57 – Why Do We Experience All-Pervasive Suffering?

Why is it common to have that nagging feeling that things aren’t how they’re supposed to be? Do you ever feel like life is not how it’s supposed to be, others are not how they’re supposed to be or that you yourself are not how you’re supposed to be? In this episode, I will talk about the 3 types of suffering and specifically the 3rd type: all-pervasive suffering. I will talk about where it comes from and how we can begin to understand it better and work with it.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

New – Join our Online Weekly Sangha – https://www.remind.com/join/sbsangha

Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Noah Rasheta:                      Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 57. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about all-pervasive suffering, what is it, and more importantly, how do we identify it when we’re experiencing it. There’s a good reason why we talk about suffering so often in Buddhism. Suffering is the central problem that Buddhism addresses. It’s recognizing our suffering as the first step to its solution. We talked about how suffering is a universal truth along with impermanence, along with interdependence. It’s one of the three basic qualities of existence, also known as the three marks of existence, but suffering itself comes in many forms.

We talk about it often in the context of three overall categories, three different categories, and these are the three basic patterns of suffering that we experience in our lives. The first one is the suffering of suffering. I talked about this early on in the podcast. I want to say within the first five episodes. Maybe it was number two, probably number two, but the suffering of suffering, the first type of suffering, this is what we’re all familiar with. This is the pain of birth, old age, sickness, and death, right? This very easy to understand, the suffering of suffering. The second is the suffering of change or the suffering of loss, and this is how we feel when we don’t get what we want or we do get what we want, but we can’t hold on to it, like youth. The aging can fit into this. If things aren’t going the way that we want them to, or losing a job. You know, change itself I think fits nicely into this second category, the suffering of change, but the third category …

Well, those first two for me, my understanding of them is that they’re pretty natural. We’re going to experience the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. It’s third category of suffering that I’m most interested in exploring in myself and in others. It’s called all-pervasive suffering, and this is the type of suffering that generally we’re not likely to recognize. You could say it’s the most destructive when we do experience it because it’s there, underlying a lot of what we say and do, so this type of suffering, like I said, it’s the hardest to identify, but it’s based on conditioning, the conditioned mind.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been receiving emails from podcast listeners. I happen to receive emails from friends, from family, and reading through Facebook posts recently that have kind of triggered this thought of this sense of suffering that some people are experiencing in life because of certain circumstances or situations. What I want to highlight is that this type of suffering generally has nothing to do with the circumstances. It has to do with the concepts or the beliefs behind the circumstances, so an example of this, if you were looking at all-pervasive suffering as an example applied to a view that you might have of yourself, so for example, I may experience this form of discontent or suffering because of the way that I look, you know? Maybe it’s my weight or maybe it’s my nose, the shape of my nose, or something along those lines, so I think I start to experience discomfort with reality as it is.

This is how my nose looks and I don’t like it, so the discomfort that I’m feeling, that I think is associated to the circumstance being the way my nose is, if you look at it deeper, what you’ll discover is it’s associated to the idea or the concept, the conditioning in the mind that makes you think, “This isn’t the right nose to have. My nose should look like that. Mine looks like this,” so I’m not suffering because of the nose. I’m suffering because of the belief that I have about how the nose should be. I hope that makes sense. This manifests in three major areas in life. One is life in general. Here’s how life is. Here’s how I think life should be. In the moment that I have the concept, the belief, the idea in my head of how it should be, I encounter this form of all-pervasive suffering. It’s just kind of this lingering feeling that’s always there that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, things aren’t the way they should be.

The three main areas where I think this manifests, one is life in general, two is with other people, right? There’s you how you are and you how I think you should be, and this is very evident for couples. Anybody who’s in a marriage or in a relationship, or it could be relationships with family members, siblings, children, parents, right? We start to do this. We conceptualize the idea of who this person should be, so we’re constantly assessing and comparing who they are to who we think they should be, so the suffering, the all-pervasive suffering that arises out of this is that nagging feeling that they’re not who they should be. “You should be more nice. You should believe this. You shouldn’t believe that. You shouldn’t do this. You should do that.” Right? That’s a form of all-pervasive suffering. The suffering doesn’t have to do with the circumstance itself. It has to do with the belief behind the circumstance.

Then the third area is relating to ourselves. This is the example I gave at first, right? There’s who I am and who I think I should be, and the moment I do that, I can experience this sense of all-pervasive suffering. This is what I’ve noticed a lot lately with people who have been reaching out to me. One example of this was someone who was experiencing a lot of feelings of anxiety and depression, and the entire explanation of this situation was focused on how, “I shouldn’t be feeling this.” Right? This person was qualifying the experience of reality saying, “This is how things are. This is how I feel, but I don’t feel that I should feel this because who am I to be experiencing anxiety or depression when my situation in life is actually very good?” That’s one of the things that was specifically brought up like, “Well, somebody who has it way worse than me, they might be more entitled to feeling depressed than I am. I shouldn’t feel that.”

So that immediately adds this additional layer of complexity because there’s how you’re feeling and then there’s how you’re feeling about how you’re feeling, in this case, both of which are unpleasant emotions, right? Feeling depressed is already a difficult thing, but to feel depressed and then feel, on top of that, that I shouldn’t feel depressed, so now I’m feeling bad that I’m feeling bad, and that’s what all-pervasive suffering is. It’s this lingering feeling that’s there because there’s a picture in our heads of how things should and reality isn’t matching that, so to work with all-pervasive suffering what we do is we spend time looking at how am I seeing things? What is the belief behind the feeling or the thought or the emotion I’m experiencing?

One way I like to do this is I ask myself, “Is there a should in here?” Whatever I’m experiencing, especially if I’m experiencing instances of suffering, I ask myself, “What is the should?” You know? “Oh, I’m suffering because this is happening at work and this isn’t how it should be. Oh. Okay. Well, there it is.” I think that there’s a way that it should be. Reality isn’t matching that and boom, I’m experiencing suffering. That’s the all-pervasive suffering, right? So that’s why we say it’s always based on the conditioned mind because there is some form of conditioning, a belief or a concept or an idea that we hold, that if you dig deep enough, that is the root source of the suffering that you’re experience at least when it comes to all-pervasive suffering. You can start to look at this in your own life. I’ve done this on many instances, instances of suffering in my relationships, thinking, “Oh, this is how my relationship should be working.” Right? “This is how the dynamic should be.”

Well, the moment I do that, any time that it doesn’t match that, I catch myself with this lingering feeling that something is not right, and it’s not that it’s not right. It’s that I have this idea, I have this lingering belief that I know how it should be, and because it’s not matching that, I’m experiencing the discomfort. Now I want to caution you of something here. One of the first things that we’ll do is we realize, “Okay, we have the tendency to have shoulds.” Right? How life should be, how you should be, how I should be. Those are the shoulds, so as soon as we learn about this concept, we think, “Oh, I shouldn’t have shoulds.” Right? Now we’re caught back in the very same problem that we’re talking about, so rather than trying to combat this tendency to have shoulds by saying, “I shouldn’t have shoulds,” don’t do that. That’s just going to complicate things.

What we want to do is just look at the scenario and recognize, “Oh, that’s why I’m suffering. Okay, I’m not going to do anything about that. I’m just trying to understand it.” We’re just trying to have a more clear picture of what it is that’s taking place in our minds when we’re experiencing discomfort or suffering. What helps me, rather than thinking, “Uh-oh, I just realized this suffering is based on a should, right? This is how my relationship dynamic should be,” I’ll pause there and just say, “Well, what if I replaced should with could? Here’s how my relationship could be. Oh. Well, that’s a whole different scenario because now it’s more along the lines of possibility. Here’s how it is. Here’s how it could be.” “Should” implies right and wrong, and the idea of right and wrong runs up against problems from this Buddhist perspective. This is why we talk about the story of Who Knows What is Good and What is Bad with the horse.

There are several concepts in Buddhism that make it so that it’s very difficult for us to have the mindset of right and wrong as an inherent thing. How things are, how things should be. One is right, one is wrong. See, if I replace that with how things could be, now it’s on the spectrum of possibility. I’m dealing with reality. This is how it is, and I absolutely accept that this is how it is, but I’m also holding on to the thought that this is how it could, and how it could be may be more beneficial for me, more beneficial for others. It could minimize the suffering that I’m experiencing or the suffering that others are experiencing, and that may be the catalyst for the things that I say and do to try to drive towards what could be, but see, that’s a different mindset than being in reality and fighting reality because it’s not how it should be. See, there’s no way that it should be. There are no shoulds, right?

There’s just how it is. There’s only ever how it is. There’s how it was and there’s how it is, and then there’s how it will be, but never how it should be. There are no shoulds here. I like to replace should with could, and at least for me, in my mind, it changes things. It minimizes that sense of rightness and wrongness, and then reality doesn’t feel like it’s wrong, how it is right now, because it’s just how it is right now, so that for me minimizes a lot of this all-pervasive suffering, this lingering emotion that feels like something is not right because then I’m left with, everything is right as it is because it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about how things and how things could be, and how things are is how things are. That’s reality and that’s what I have to work with, so that concept is really helpful for me. I see this in all of these examples that I receive from emails or people who reach out and they’re encountering something.

Generally there’s a should in there. There’s an idea and they’re bumping up against the comparison of their reality with the story, the narrative of how reality should be. The dichotomy of those two, reality as it is and reality as I think it should be, is what causes this additional form of suffering that’s really self-inflicted, all-pervasive suffering. That’s the type of suffering that we’re really concerned with in Buddhist practice because that’s something you can work with because it stems from your ideas, your concepts. That’s what you can look at. “What ideas do I hold, what beliefs do I hold that cause this form of suffering?” So the invitation is to be able to look deeply at your own ideas. Where do my ideas come from? Do my ideas cause me to experience discomfort or suffering?

Now, there’s one area that I wanted to share with you from a book, Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance. She talks about this concept that I think is worth sharing especially for most of us, western-minded people, because she mentions in her book our culture’s guiding myth is the story of Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, and we may forget its power because it seems so worn and familiar, but this story shapes and reflects the deep psyche of the West. It’s the message of original sin. It’s unequivocal. It says, “Because of our basically flawed nature, we do not deserve to be happy, loved by others, or at ease with life. We are outcasts, and if we are to reenter the Garden, we must redeem our sinful selves. We must overcome our flaws by controlling our bodies, controlling our emotions, controlling our natural surroundings, controlling other people, and we must strive tirelessly, working, acquiring, consuming, achieving, emailing, over-committing, and rushing in a never ending quest to prove ourselves once and for all.”

That’s an excerpt from Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, but I think it hits on something, on a key concept here that seems really powerful. I’ve experienced this in my own life and I continue to experience it in the lives of many of my close family and friends, this idea that we can’t be at ease, we can’t accept things as they are because we’re constantly trying to prove ourselves to this standard, some standard of worthiness, and until I can reach that, I don’t deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve to be loved. I don’t deserve for life to be easy, and I see this all the time. I see this with examples, kind of like I mentioned before, this idea that my life is not hard enough. Therefore, I should not be feeling bad about it, so the moment I’m feeling bad about it, I’m caught in this crazy way of thinking that says, “I feel bad for something I shouldn’t feel bad for. Therefore, that makes me something wrong with me. I’m weak. I’m a failure. I’m something, but the problem is back on me because I’m not supposed to be feeling this.”

If you look at that closely, what you would really find if you got introspective with it is that there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad. There’s nothing wrong with feeling depressed. There’s nothing wrong with feeling anxiety. These are just feelings. They’re emotions. It becomes complicated when we think we shouldn’t be feeling what we’re feeling, and we do this with thoughts too, right? I shouldn’t be thinking this. This happens with meditation all the time. People who are learning to meditate, the first thing they’ll run up against is this idea that, “I’m not doing it right because I’m sitting here, and I’m thinking of this and I should be thinking of that.” It’s missing the point entirely because meditation is about learning to see what’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re thinking about this or that. It doesn’t matter what this or that is. You’re just learning to see it and to embrace it, experience it, get familiar with it, and we want to do the same with our emotions.

You know, when we’re experiencing a negative emotion like anxiety or depression, we want to fight it. We want to get rid of it because of the conditioned mind that says, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be feeling this.” Well, who said we’re not supposed to be feeling it? Where did that idea come from? You know, what if we understood that there is no supposed to in there, there’s no way that you’re supposed to feel? There’s only ever just how you feel, and if that’s how you’re feeling, sit with it. Look at it. Become intimately familiar with the emotions that you’re experiencing, with the thoughts that you’re having, and stop trying to fight them.

This was a really powerful shift for me to be able to allow myself to feel what I was feeling, and I’ve mentioned in the past, in my story, that I had an instance of tremendous anger, a phase of tremendous anger in my life. A significant part of the anger was aggravated by the belief that I wasn’t supposed to be angry, so there I was angry, and I was angry that I was angry because I had been conditioned to believe that, “You’re a nice person. You’re supposed to turn the other cheek. You’re supposed to not feel these things.” So I would feel them and I would push them aside. I would push anger aside, and I dealt with this for a couple of years. It wasn’t until, through mindfulness practice and studying psychology, that it finally clicked that, “Who said I wasn’t supposed to feel anger?” I allowed myself to be angry, and I was very, very angry and it was okay because it’s just what I was. It’s what I was experiencing.

When I allowed myself to be with the emotion and to just sit with it, I don’t remember exactly how long it was, but it felt like what had been taking me years to try to overcome. By allowing myself to just feel it, within days or weeks it was gone because I allowed it to finally sit with me long enough to run its course. I don’t say that in a way to think, “Oh, then you’re supposed to let it sit there, so then it’s supposed to go away.” There are no supposed-tos here, right? You sit with it. The nature of reality is that it’s changing. Things change. Things change over time, so if we look at it that way, I’m probably not going to feel the way that I feel right now forever.

This is how I feel now, and if anger is what I feel now, well, then sit with it. In my case, it went away, and sure, it’s resurfaced at other times, at other instances for other circumstances, but that specific one ran its course and I have not felt the way that I felt back then again ever since I allowed it to really run its course. That’s what we’re trying to focus on with all-pervasive suffering, is looking at not the circumstances, but what are the beliefs or the concepts behind the circumstances that are making this more complicated than it needs to be? It’s like saying, “Whatever the feeling is, what is the feeling about the feeling? Where does that come from?” You may find it comes from an idea, a belief, an opinion, and that gives you something to work with. That’s something that you can look at. Instead of pushing away the feeling or the emotion, explore the mental process that’s happening behind the emotion. What is the feeling behind the feeling? What is the thought behind the thought? Right?

The thought itself isn’t the problem. The feeling itself isn’t the problem, whether that be a positive or a negative emotion or thought or experience. It’s just what is, so that’s what all-pervasive suffering is. It’s the type of suffering that we’re most likely not going to recognize it because we’re caught up in the experience of the feeling and we don’t even realize that there’s something deeper there. The general background of anxiety, insecurity that can often taint even our happiest moments, deep down that comes from somewhere mental, somewhere where there’s an idea or a thought or an opinion or a belief that colors how we feel about how we feel. That’s what we want to look at.

From the Buddhist point of view, from the Buddhist perspective, these ideas or these concepts are fine. The problem isn’t having them, again, or changing them. The purpose of this is to just explore them because exploring and knowing and understanding and gaining knowledge about ourselves, that’s what offers us glimpses of wisdom. That’s where insight comes from, so again, this isn’t about changing. Sitting here and thinking, “I need to change how things are,” that’s part of the problem. It’s sitting here and thinking, “I need to understand why I feel the way that I feel. I need to look at it deeply. I don’t need to change how I feel. It’s just how I feel, so I want to look at it.” It’s when I look at it that insight arises and I think, “Oh, that’s why I feel why I feel. Okay. Well, that makes more sense.” We process it in that perspective, but not by pushing these things aside, so that’s why I wanted to share.

That’s what I wanted to share about all-pervasive suffering because I see it everywhere and I’m sure you do too. We all friends and family and loved ones who are dealing with all-pervasive suffering all the time, and I’m sure you are too and I am too. You know, I’m trying to understand, at any given moment, if I experience an instance of suffering, the first thing I want to do is analyze it and say, “Is this self-inflicted or is this natural?” Because if it’s natural, I don’t even need to worry about it, but if it’s self-inflicted, I can actually do something about that. I can discover the source of it, the thought, the underlying thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that are making this more uncomfortable than it needs to be and then I have something to work with. That’s what we’re trying to do with all-pervasive suffering, trying to understand at a deeper level what’s going on it, not trying to change it.

It’ll change, trust me. It will change because the nature of reality is that it’s impermanent. Things are always changing, but by having that insight … We can’t gain the insight without increasing our awareness of what it is that’s going on, so rather than fighting the emotion or fighting off the discomfort of suffering, what if we could sit with it, analyze it, study it, embrace it, become intimately familiar with it? Then it’s not such a problem, right? We become more comfortable with the discomfort and we understand it, and then it doesn’t have such a grip on us. It arises, it lingers, and then it moves on in the same way that clouds in the sky do. I hope that is relevant, it makes some sense. Sometimes I wonder. I try to explain things in a way where it doesn’t just seem very esoteric in its explanation.

So I try to explain these concepts and ideas in the way that they’ve clicked and made sense to me, so I hope that this message about all-pervasive suffering resonates with at least some of you, and hopefully gives you the ability to sit with the instances of all-pervasive suffering that you may be experiencing in your life and gives you insight into what’s going on at a deeper level, what the ideas, thoughts, concepts, and beliefs are that may be underlying the suffering that you’re experiencing. I think that’s all I’ve got around this topic.

If you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please feel free to share it with others. You can write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. You can join our online community. You can visit secularbuddhism.com/community for more information about that. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for your time. Until next time.

  • Madhanarva

    Thank you Noah!

    That really helped cast new light on my problems.