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Challenge of Human Suffering

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Challenge of Human Suffering

Varun Yadav

Masters in Psychology University of Lucknow 30th August 2019

Challenge of Human Suffering


This essay attempts to explore the Challenge of Human Suffering. In the beginning, nature and types of suffering were discussed. Some empirical support was also referred to support the psychological and behavioral aspects of suffering. The distinction between pain and suffering was discussed. The means to achieve harmony within humanity were explained towards the end of the essay. This paper further explores the Indian philosophies such as Yoga and Ashram Vyavastha to support major points. As the topic provided an opportunity to delve into spiritual teachings, this essay also acknowledges cross-cultural philosophies such as Buddhism, Sufism, and Hinduism. This piece of writing has made a humble attempt to provide a basic understanding of Suffering from an academic bent.

Challenge of Human Suffering

Suffering is a fundamental component of human life. Simply put, one suffers as long as one is alive. This shall easily apply to all sentient beings for that matter. From a tiny blade of grass to vast forests, from ants to elephants, we all suffer. Suffering is, therefore, a significant part of reality. It is universal and all-pervasive. Still, it could be rightly said that suffering is not altogether inescapable. Quoting Gautam Buddha, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice". Here, Buddha gives a foundation to understand suffering, its nature, its sources and means to eliminate suffering. Moreover, this also forms a basis to understand the very condition of human existence, its purpose and ways to transcend as, first, an individual, and then as entire humanity.

Suffering is universal. We tend to have a narrow outlook regarding the difficulties we face in our lives. We often resort to referring to these difficulties as, "My problem"; "My challenges"; "My troubles" and so on. This further exaggerates the said difficulty. We then become overwhelmed by its appearance. Here, the situation is like we are perceiving a piece of rock like a mountain. As soon as we attach ‘my' to a particular problem, we overlook the universality of suffering. We begin to face that problem without having complete knowledge of it, which only multiplies the suffering. Suppose,

a person is trekking. He has to climb a steep mountain. He is also carrying a heavy backpack. Now, at some point in time on his way up, he realizes he is going slow and might not reach his camp before sunset. So he starts to jog. After some time, he starts to feel fatigued. But because he has less time, he continues to walk to the point where he is completely exhausted. Here, the actual problem was the heavy load he was carrying. Instead, of unloading his bag, he began to run uphill. This is a common case every person deals with in his daily life. As soon as we encounter an adverse situation we panic or make hasty decisions. Adversity causes anxiety partly due to instinctual mechanisms and partly due to uncertainty. But, if we realize that adversity will occur sooner or later, we will no longer resist them. Once we stop resisting difficulties, we will no longer become overwhelmed by them. Besides, if we accept that such difficulties are faced by every individual, we will begin to move away from our self-centered attitude. This will prepare us to further understand the nature of suffering.

Identification is the next piece of suffering's puzzle. There are three levels to everything- physical, mental and spiritual. These levels are all-pervasive. P. Rajagopalachari (1993) said, "to think that food is only physical is wrong. It is our physical attitude to food which makes it physical. Because you know, saints can live on very little for years and years. So it is not the physical content of food that is important

for us. It is the attitude with which we eat it". Similarly, suffering also has a physical, mental and spiritual level.

Physical suffering consists of the physical states of uneasiness, physiological disturbances, and biological illnesses. This type of suffering is commonly referred to as pain. By definition, "Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage", (Merskey et al, 1979). Mental suffering can be associated with common psychological disturbances like fear, stress, anxiety, frustration, and depression. Furthermore, feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, lack of recognition, failures, thwarting of ambitions, et cetera are usually accepted as sources of mental suffering. Spiritual suffering is the type that one barely ever identify. The reason is that we remain engrossed in attending to our physical suffering for a major portion of our lives, leaving very little to no time for spiritual suffering. According to the Need Hierarchy Theory given by Abraham Maslow (1948), sleep, hunger, thirst, oxygen et cetera are physiological needs that form the basis of the hierarchy and which are necessary to fulfill for the growth and development of a human being. We can conveniently use this system of basic needs for our spiritual being as well. But, because we have been depriving ourselves of food, cleaning, and education on the spiritual level, we make space for spiritual suffering.

To further understand spiritual suffering, it is important to discuss sources of suffering. At the root of suffering are ignorance and desire. Throughout our lives, we crave for objects that gratify our senses or make us feel comfortable or satisfy our ego. We are almost guided by greed. The habit of accumulating materials and maintaining a sense of possession ranges from wealth and luxury to people and relationships. At a deeper level, greed and desires are an indication of suffering. Desires form expectations. And, expectations if left unfulfilled create sadness or even frustration. If this is experienced for a long time, sadness will grow into depression and frustration, into aggression. Any interference with an individual's goal-directed activities causes frustration and thus, the premise of the frustration-aggression hypothesis is that when people become frustrated, they respond aggressively (Dollard; Doob; Miller, Mowrer; Seers, 1939). Aggression will further lead the individual to either inflict harm to himself or others around him. Therefore, desires start to weave a vicious circle of suffering. Desire is followed by ignorance. Abraham Maslow (1948), in his Self-Actualisation theory, stated that only a handful of people ever reach the stage of self-actualization and that the majority of the people remain at the bottom, addressing their physical needs throughout their lives. This is true in the sense that, most of us are victims of a mechanized modern society that compels to run a rat-race. We spend a major portion of our lives reducing one physical need after another. In countries like India, only a selected

few, the privileged class can address the psychological needs. So most of us remain stuck in the bottom levels of the Need Hierarchy. In other words, we never realize our true selves and therefore our true purpose, true knowledge, wisdom, and remain ignorant of the means to eradicate suffering. We live in a delusion that our life is all about the bottom two levels and our purpose, to fulfill the needs that they constitute.

The challenge of human suffering becomes a matter of perception. Some may see the resistance to accept suffering as a crisis. In other words, people are not ready to accept that suffering is not personal but universal. This may be due to the extent to which our ego has inflated over time. Any event that occurs in our lives, we tend to put ourselves in the center of it. This hedonistic attitude also makes suffering appear personal. The idea of suffering being universal does not satisfy our ego. It diminishes it instead. And ego is that pivot on which the vicious circle of suffering rotates. If for once, a person accepts that all humans and sentient beings suffer alike, they all are in this sense, one, he will be then prepared to perceive suffering as a medium to transcend. Ken Wilber (1997), a transpersonal theorist, elaborated on a developmental model that incorporates transpersonal or transrational stages derived from non-western wisdom traditions, particularly from the Chakra System of Tantra Yoga. Four main transpersonal stages were: (i) psychic, in which individual consciousness extends beyond empirical ego

and the person develops empathetic understanding; (ii) subtle, the stage where consciousness gains access to archetypal forms; (iii) causal, wherein consciousness merges with what is observed and the person engenders formlessness; and (iv) non-dual, is the stage of true-awareness. Finally, in the final stage, one is free of attachment to even the highest states of being. In Bhagavad Gita, Chapter-2, the transcendental self is called ‘Stithpragya', meaning ‘steady wisdom'. In shlok no. 54 of chapter-2, Arjun says, "O! Krishna! What are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is merged in transcendence? How does he speak? What is his language? How does he sit? And how does he walk?". To which Lord Krishna, in shlok no. 55, said, "O! Parth! When a man gives up all varieties of desire for sense gratification, which arise from mental connections and when his mind is purified, he finds satisfaction in the self alone. This is transcendental consciousness". Thus, to transcend from resistance to accept suffering, we must begin to disconnect ourselves from the material world and worldly pleasures. This is easier said than done, but the only way to break free from the prison of ‘Moh' or attachment. It is important to understand that detachment does not mean to leave social responsibility and isolate ourselves from the world. Instead, it means to be involved without having expectations. Our actions will then sync with natural law.

Humans can never be independent of the natural order. To acknowledge this order, we must develop compassion. Compassion or ‘Karuna' is closely associated with service ‘Seva'. According to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the idea of Bodhisattva is the attainment of perfect wisdom or ‘Pragya' to be able to lead all beings out of their miseries. It teaches that the ultimate goal is not personal liberation but to live with love and wisdom among the multitudes of suffering beings for removing their misery and achieving their salvation. As a person transcends, from his gross self to his subtle self, he begins to experience unconditional compassion and love. He not only realizes his True self but also activates the process of merging with the Universal self. Once this happens, his self-consciousness transforms into universal consciousness which then induces the feeling of oneness. According to the teachings of Sufism, the end of the Sufi path is ‘Fana'(annihilation)- losing self-consciousness, which is followed by ‘Baqa'(return)- transcending from phenomenal or gross self to real or universal self.

The reason behind the widespread discord within humanity is that we have divided ourselves only to satisfy our ego or ‘Ahankar'. Nationality, religion, caste, class, race, community, territory, language, traditions, and even gender are divisions that have clouded our thinking. According to the ‘Panchkosha' or the system of ‘five vital sheaths', our True Self is enveloped by five layers, just as layers of an onion. To realize our true self we develop each Kosha or sheath and then transcend to the other and finally become sheathless to merge with the universal self. Similarly, the divisions in the society are layers that envelops the truth that we are all one. Despite cultural, socio-economic, political and religious differences, every human is the same in that, we are all moving towards one goal, that is, to attain liberation or ‘Moksha' or ‘Mukti'. In other words, ‘Mukti' from the endless loop of suffering.

The political and economic restructuring of society is the first step that could be taken to develop the feeling of oneness, unity, and harmony in people. Firstly, physical suffering must be alleviated for which basic amenities should reach the most highly marginalized sections. For an individual to focus on spiritual suffering, he must be physically and mentally free of stress. Spiritual training must be imparted from the early years of childhood so that spirituality becomes a lifestyle and not just a subject matter for the school curriculum. This will also challenge the present state of education, which in the case of India, remains to be colonial and disregards its philosophy and wisdom. In ancient India, education was based on ‘Ashram Vyavastha'. The philosophy behind this system revolved around four ‘Purushartha'- Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. This system not only educated the person but also gave structure to life. It was divided into four stages: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and Sanyas. Now, that the civilization

has modernized and is technologically and scientifically much more advanced, such systems are ever more important to be adopted. Once, the people will redefine their lifestyles, they will be more receptive to spiritual training.

Spirituality should not be reduced to merely a lifestyle. It must be driven down to younger generations with sincerity and seriousness for it is the only means to harmonize the society and ultimately harmonize each human's consciousness as one universal consciousness. It is necessary, for that matter, to not treat spiritual practices such as Yoga and Meditation as medicine that will cure suffering. We shall look for meaning in each activity we perform. Eating and sleeping, walking and talking are all spiritual activities, only if we become more mindful. Once these experiences are no longer mere sense gratification, we must move towards heartfulness. ‘To think from the heart and not the mind' explains why this shift is important. In simple words, intelligence gives the ability to know right from wrong. But wisdom comes from the heart. Take children for instance. They do not understand the concepts of right and wrong, of good and bad and so on. Yet they make mistakes and learn from them. They are innocent enough in that they are heartfelt. They are also filled with love, compassion, and care.

Therefore, the challenge of human suffering is really to first understand suffering, to accept it and to work towards liberating not just oneself but every being. In that attempt, only, one can attain freedom from suffering once and for all. Suffering ends as soon as one replaces it with love.


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Maslow, A.H.(1948) “Higher” and “Lower” Needs, The Journal of Psychology, 25:2, 433-436.

Merskey, H. (1991). The definition of pain. European Psychiatry, 6(4), 153-159.

Mukundananda, S. (2014). Bhagavad Gita, Chapter-2: Sankhya Yoga, verses 54-55. Retrieved (20th August 2019) from

Rajagopalachari, P. (1993). Revealing the Personality. Pragati Offset Pvt. Ltd.