STUDENT: How would you define suffering?
LEWIS: Suffering is the disruptive, necessary mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm. When suffering is physical, we know it as pain. Words that are roughly synonymic with suffering include these: unhappiness, misery, pain, woe, unpleasantness, distress, sorrow, misery, affliction, illness, discomfort, displeasure and disagreeableness. Many people seeking to reinvent themselves do so as a process to transcend suffering of one form or another.
STUDENT: Is suffering necessary?
LEWIS: Without suffering there is no way that we could survive. When we recognize that we are suffering we also have an awareness of when our safety is threatened. Suffering trains us to cope with stress and prepares us to respond to negative events that come into our environment. Suffering contributes to the organization of meaning in an individual’s psychological and emotional world. This “meaning” defines how individuals or groups of individuals experience and deal with suffering.
STUDENT: What would determine how mild or extreme a particular form of suffering might be?
LEWIS: There are many variables that might increase or decrease a person’s suffering. The main factor is a person’s attitude about the suffering combined with their emotional response and personal beliefs about such things as whether the suffering was undeserved or deserved, unavoidable or avoidable, useless or useful.
STUDENT: What determines how intense a person’s suffering would be?
LEWIS: The origin and cause of the suffering, its processes, the meaning it presents to the individual who is suffering, its related social, personal, and cultural behaviors, the knowledge of how to manage, reduce or eliminate the suffering and the benefits one might accrue for having suffered all influence the intensity of suffering. Add to this the frequency of each occurrence, the concurrence of mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, factors, combined with the duration of the suffering and you have a very wide range of experiences related to suffering.
STUDENT: Which is worse: mental, emotional, psychological or spiritual suffering?
LEWIS: It all depends on a person’s perspective on life pain and pleasure. As I mentioned earlier in this conversation, there are many variables that would cause a person to suffer. Remember, physical pain or suffering takes place in the conscious minds and through the emotions. Mental suffering happens through the physical brain but will also affect the emotions. There is no strict line between mental, emotional, psychological or spiritual events. The thing that we know is that for every thought, there is a physical reaction, and for every physical action there is most likely an emotional response.
STUDENT: Is it easy to avoid or transcend suffering?
LEWIS: It is all a matter of choice. For some, the key focus is to avoid suffering, for others it is best to pursue pleasure, and for others still, the key to learn how to live in tranquility. More than anything else, it is our way of thinking that brings us suffering.
STUDENT: Are these common beliefs?
LEWIS: They are. However, there are two ways of expressing these ideas. For some, the attempt to avoid suffering is destructive and results in self doubt, guilt, shame and emotional imbalance. For others, transcending suffering is wisdom actualized, for the attachment to pleasure and the avoidance of pain does have its negative consequences.
STUDENT: Can you speak further about the emotions and their connection to how we suffer unnecessarily?
LEWIS: A person lacking in emotional stability may use suffering as a tool for harming themselves.
STUDENT: If this is so, then these questions arise: “Is it better to seek pleasure or to avoid pain?” “Is it better to avoid suffering or accept suffering?”
LEWIS: In the end, it is probably wise to appreciate whatever externally generated pleasure comes our way and grow from whatever necessary suffering comes as well. Whatever we are given, pleasure or suffering, we can still make the choice to live a life which reflects authenticity, reason, kindness and introspection.
STUDENT: It would seem that doing this would require stern control of your thoughts and feelings. It might even require a denial of pleasure and a resignation to suffering if it seems as if it this suffering might be necessary suffering.
LEWIS: No one can say initially which suffering is necessary and which is unnecessary. .You can, however, learn to control your feelings. This way of living authentically provides us with a type of pleasure that has no suffering as a consequence and provides us with the tools to live our best life. Rather than indifference or resignation, it is actually a form of surrender – a transcendence of suffering that provides the individual with its own rewards.
STUDENT: Can you speak of the relationship between happiness and suffering and pain and pleasure?
LEWIS: There actually is no relationship between the two. On first thought, it might seem that happiness is the opposite of suffering, and that pain is the opposite of pleasure, but this is not the case. When people are in a state of suffering they usually call out for help. It is a direct and specific moral appeal. However, there is no similar calling out to increase our sense of happiness, especially when we are doing well.
STUDENT: Are there people who can reduce their own suffering by helping others?
LEWIS: Yes. Many believe that the desire to be kind or to help others comes from our genetic makeup; it is part of natural law. Known as Humanitarianism, this concept is not concerned with exploring happiness or making the happy happier. Rather, the goal is to show those who are unhappy a path to happiness.
STUDENT: Why does an altruistic person not see the exploration of happiness as an essential element?
LEWIS: Some suffering may reflect natural law, since suffering helps us to survive. Altruism seems, as well, to expression natural law. Happiness is not a genetic or biological reality. So in the process of life we may cause or be at the effect of pleasure, pain, fear, hate, violence and punishment as we go about competing and creating or fitting into social groups. We do this so that we and those we care about, may survive and even live their best lives. All this pleasure and pain helps us to access food, water, shelter and the social bonds that support our survival. As much as we like happiness, it is not an essential element for any of these activities.
STUDENT: Can a person be happy in the face of so much suffering?
LEWIS: The world can seem pretty bad. Some of us, no matter how hard we try, are conscious of the incredible suffering in the world. This has been so since the beginning of time.
STUDENT: What can you do to be happy if you have a pessimistic view of the world?
LEWIS: The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, recommends taking refuge in philosophy, the enjoyment of art and a kind, compassionate and tolerant sensibility towards those who are suffering.
STUDENT: What role does religion play in whether we suffer or not?
LEWIS: To a large level, religion teaches us how the world is made up of various forms of suffering; why suffering is valuable in our life; and/or how to transcend suffering. Much of religion and religious practice deals with the problem of evil. People often believe that the worst form of evil is extreme suffering – thus religion may be the source of, as well as the escape from, suffering. Much of religious mythology deals with suffering, especially in tales related to being tormented eternally in hell.
STUDENT: What are some of the specific themes in religious practice that relate to suffering?
LEWIS: In many religious traditions, suffering is a consequence of actions that resist God’s will or defy the sacred rules and teachings of the faith. However, in the religious context, suffering provides an opportunity for spiritual progress. (See the A Conversation on Religion and Rap’s.)
Religion is core to concepts concerned with suffering:
• consolation or relief
• moral conduct (help the afflicted; do no harm)
• spiritual advancement through life’s trials and tribulations
• self-imposed trials such as mortification of the flesh, penance and asceticism
• ultimate destiny, salvation, damnation, hell and salvation
• the Four Noble Truths that lie at the foundation of much Buddhist thought
• in Christianity, much of what defines the reference to the ultimate sacrifice and the suffering of Jesus on the Cross
• in the concept of karma – a basic belief in Hinduism and in the mystic philosophies within Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as other religious tradition – part of the cause-and-effect cycle that flows naturally from personal negative behaviors in one’s current life or in a past life.
STUDENT: Can you speak of art and the concept of suffering?
LEWIS: Art is a form that expresses suffering as symbol, metaphor or myth. Whether it be in the expression of the tragic or comic, through fine art, conceptual art, the performing arts or literature; whatever the genre, art offers a means to alleviate, and even at times exacerbate, suffering.
To explore further into the subject of suffering please research the following:
Hedonism, Epicurus, Peter Singer, Jeremy Bentham’s ideas concerning hedonistic, utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill’s ideas on the doctrine of hedonistic utilitarianism.
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