Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marchetti
Why is there pain and suffering in life? At some point, most people will ask this question. It’s one of the “big questions” about life that truly matter. And depending upon their conclusions, it will influence their fundamental approach to life.
Some people think to themselves that if there were a loving God, why would this Source of Life allow so much suffering and pain?
I’m not going to get into religious answers to this as I’m not a trained theologian nor am I an “apologist.” I'm also not a trained medical or health care worker - it goes without saying that there are times when someone's mental or physical health needs some kind of support.
For lack of a better word, I’m a mystic. Not the kind who is on the "narrow path" of being a monk, but a person who is living in the world with a mystical perspective.
The other day in a livestream on Instagram, one of my followers actually asked me "why is there so much pain and suffering in life?". I don’t remember exactly what I said, but that's what spawned this this article. I outline 6 fundamental reasons why I think we suffer.
Just to clarify, this list is based upon my own experience but also the testimony of many wise people through the ages. It is not meant to be any kind of ultimate Truth. That can only be found in Silence when the veils of conditioning suddenly drop and you see clearly with own your inner vision.
Is It Possible To Be Free Of Suffering In Life?
And finally, at the end of this article, I'll discuss whether it's possible to be free of suffering. This is a question the renowned 20th century spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti would often ask.
6 Reasons Why There's Pain And Suffering...
1. You're Out of Alignment With The Totality of Life
This is not a moral judgment. This can happen to anyone - even a mystic. The mask or conditioned self has taken over your consciousness. Since this "egoic" self is constructed from limited concepts, it cannot bear to face the unknown because doing so would mean its demise.
So in reaction to this, it seeks to control its experience of life. When things go along according to its desires, it's temporarily happy. When they don't, it is miserable and it resists Life. This is what I mean by being out of alignment.
In the east, being aligned with the Totality of Life is called yoga or union. In yoga, the human is united with the Divine. It is illustrated beautifully in the Temperance card in Tarot where the opposites of fire and water unite in a kind of Divine synthesis.
In the west, this is often called surrender. Surrender is NOT passive, but a dynamic "flexibility" and emotional acceptance of what is.
In ordinary daily life, we use phrases such as “I was out of sync” or “I wasn’t in the flow.”
These phrases are acknowledging the insight that there is a vast Intelligence-Energy or Ground of Being which gives us life. We need to connect with this Intelligence-Energy in order to stay on track.
Our egos think they know what's best for us. To recap, when things don’t go the way our ego wants, we suffer in some way.
A brief definition of “ego” as I use it here is its a thought based sense of self constructed as a reaction to life. This begins in early childhood (and perhaps even tendencies from past lives - although belief in reincarnation or not is not crucial to understanding this). You cannot get rid of ego so don’t bother trying. The desire to get rid of it is in a sense, just more ego. It’s more about transforming your relationship to ego. Without ego, you wouldn’t even be able to function on a basic level in the world. As I’ve been saying for many years, ego only needs to get out of the drivers seat and be happy with riding shotgun!
2. Without Suffering, Would You Even Bother To Look For The Deeper Meaning In Life?
Pain and suffering can be a useful warning for when we are out of balance in some way. Usually this seems to be something that is beyond our control in the circumstances of our life.
Just to clarify, what I'm discussing in this article is emotional pain or psychological suffering. It seems to be beyond your control - but if you look closer, you’ll see that it was only something that you were previously not conscious of.
It was hiding in a blind spot. This is also where the infamous word “denial” comes in. Denial comes from pride. A sense that you already know and do not need to continue learning or modifying your behaviour in any way.
These emotional blind spots often create consequences in the world around us. An example could be when a lover or spouse suddenly leaves you.
It seems as if the breakup came out of the blue, but with any hindsight and self honesty - and time - you should be able to see that there were actually reasons.
Perhaps there was something you needed to learn. You don't need to figure it out with your head. The learning and understanding take place at a deeper level. You could say, in your heart.
It might even be as simple as that you “dodged a bullet” and the person wasn’t really the right person for you to commit to. You just didn’t see it at the time.
It could be that you enacted some negative behaviour that seriously damaged your emotional bond with the other person. You didn’t see it at the time because your behaviour is as close as the nose on your face.
But if you're honest, you can learn something from your suffering and vow not to repeat the same mistakes next time.
If you suffered enough pain from the loss, you’ll have the motivation and fire to transform yourself. If you didn’t really suffer, you probably wouldn't bother to change.
Not only that, but how would empathy or compassion for the suffering of other humans, animals or even nature arise without having suffered yourself?
Temperance card from The Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marchetti
"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." - Soren Kierkegaard
3. Your Own Mind Is The Cause Of Most Of Your Pain And Suffering
Umpteen thoughts go through our heads everyday. I think someone actually gave a specific number for this once. I don't know how they arrived at it?!!
No matter! Umpteen is the number. These thoughts are mostly mechanical and repetitive. A few are creative and inspired - but this only happens if we have any space in between those thoughts.
The mind is basically a problem solving machine. It’s designed to try to codify and understand the parts that make up the whole.
But since it’s limited to concepts we learned from our parents, our culture and our own conclusions based upon limited evidence, it often comes up against “what is” in the present moment.
Also, since the mind is designed to solve problems, it loves to chew on them! Like a dog on a bone. Not only that, but when there’s not a problem, the mind will zero in on something (or anything!) and create one so it has something to chew on.
Don’t believe me? Look at all the petty things you get upset over in your life. Everything from traffic, to someone not putting something away properly in your home, someone not complimenting you the way you wanted, etc.
Obviously not everything that happens is petty! Some things are tragic. Some things definitely need to be dealt with.
But if you cannot let go of being irritated or upset by even petty daily things, how are you going to respond when you have bigger challenges?
In a nutshell, the purpose of this 3rd reason for pain and suffering is to discover that you have the power within you. This doesn't mean it's easy! It's a lifelong practice to be aware that the thoughts in your head are not you.
4. Suffering Transforms You
Without having suffered any pain, you would have no depth. You'd have no access to the vertical axis - the Now moment. You would be 100% stuck on the horizontal surface level of life chasing after happiness and trying to avoid pain.
Winning some, losing some and completely at the mercy of these ups and downs. One day you might realize there was no real meaning in your life.
You wouldn’t have any understanding or compassion for others. Everything would be completely “me-centric.”
There’s nothing wrong with taking care of number one, of course - but “me, me, me” is a recipe for disaster and unhappiness.
Nobody would have the ability to extend beyond themselves. Because only if you understand the complete and total significance of your own being and life, can you then extend this same understanding to others.
“The meaning and worth of love, as a feeling, is that it really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge for another the same absolute central significance which, because of the power of our egoism, we are conscious of only in our own selves.
Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very center of our personal lives.” -Vladimir Solovyov
So suffering in yourself is a starting point for the possibility of true compassion when you realize that someone other that yourself can also suffer.
5. Love (aka Freedom From Suffering) Is Like A Muscle
Please bear with me as I make this analogy. It’s not the absolute truth of course, but simply a way to more clearly illustrate.
Everyone has muscles whether they are an athlete or not. But obviously athletes use their muscles and train their muscles on a regular basis, whereas non-athletes are often hit and miss with exercise.
It’s the same with freedom from suffering. Everyone has this potential within themselves, but few people know how to consciously access it.
In this case, more people are probably like non-athletes unless they are passionate about being free from suffering.
It seems more people are becoming so, although it’s still a minority.
When you suffer or are “unhappy” in life, it can force you to look within to the cause. Usually we blame everything on circumstances outside of ourselves.
But this makes you a victim and completely disempowers you! It means you can’t do anything about it. Sometimes this is the case - but when we’re in our heads, we often try to force things when it’s s season to let go and allow.
We also give up and become discouraged too easily at other times when we might get a better result by persisting.
This doesn’t mean you have to like things! It simply means that you can face it and take some kind of responsibility for your reaction and your quality of consciousness.
This is a practice that takes passion and dedication. Much like the commitment it takes to build a muscle or transform your body through nutrition and exercise.
That’s why I said that developing this kind of awareness is like a muscle. Suffering can be a prod to spiritual growth and development. Especially once you begin to recognize that it's often self created.
The circumstances may not change (in my experience they often do!) but they no longer make you so miserable.
6. You Are Unlimited Beingness Experiencing Human Limitation
You are a human being. I've always thought this was a deep description. You are human on the relative level of space and time but you are also formless Being on the absolute dimension beyond form.
Note: The wonderful spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti has a book with a clever title called Being Human.
This is sometimes like wearing shoes that are much too tight all day long. Your essential “I Am” nature - what you are beyond birth and death in the world of physical senses - is unlimited and infinite.
However, here’s the catch. That unlimited infinity is the same as Being. It's formless and cannot be observed by the senses. This is because it is That "spaciousness" which is aware of any form.
I like to call this the vertical axis. Some call it the Now.
However, there is potential expression in it that can only be actualized within limitation. The mirage of being a separate being in a world of multiplicity is then born.
Is it possible to realize your unlimited Being while being in localized and compressed form? Yes. Many people have experiences where the veil lifts and a sort of “all knowingness” seems to pervade ones being.
Psychologist, academic and mystic Steve Taylor calls these ISLES experiences. Here’s a link to an essay by him which is quite lengthy - but very well written if you’d like to explore a different way of expressing these “spiritual awakening” experiences: Steve Taylor Exploring Awakening Experiences
And although practices such as “being in the present moment” can help with these types of realizations, it’s kind of a paradox when they do happen (at least in my experience). To me, they seem more like a gift of Grace. I definitely do not feel like I (David) can take any credit for making it happen.
Although I do also believe that certain practices can certainly lead to these mystical experiences. What practices work best? Watching the mind and its reactions without judgement. Not like a hawk. More like a relaxed taking in of a sunset. That would be the main practice.
Key Takeaways For Why We Suffer In Life
- without pain and suffering we would’t know that we’re out of sync somehow
- note: I’m not talking about medical or physical conditions here. Yes, many times illness is caused by poor lifestyle choices. But the body also does what the body does. Illness is not always a sign that we are out of balance somehow. In this article, I'm discussing emotional resistance to what is. In my experience, dropping emotional resistance to pain in the body can also help a great deal with our potential to heal.
- without pain and suffering we wouldn’t be motivated to look deeper than the surface understanding of Life
- without suffering, Life would not have the same depth of meaning
- without suffering we wouldn’t be motivated to find out if there’s a way out of it
- without suffering we wouldn’t have compassion for others
- without pain or suffering we would never have the passion to discover the truth of our Being
Is There A Way To Reduce Or Even Eliminate Pain And Suffering?
We’ll always feel pain and hurt, frustration and loss in life. And there are many other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, the geographical location you were born into, etc.
Let's say you stub your toe. That hurts! But if you judge yourself and make yourself miserable about it, that's unnecessary suffering added on top.
The key to being free is to see through any self-created (unnecessary)suffering to the joy of being that is always there behind the noise in the mind. But how?
Watch Your Mind
Watch your mind. Notice how it's creating more suffering on top of what is already there in the form of stories, labels, assumptions, etc. Don’t judge yourself for it - that’s just more unnecessary problem making.
Watch how your pride needs to be right - even if it has to play victim in order to make the other person wrong. Sometimes people even end up hating the world and humanity in order to strengthen this mind made sense of self.
"There is more pain from holding on to the thought of pain than there is in the situation itself. Let the world strike you, it will do so less cruelly than your own imagination." - Lester Levenson
This practice takes enormous energy and honesty. In other words, pride can be the most challenging feeling of all to overcome.
But now we come full circle. With enough suffering, you become more willing to give up your pride. You actually start to look within for a solution. Remember: as above, so below. As within, so without.
You begin to notice where happiness actually is. Not in the world "out there" but just behind the mind in the fact that you ARE. Notice that happiness is often brought forth by something spontaneous and simple? That's because your mind has temporarily gotten out of the way. The inherent goodness that is Life that is "hiding" behind the noise of the mind is revealed.
Is it possible to do take this step without emotional pain? Perhaps. But most of us need the pain to even notice something is wrong. And then to take the next step of realizing that the only thing we truly have any power over is our inner quality of being.
There may come a time however, when this next step in the evolution of consciousness (as Eckhart Tolle calls it) doesn’t require suffering.