Saturday, March 2, 2013

Pain and Suffering. Golden Dreams or Red Herrings?

When dealing with the belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God, the existence of pain and suffering becomes extremely problematic, if not outright impossible to reconcile with the world around us.

Those who would address this issue, tend to either explore it inadequately, simply sidestep the issue altogether, or blatantly deny it.

Whether through experience (my faith crisis of '87), or through academic study, or plain and simply reason,  this is one exceedingly difficult stumbling block to overcome.

Of course God doesn't need to figure in this equation. I only mention this because it was the starting point of my journey. This doesn't need to be an exclusively theistic problem. I've since moved away from approaching it from this angle. Pain and suffering are just as challenging to non-theistic beliefs as well. Unless we are willing to accept and convert to a bleak and soulless form of atheistic materialism. But be prepared to abandon any form of spirituality, beauty, love, art, music, etc... the list goes on. No, atheistic materialism isn't the answer either.


What if pain and suffering aren't the same thing? Is it possible to suffer without pain? Is it possible to feel pain without suffering? Suffering is not the same as pain, although most of us see them as synonymous. (Granted, it is not always easy to distinguish the two).

I have personally experienced pain without suffering on several occasions.

I have my entire back tattooed. It was a 25 hour ordeal.
It was painful. There was one point that I began uncontrollably shivering. My body was going into shock. But I would not use the word 'suffering' to describe this experience.

When I tested for my Black Belt in Taekwon-do, I could describe it as painful. It was a brutal three and a half hour experience that pushed me close to my physical and mental limits. (And incidentally, it was during this examination that I inadvertently stumbled across my first taste of mindfulness. I was previously aware of it, but being aware of it by definition and experiencing it are drastically different).

And finally there's childbirth. Although I have experienced childbirth twice, I cannot say I've experience the pain of it. However, my wife doesn't describe the experience as suffering. There was no suffering. Pain, yes. But suffering? No. I think it is because there is purpose and hope present. At some level I think we instinctively understand that these pains are normal and maybe even necessary.

Although I could continue on about experiences of suffering without pain, I'd rather stay away from that darkened avenue.

Pain is an unpleasant sensation.
Suffering is a mental and emotional response.
Pain is an inescapable part of life as we know it; it is inevitable.
Suffering is optional.
It is the delusional belief that we deserve to live life pain-free that is the cause of much of our suffering.

Pain and suffering are so closely related in our minds - in our beliefs - that when pain arises we usually respond immediately with resistance. We respond with resistance because we believe pain shouldn't happen to us. That belief we cling to is a source of suffering. The greater we struggle with the undeniable presence of pain, the greater our suffering. It is that belief which causes us to become delusional as it is inconsistent with reality.

Alongside our delusional denial of pain is also our denial of death. Few people really give this dreadful topic much thought. We don't want to die: in fact a great many people I know build their entire belief-system or faith upon its denial.

I really like Lin Yutang's shocking biblical interpretation of God's intention for Man's immortality in his book, "The Importance of Living" (pg. 16)
"God did not want man to live forever. This Genesis story of the reason why Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden was not that they had tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, as it popularly conceived, but the fear lest they should disobey a second time and eat of the Tree of Life and live forever.""
We were never meant to live forever and we never will. Doesn't chasing this golden dream (or red herring?) of immortality, whether it is some form of favoritism  or an earned reward of Heaven for doing or saying the right things make us little more than spiritual hedonists? I'd like to believe humanity has the potential to grow and evolve these altruistic traits without being threatened into obedience or bought with rewards. I'm not saying that a spiritual life doesn't continue after physical death. It's that any position we hold is little more than conjecture - or projection - at best. Because we choose to believe it doesn't make it true. But it does affect how we live our lives.Our compassion becomes highly suspect and conditional and maybe even self-serving. Doesn't this contribute to the suffering of the world?

In the various mindfulness traditions I think there's hope.

Suffering occurs when the mind responds negatively to the sensations it identifies as pain. The key to diminishing the suffering that we usually connect to physical pain is acceptance. Acceptance means confronting unwanted pain without hatred and especially without fear.fear. And this acceptance also means a willingness to abandon some of our beliefs. To allow room for a faithful doubt, rather than a doubtful faith.

The moment we attempt to make our beliefs fact is the moment suffering begins. It can only give birth to anger, fear, panic and disillusionment and strengthen the fetters that bind us.

I don't think there's anything wrong with having beliefs, so long as we acknowledge them for what they are and are not. (Simply beliefs, not facts).

It is when the Ego attaches itself to our beliefs that we wade into trouble.

1 comment:

Ringnut said...

Good points Seph. One could write a book based on that last sentence! The point where ego attaches itself to faith is the point where faith becomes religion IMHO.