipations that we generate as a result of that pain and the suffering they entail are entirely within our power. 

 Or, to take another example, we overhear a colleague saying unkind things about a co-worker and mistakenly believe they are speaking of us.  We then immediately start to build a series of thoughts and feelings — again, depending on our temperament, perhaps thoughts of anger, depression, frustration or a mixture of all three.  Once more, the initial stimulus — now long past — has been transformed by us into something far more lasting and far more uncomfortable.  Again, “slights,” both real and imagined, are an inevitable part of life, but the direction in which we allow our thoughts and feelings to evolve from those initial moments is entirely up to us and can make the difference between (transient) pain and (lingering) suffering. 

 Whether the origins are physical or mental, the results are the same: by building a series of (painful) thoughts out of an initial moment, we take a passing experience and turn it into a lasting state.  In this sense, the Yogis realized that there are two significant differences between pain and suffering.  First, where pain is generally short-lived, suffering has the potential to be enduring, especially if we remain unaware of our own role in its development and perpetuation.  Second, where pain is often an inevitable part of our physical and emotional reality, suffering is something we can learn to stop amplifying and even, ultimately, stop creating.  In this way, the Yogic teachings can be aptly summarized by the popular expression: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional….” 

 Two Helpful Reminders from the Primary Texts of Yoga 

 Following this basic understanding, the Yogic tradition offers numerous teachings designed to help us transform our relationship to both pain and suffering — in fact, this could be said to be one of the primary purposes of both the teachings and techniques Yoga.  Examples are countless, but for our purposes, we’ll focus on two passages from the primary texts of Yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanajali and The Bhagavad-Gita. 

 Beginning with The Yoga Sutras, in sutra 2.16, Patanjali writes: “Suffering that has not yet come can be avoided…” — in other words, the fact that we have suffered in the past doesn’t mean we have to suffer in the future.   In fact, properly understood, our past suffering can be the key to our liberation: if we can use past incidents to see how we in fact generate our own suffering, we can then learn to shift this pattern and avoid similar suffering in the future. 

 Patanjali then goes on to describe where suffering comes from, which, according to the Yogis, is ultimately from mistaken identification with the transient elements of our lives (e.g. our possessions, our bodies, or even what others think of us).  When we understand both the cause and the impact of this error, stepping out of the pattern of self-generated suffering is as simple as learning to watch for this miss-identification, while at the same time building our awareness of and identification with the unchanging part of ourselves which is beyond both pain and suffering.  Of course, you’ll note that Patanjali doesn’t say that pain that has yet to be experienced can be avoided — pain, he understands, is as natural (and indispensable) a part of life as pleasure, but the suffering we build from that pain can be controlled. 

 This parallels the approach offered by The Bhagavad-Gita, which shares the same basic idea but offers it in a slightly different form.  In sloka 6.23, Vyasa writes: “Let this, the dissolution of union with pain, be known as Yoga.”  As with many of its more-poetic passages of The Gita, this line can take a bit of explanation to fully understand, but it is very much worth the effort. 

 In Yoga, the word “union” can refer to both physical connection and also to conceptual connection — that is, it can refer either to a very real merging of two things, or it can refer to the act of (either correctly or incorrectly) asserting the identity or role of a thing — for example, when we say: “Bob is Sue’s cousin,” in our heads, we are “uniting” Bob with the role of Sue’s cousin .  It is this latter form that Vyasa is referring to in this passage: that our suffering comes from identifying with our pain rather than identifying the part of ourselves that is, ultimately. beyond both pain and suffering.  In this sense, according to Vyasa, the entire purpose of Yoga can be understood as learning to “dissolve” that false identification and, in turn, free ourselves future suffering. 

 What We Can’t Change & What We Can… 

 Again, you’ll notice that, in both passages, a key principle is learning to shift our focus from pain to suffering — again because pain is (largely) outside of our control, while suffering is completely within our power.  When we mistake the two, we set ourselves up for future suffering for two very important reasons: first, because pain will always come, no matter how carefully we navigate life, and if we waste all our energy trying to avoid it, we will never have any energy for what we can control, which is how we think about our pain; second, by never seeing our own fundamental role in our suffering, we keep our focus on external sources, which we can’t control anyway, instead of bringing our awareness to our own inner-process, which we can…. 

 By contrast, when we are able to distinguish between the two, we build the ability to accept pain as it is without building it into suffering or letting it prevent us from all the things in our life that in fact are not painful.  By accepting the reality of both physical and emotional discomfort, but resisting the tendency to tell ourselves stories about them and build them into something much bigger than they are, we are able to ride the waves of life’s challenges while staying in touch with all the good and beautiful things that are still present in our lives, even amidst the pain. 

 In Our Next Article… 

 Now that we have a better understanding of the Yogic view of suffering as a whole, in our next article we’ll take a look at the concrete techniques the Yogis offer that can help us not only rise above our own suffering but support those around us in rising above theirs.  Until then, wishing you the best in “Living Yoga….” 

 


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