The meanings of suffering

Just as physical pain can be a useful message, so can mental suffering.  But the message can be subtle, and need careful contemplation, before a right action arises.

Whilst I wouldn’t wish suffering on anyone, I often reflect on what my own suffering brings to me.


Firstly, when I suffer, I become aware of something to adjust.  If I place my hand on a hot surface, then I feel suffering in the form of pain.  This pain is a message to me from my nervous system that something is wrong.  Instinctively and quickly, I remove my hand from that surface, and therefore avoid further injury.


In the same way, when I get angry or upset, then I feel suffering in the form of emotional pain.  This pain is also a message to me that something is wrong.

Deciphering the meaning of emotional suffering is a little more subtle.

Some people will interpret internal anger as a sign that they should lash out at someone else.  This is a natural response, and frequently a first response, but perhaps that person will discover, eventually, that lashing out does not palliate the suffering, and can even increase it.  Eventually, a person may learn that internal correction in the form of patience, combined with the identification of good actions, works better.


Every day is likely to bring some suffering to you.  What meaning you make of it is up to you.

Often you will already have a story about it, but it might not be a helpful one.  You may think: ‘Oh, here we go again; this always happens to me; it’s [insert name here]’s fault!’  Eventually, you may discover that this particular story doesn’t help you develop – suffering still appears, and may get worse.

Later on in the process, you may develop a more helpful story.  You may think: ‘Oh, here’s that pain again.  It seems to be increased when I feel sorry for myself.  I am going to try to think outwards a bit, and find ways to help others in the same position.’  Many people use this story to find meaning in bereavement or loss.  They convert self-sorrow into compassion for others, and their life takes on a new purpose.

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When we feel physical pain, it is often a message to correct our actions.

In a similar way, when we feel mental or emotional pain, it can be a message to us to adjust our response to life.

However, interpreting emotional pain needs a bit more subtlety.  At first, for instance, we may interpret our anger as meaning that we need to lash out at others.

In time, as we learn, we can find better interpretations, more helpful stories about our own suffering.

In particular, if we learn to convert concern for ourselves into compassionate help for others in the same position, then we can find new happiness, and a new purpose.