The DhammaTime Book > Part I > Chapter 3:

The Nature of Suffering

Defined pragmatically, suffering is not being okay with a given experience. Lack of suffering is inner peace or being at ease.

It’s part of the nature of suffering that it motivates us to alleviate it. As mentioned in the beginning of the book, we usually try to change the things that bother us, but the impermanent nature of phenomena makes that a Sisyphean task. We may also try to accept things as they are, but without faith in, and submission to, a higher power that determines our destinies, attempting to do so would likely just add to our list of problems. Here, we are going to take a different approach. We are neither trying to solve our worldly problems, nor trying to accept things as they are. Instead we are going to inspect the nature of suffering, understand the cause of suffering, and then work to overcome not just any kind of suffering, but suffering itself.

The nature of suffering is resistance and it appears to work exactly like electrical resistance. Perhaps you remember Ohm’s law from school. It states that, in an electrical circuit, resistance equals voltage over current (R = V/I). Analogously, we can say that suffering equals motivation over activity (S = M/A), where motivation is either desire or aversion and activity means any kind of mental/bodily action.

An Evolutionary Explanation

Whenever I find myself wondering why anything in nature is the way it is, I usually begin by looking for an evolutionary explanation. In case you are unfamiliar with evolution, it works roughly like this: Each living being on this planet carries in each of its cells a set of genes, that are basically a building plan for the entire organism. The genes are copied into new cells as the organism grows or reproduces. Copying errors do occur and they are called mutations. If a mutation does not kill an organism before it successfully passes on the mutated genes to its offspring, the mutation continues its existence. Sometimes a mutation gives an organism an advantage, e.g. it encodes for a more efficient metabolism, increased resilience or faster rate of reproduction. If a mutation is beneficial enough that it spreads through the population of a species, the organisms carrying the mutated genes are called evolutionarily fitter than their peers.1

As the world is constantly changing, evolution selects for genes that encode for adaptive organisms, i.e. organisms capable of learning. Such organisms can adapt to changing circumstances that cause less adaptive beings to perish before passing on their genes. A very basic way of learning is by means of suffering: Desire teaches to repeat actions that result in pleasure, and aversion teaches to avoid actions that result in pain.

Desire

Desire is the force of attraction between a subject and an object. It arises from indulgence in pleasure.

Whenever you want something, when you feel a need or wish for something, that is desire. You may desire to get something, do something, or become someone. Sometimes desire is easily spotted. Desire for food, health, love, social status, fun, and wealth are all easily discerned, but sometimes it’s more tricky than that. For example, curiosity is a form of desire. In fact, the German word for curiosity is “Neugier”, which literally translates to “greed for newness”.

Desire is closely related to pleasure. It works roughly like this: As a child, you do everything for the first time. You perceive something, you act somehow and the result is either pleasant or unpleasant. If it’s pleasant, and you indulge yourself in this pleasant experience, the next time you are presented with a similar perception, you will experience the desire to act the same way as before, expecting to be rewarded with pleasure again. This is how animals learn to adapt to the world they live in. But there is a catch. When you do act on desire, there will be less reward. The brain has compensated in a way that results in less pleasure than before.2

So now we have three options.

  1. We can repeat the action regardless of the diminishing reward. If we do this frequently enough, the experience will lose all pleasure, and become something that’s normal for us to do, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. This is how we form habits.
  2. Or we can look for a way to intensify the experience in order to increase the reward again. This is difficult for natural pleasures that have been part of our evolution for a long time. However, advances in technology have gone beyond what we evolved to handle. We can easily increase the dosage of fast food, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, and other drugs, as well as get more news, gossip and sexual stimulation than ever before, thanks to the Internet. But as the pleasure intensifies, so does the desire. This is how desire turns into craving and habit into addiction. If we don’t die prematurely from harmful side effects of our addictions, we will eventually reach the point of the previous option, where fulfilling a craving no longer yields any pleasure at all; with one important difference: there will be a much stronger desire. And because desire plays a crucial role in action selection, our behavior will largely be governed by fulfilling those cravings.
  3. As our third option, we can refrain from acting on the desire and do something else instead. However, once arisen, not acting on a desire causes suffering proportional to the strength of the desire. While not acting out a habit may throw us a little off balance, not acting on the cravings of addiction causes the terrible suffering of withdrawal.

So, to summarize, we perceive, we act, and if the result is pleasant, and we indulge in this pleasure, this will spark desire when next we face a similar perception. Acting on the desire will produce less pleasure than before. Attempts to compensate will amplify the desire, as well as potentially harmful side-effects, but they will ultimately prove insufficient to counteract the reduction in reward. Not acting on a desire causes suffering.

This is pretty dire, isn’t it? So what can we do? Well, if your brain and environment are balanced out well enough, you will have a behavioral repertoire large enough so that by the time you repeat a behavior, your brain’s reward reducing measures have worn off a little and you will get some pleasure out of what you do. So basically, the trick is to “spread” your desire over many different activities rather than concentrate it in a few addictions. That’s how normal healthy animals do it, humans included. Only one problem. You will suffer if you can’t keep up with that schedule. So if you get sick, and the chances of your getting sick increase with age, you will experience suffering proportional to the desire stored in your routine.

Moreover, in modern societies this diversification is becoming increasingly difficult. Half of our waking life we spend in highly specialized jobs with little variation. The other half we increasingly spend with forms of entertainment that require little energy expenditure and yet yield quick and frequent gratification. In other words, life in modern society is a recipe for addiction. Normal people in our society haste from one desire to the next, trapped in their personal treadmill until the end. There is a comparatively new profession called life coaching, perhaps you have heard of it. A life coach is a person you pay to help you achieve your personal goals and dreams, or in other words, fulfill your desires. Think about this. The reason this profession exists is that people are willing to pay money to learn how to run their treadmills more efficiently, increasing their desire and potential for suffering. This is truly a testament to human ignorance.

I invite you to see the treadmill for what it is, stop running, and step out of it. But just like a real treadmill, it requires effort to slow down. You need to refrain from acting on desire. Each time you do so successfully, the desire lessens a bit and so does the resultant suffering.

But this can be difficult, because it’s a match of suffering vs suffering. Most religions are at least somewhat aware of the relation between pleasure and desire, and advocate at least a partial abstinence from worldly pleasures, but the resolve of their followers is usually based on blind faith and fear. History teaches us that the price for such ignorant and obedient abstinence is secret indulgence and sexual abuse. Or take the currently widespread prohibition of psychoactive substances for recreational use. If this so-called “war on drugs” has taught us anything, it’s that not even draconian penalties can prevent the use and abuse of these substances. I believe a lot of suffering could actually be prevented if instead of prohibiting the personal use of any substance, we would properly educate our children about their various effects, and also taught them about the nature of suffering and how to free oneself from this suffering. Another example is the rising addiction to processed food that causes obesity and severe diseases. Nobody wants to be fat and sick. But then why does everyone keep eating this garbage? Well, when the desire to be healthy increases beyond the desire for processed food, they do eat better for a while, but that increases the desire for processed food again until that desire outweighs the desire to be healthy, and they start eating crap again. The cycle continues.

I hope by now I have fueled within you the desire to be free from desire. Like all desires, this desire too causes suffering (sorry about that), but it’s the only desire that also leads to the end of suffering. If you diligently practice as explained in later chapters, you can greatly diminish your suffering to the point of extinguishing it. As you do so, letting go of all the habits and addictions you wish to let go of becomes so much easier. If you have habits/addictions that may cause significant suffering to others or immediate harm to yourself, please refrain from those to the best of your ability, but before you go and try the next fad diet, maybe invest this energy in freeing yourself from suffering instead.

Let’s play with the formula from the beginning of the chapter for a moment (S = M/A). In this section, we covered desire, which is an attracting motivation M. Increasing desire increases the motivation M in our equation, which leads to a proportional increase in suffering S unless mitigated by also increasing activity A. That’s why most people choose to stay really busy, sometimes until they burn out. Can you see how that works? The quicker and easier we can fulfill our desires, the stronger they become. The stronger our desires, the more activity is required to reduce suffering. At some point, the body can’t keep up and we burn out.

Aversion

Aversion is the force of repulsion between a subject and an object. It arises from indulgence in pain.

When aversion arises, we have up to three options. Depending on the specific circumstances, we can fight, in an attempt to neutralize the object of aversion, we can flee, to increase the distance between ourselves and the object of aversion, or, just like with desire, we can suffer the presence of aversion.

Whereas the function of desire in animal learning is to repeat rewarding actions, the function of aversion is to avoid punishing ones. Upon indulging oneself in an unpleasant experience, a beacon of aversion is planted on the currently forming memories. When next we encounter a similar perception, we experience aversion. The stronger the initial aversion, the stronger the initial suffering and future aversion, and the stronger the future aversion, the stronger the future suffering. It’s cruel isn’t it? As if it weren’t bad enough to suffer once, thanks to aversion we get to suffer over and over again from the same event.

Aversions tend to accumulate over the course of a life. Whenever we indulge ourselves in a painful experience, an aversion is born. This aversion could be countered by positive experiences, but due to the repelling nature of aversion we tend to avoid similar situations, and, consequently, aversions tend to perpetuate themselves.

Particularly strong aversions are those associated with traumata. These are memories of painful events that led to the placement of powerful beacons of aversion. Traumatic memories can appear so overwhelming that we avoid anything that could trigger recollection. But you can’t fight a memory, and while you can run, you can’t hide. Despite your best efforts to avoid thoughts associated with traumatic memories, the subject may come up often. Traumata may lead to all kinds of phobias and severely reduce one’s quality of life. Childhood traumata are particularly debilitating because if your first experience of anything is traumatizingly painful, aversion tends to keep you from making positive experiences in that area of your life. In cases of extreme traumatization, the mind may split into multiple partitions, as a desperate means to ensure gene survival. This obviously comes with its own set of drawbacks.

The way out of aversions/traumata is to allow the painful feelings to surface and observe the pain without indulging in it. One might think some experiences would just have to cause aversion and suffering, but really they don’t. If you’re okay with feeling pain, there is no suffering. In fact, many people happen to enjoy certain pains, e.g. some of us like eating hot chili peppers that cause painful burning sensations in the mouth, some like the pain of sore muscles after working out, and some enjoy receiving pain in a sexual context. Clearly, pain is not the same as suffering, nor does it necessarily lead to suffering.

If you’re in therapy because of traumata, you may find that the work of your therapist is simply to find ways of inspiring in you the confidence to allow a traumatic memory to arise, and feel like shit for a while without indulging in the pain. This works because recalling a memory isn’t just reading data from some kind of database, it is a re-activation of information stored in the brain. This is a creative process that modifies the stored information based on current experience. By re-processing traumatic memories without aversion, the beacon of aversion will diminish and a trauma will lose power, until it eventually becomes a neutral memory.

Same as with desire, it becomes a lot easier to deal with painful memories when your general ability to suffer is diminished, so instead of signing up for the next self-improvement or therapy fad, I recommend investing that energy into attaining freedom from suffering itself.

Circling back to the formula again (S = M/A), we see that an increase in aversion, which is a repelling motivation M, also requires a proportional increase in activity A for there to be no increase in suffering S. What do we do when things bother us? We either try to fix them or distract ourselves, but we keep busy either way, because if we slow down too much (decreasing A), suffering increases.

Self/Subject/Identification/Duality

The self is the subject of experience. It is a phenomenon that arises against the background of other (the world of objects). The splitting of experience into self and other is called identification and the resulting mode of experience is known as duality.

The trouble with the self is that by definition it exists in relation to other. This relation can be desire, aversion, or neither desire nor aversion (neutral). Neutral relations are usually ignored because they are irrelevant to the self. The secret to freedom from suffering is to stop identifying with the person we think we are. When reality is no longer split into self and other, there can be no relation between them and, consequently, there can be no suffering. Getting back to our formula (S = M/A) one more time, we find that if M becomes 0, we get S = 0/A, which means that S is also 0, no matter how active or inactive we are.

Identification is nothing mystical. It’s what happens every time you indulge yourself in playing an immersive video game, listening to a captivating story, or (day)dreaming. Identified with the characters in these narratives, you suffer as they face difficulties. This suffering is exactly the same suffering you are experiencing when you are facing difficulties in real life, and identification with the person you think you are is the cause of that suffering. You can easily verify that this is true: What happens the moment you realize “it’s just a game”, “it’s just a story”, or “it’s just a dream”? The suffering stops. So all you need to do is wake up from the story of your life. The next chapter describes what that is like.

Notes

  1. For a very readable introduction to how evolution works, see Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Fun fact: This book is the origin of the word “meme” as in “Internet meme”.
  2. See Hollerman and Schultz (1998) on how dopamine neurons normalize their firing rate as an animal gets used to a reward (diminished pleasure) and Schultz et al (1997) for how there is firing when reward is expected (anticipatory pleasure) and a pause in firing when it the expected reward isn’t received (disappointment).

    • Hollerman, J.R. and Schultz, W. (1998). Dopamine neurons report an error in the temporal prediction of reward during learning. Nat Neurosci. 1(4):304-9.
    • Schultz, W., Dayan, P. and Montague, R.R. (1997). A neural substrate of prediction and reward. Science. 275:1593-1599.