Pain is inevitable, but not all suffering is necessary
A man has unsuccessfully tried to catch a monkey that was stealing food from his village. The animal was too smart and fast for him.
Just as he was about to give up, a wise old man shared a secret trick. Following the instructions, the hunter cut a portion off the top of the coconut, leaving a small hole in the center just big enough to fit a monkey’s hand. He placed peanuts inside the hole. And then he tied the coconut to a tree.
When everything was ready, he left. The next morning, just as the old man had advised him, the monkey was captured — his hand stuck inside of the coconut.
The monkey was a victim, not of the trap, but of his unwillingness to let go. The hole was big enough to release his empty hand, not a fist full of peanuts — he simply had to release the peanuts. But he didn’t.
The root of our suffering is attachment. When we can’t let go, we create self-inflicted wounds. The things that are supposed to provide us happiness become our trap.
Pain and Suffering
Pain is a life-saving alarm system — it keeps us focused on distress. Pain motivates behavior that will help us recover, heal or improve. When we touch hot water, for example, the immediate reaction alerts our brain that we are in danger.
However, when our pain becomes more intense over time, it becomes suffering — we fail to act successfully on the alert.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
You cannot get rid of your pain, but you can increase the understanding of it. Regular emotional pain — not connected to brain diseases or severe disorders — is usually derived from emotions such as frustration, guilt, or envy. Rehashing our suffering creates self-inflicted wounds — we add fuel to the fire.
We often celebrate our suffering. Sounds odd, right? The more we tell others, the more we ruminate our painful stories, the more we suffer. Adding to our suffering turns us into a victim — we identify with our pain.
Suffering is how we’ve learned to respond — we are attached to both craving and aversion. Be honest with yourself. What are your desires? What are you avoiding? Clinging to your illusions can get you stuck. To deal with our suffering, we must face our vulnerability head on.
Real transformation is painful — it comes through suffering.
The Truth about Suffering
“Men are disturbed not by the events but their opinions about their events.” — Epictetus
Suffering is inevitable, but not all suffering is necessary.
The key is to examine your relationship with suffering. Some people believe they are immune to suffering (“I wasn’t born to suffer!”), others identify with theirs (“My parents screwed me up forever!”). Understand why you suffer. And, most importantly, discriminate real suffering from the one you create yourself.
Suffering has a negative connotation because we usually get stuck on the experience rather than learn from it.
For many religions, such as Christianism, human suffering means redemption. It‘s like a test that prepares us for the afterlife. Suffering is an experience to achieve a higher meaning of life — it inspires us to expiate, grow spiritually and become more compassionate.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that the root of human neurosis is death denial. We assume that death is a horrific and painful experience. Avoidance creates unnecessary anxiety. People believe that more money, prestige, or political clout will protect them from death.
But the more we pursue that illusion, the more we suffer — just like it happened to the monkey.
Buddhism sees suffering as the mental pain we undergo when our tendency to hold to our desires encounters the changing nature of life — our experiences seem disappointing. The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.” Some people see this as a pessimistic approach. On the contrary, we must understand suffering if we want to end it.
In our lives, we deal with three types of suffering.
Painful experiences include both physical discomfort and emotional suffering. “The suffering of suffering” includes birth, old age, sickness, death, and coming across undesirable experiences.
Constant Change is natural — attachment to anything is pointless. We can try to hold on to things or people as much as we want, but everything ends sooner or later. The same happens with not getting — or not knowing — what we want. Life is constantly changing. We suffer because we resist the idea that we can’t control anything rather than our actions.
Life’s inherent unsatisfactoriness is the “truth of suffering.” We all feel unsatisfied because we are not enlightened. Finding perfect wisdom and infinite compassion is anything but easy. This is the most challenging type.
Our attachment to our desires is the root of suffering. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a superior lifestyle. The problem is believing that next time — when we get a new job, partner, house, clothes, etc. — everything will be better.
By pursuing the illusion of next time, rather than feeling happy, we get stuck in the ‘coconut.’
Suffering Is a Signal: Pay Attention
Pain is not just an alarm that something is wrong — it reminds us to confront our emotional state.
“What’s going on here?”
Psychologists say that, if you are depressed, you are focused on the past. And, if you are anxious, you are focused in the future. We suffer because we fail to live in the ‘here and now.’
Living in the present is hard. When our mind wanders aimlessly, we suffer. Distraction is not a problem unless we use it to avoid reality. As Chögyam Trungpa explains, suffering comes from being absent — it comes from stupidity or ignorance.
Pain is also an indicator that, deep inside, we feel divided.
We become attached to what we expect from life. J. Krishnamurti said that the root of suffering was division — “I’m this, but I want to be that. I have this, but I want to have that.” The gap between reality and our expectations create frustration. We can’t let go of the peanut and become more anxious.
Suffering is a clear signal that we resist the true nature of life. The world is ‘this way,’ but we want it to be ‘that way.’ We expect life to be different. We try to make pleasurable what is actually painful. We want to make permanent what is always changing.
When we are in Naples, we dream we are in Rome, as Emerson wrote.
The truth of suffering is a wake-up call — we realize we are not aware of who we really are. Everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable, including ourselves.
“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”
― Michel de Montaigne
When we feel dissatisfied, the world outside becomes our enemy. We complain, blame others, and become a victim — we create self-inflicted wounds.
We can’t remove pain from our lives. We can’t avoid getting sick or aging. Losing someone we love is painful. But resisting life’s impermanence will make us suffer even more.
Philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in The Last Messiah, explains how we’ve developed both conscious and unconscious mechanisms to limit our daily consciousness — they supposedly protect us from suffering.
Isolation is repressing thoughts or feelings that are unpleasant — we learn to tune some of them out. Anchoring is about creating goals and values to guide our actions and protect us from our darker side. Distraction temporarily shifts our attention from our inner-world to the external one.
Zapffe called them “repressional mechanisms” — they silence the pain but don’t remove the root of suffering.
Avoidance is one way to add more suffering to our suffering. The other is the dramatization of pain. They are both self-inflicted emotional wounds.
Some people see their suffering as unfair. They are good, so why should they suffer? They believe that suffering means punishment — only bad people should suffer.
There is no such thing as a human being who has not suffered. People see others as smarter, younger, wealthier, stronger, prettier, more powerful than they are. We believe others have an easier life — no one suffers as much as we do.
Each person has its own dose of pain. It’s usually not apparent because we can’t see past our own drama. Comparing with others is deceiving. We see our pain but don’t realize others suffer too — only for different reasons.
We create self-inflicted pain. The more we share our suffering with others, the more we suffer. We suffer when we are lonely and then suffer from our relationships. We suffer over not having money and then suffer over being rich or not being wealthy enough. The dramatization of our suffering creates a snowball effect.
You can’t get rid of all suffering, but you can avoid creating unnecessary pain.
To Suffer or Not to Suffer?
Instead of expecting a suffering-free life, learn to live with suffering.
Though Zapffe’s essay is rather pessimistic, he presents the fourth remedy against suffering, sublimation — we can transform rather than repress our pain.
Art can turn our suffering into a valuable experience. We can transform unwanted feelings into something that is helpful rather than harmful.
Pain is a wonderful source of inspiration. As Harry J. Stead wrote, “It is suffering that paints on the canvas, bleeds words into rhyme, builds skyscrapers and disciplines the army. And without suffering, without our irrational tendency towards pain, we would be rather lost indeed.”
Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the suffering of life is productive, exalting the will to power, despising weak compassion or pity. He recommended us to embrace willfully the ‘eternal return’ of the greatest sufferings.
Mindfulness is essential to understand why we suffer. Confront your pain; don’t suppress it. If you are feeling bad about something, feel it. Make room for your emotions — allow their full expression. Embrace all your feelings, pain included.
Acceptance does not mean resignation. It’s not giving up your happiness either. You can still take pleasure, to enjoy food, watch a movie and listen to music. But you don’t get stuck in the illusion of attachment. Understanding why you suffer will help you see life clearly. Acceptance is not surrendering your dreams but experiencing life‘s impermanence without resistance.
Love yourself just the way you are.
As Umair Haque wrote, “The moment that you can stop dividing and separating yourself, suffering begins to evaporate like most. When you say, “I am one with my fear and my scars and wounds”, you have done something magical. They cannot hurt you anymore. You have taken away their power.”
We must embrace rather than overcome our suffering. In Yoga and meditation, pain is to be allowed, felt, and embraced. Avoidance leads to further suffering. Be in the moment with the pain. What is it trying to tell you? Do not hold it longer, not let it go too soon. Be with it.
Epicurus — contrarily to popular perception of his doctrine — advocated for non-attachment to ephemeral pleasures. He believed we should first seek to avoid suffering by freeing ourselves from worrisome pursuits.
Attachment gets us stuck to our suffering. Let go of what is in the coconut — whatever that is.
Pain is inevitable, but not all suffering is necessary. The truth about suffering lies within you.