Misery’s shadow

Religions teach us to blame ourselves for our suffering in a number of ways. It is true that part of healing is taking responsibility for our own actions.  And it is true that we can make pain and suffering worse by what we do.  Neither of these truths, however, constitute the whole picture, nor do shame and guilt help to heal.  In fact, feeling guilty only binds us more firmly to our own ego and perpetuates the cycle of clinging and grasping.  If we are taught that all pain and suffering is our fault, one way or another, then we become more prone to seeking what we have done wrong than to opening to the pain and suffering and letting go.

The path to self-flagellation can start with reasonable observations like C.S. Lewis’ criticism of his own grief.

Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep thinking about the fact that you suffer.  I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.  Lewis (1961) 9-10

Since C.S. Lewis is a Christian apologist (using neither term pejoratively), let me cite two recent examples from Buddhist writers.

I have already discussed the dualism and reductionism in Ezra Bayda’s claim that our fears are “imaginary.”  Both in that case and in what I am about to say, I approach Bayda’s views with respect, not so much to argue that he is wrong as to clarify my own thinking.

Some years earlier, he wrote that “We suffer because we marry our instinctive aversion to pain to the deep-seated belief that life should be free from pain.” Bayda (2002)

We turn pain into suffering, Bayda writes, when we go from believing “that life should be free from pain” to making negative judgments, such as “Why is this happening to me?” “I can’t bear this.” Then we start to believe in these negative judgments, making pain into the enemy.  “When we make pain the enemy, we solidify it. This resistance is where our suffering begins.”

I think that Bayda’s caution against turning pain into the enemy is on target.  Seeking out how we cause our own pain and suffering is another form of turning pain into the enemy.  That’s why I caution against universal statements such as “This resistance is where our suffering begins.”  Does all suffering start with resistance?

In another recent Tricycle article, Larry Rosenberg (2011) espouses a view similar to Ezra Bayda’s, in this case concerning the discomfort of temperature that is too hot or too cold.  He tells the story of a Zen master who responds to a student’s question on how to meditate when it’s too hot or to cold.

[T]he Zen master says, ‘Kill hot, kill cold,’ [meaning] to kill the concept ‘hot,’ kill the concept ‘cold.’ The temperature is just what it is. … ‘When it’s hot, the Buddha just sweats. When it’s cold, the Buddha just shivers.’ ‘Well, how is that wisdom? I sweat and I shiver.’ He answers, ‘You missed the word “just.”‘  What this teaching is saying is, no one denies that you’re hot and that you’re sweating. You just don’t have to turn it into torment by adding anything to it. When it’s cold, you can see the mind making more of it by resisting it. Resisting is suffering, and a waste of energy, big-time.

Both Bayda and Rosenberg have been very helpful to me when I have been dealing with my own grief and with intense bodily pain.  I raise questions here.  I do not claim that they are wrong.  But I do wonder why they go beyond their practical advice to answering questions such as “Do we cause our own suffering?” or “Is all suffering just in the mind?”  These are what the Buddha would call “unskillful questions” that get us nowhere.


  1. This is such infantile bullshit! There is no doubt whatever that the body reacts to painful stimuli. There is no doubt that when the bus hits you, your body will suffer for it and react at some level and that knowing the source of the arrow will have no effect whatever on the resulting wound. This is equally true of all those who walk the earth in a physical body.

    But, Mark lives in a dualistic world. His pain is his pain. And let no one forget it. Well, Mark has my sympathy. I have no doubt that his pain is often near unbearable. But, what Mark fails to acknowledge is that the root of his pain lies in his steadfast insistence that he lives in a dualistic reality. The slightest hint of non-dualism and his mind closes like the proverbial steel trap.

    I have tried ad nauseum to disillusion him of his separate identity – to no avail. He even revels in it. So be it.

    Do sages feel pain?

    Sages and the unrealised are equally vulnerable where pain is concerned. Any body who believes that sages enjoy immunity from pain, (and wayward buses) is sadly deluded or simply ignorant – most likely one and the same malady. I have repeatedly tried to point out that the difference between the sage and others is that the sage is not burdened by the illusion of a separate self and therefore, does not suffer. But, others are burdened by the illusion of a separate self and therefore, do suffer.

    The first question I asked Bhagavan was why Christ called out from the cross. If he was a perfect Jnani (self-realized) then surely he would have been indifferent to all suffering. Bhagavan explained that though a Jnani has attained Liberation already and for him there can be no such thing as suffering, some may appear to feel pain, but this is only a reaction of the body. For the body continues to have its reactions. It still eats and carries out all its natural workings.

    All its suffering is apparent only to the onlooker and does not affect the Jnani, for he no longer identifies the Self with the body, he lives in a transcendent state above all such. Besides this, it is immaterial to him where and when he leaves the body. Some of them when passing appear to suffer, others may pass while in Samadhi and quite unconscious of the outer world, while yet others may just disappear from sight at the moment of death.

    Question : We see pain in the world. A man is hungry. It is a physical reality. It is very real to him. Are we to call it a dream and remain unmoved by his suffering?

    Ramana Maharshi : From the point of view of jnana or Reality, the suffering you speak of is certainly a dream, as is the world of which that suffering is an infinitesimal part. In a dream you have when you are asleep you yourself feel hunger and see others also suffering from hunger.

    You feed yourself and, moved by pity, feed the others who are hungry. So long as the dream lasted, all this suffering was quite as real as the suffering you see in the world is to you now. It was only when you woke up that you discovered it to be unreal. You might have eaten heartily before going to sleep, but you still dreamt that you had been working hard in the hot sun all day and were tired and hungry.

    Then you woke up and found that your stomach was full and that you had not stirred from your bed. But all this is not to say that while you are in the dream you can act as if the suffering you feel in it is not real. The hunger in the dream has to be appeased by dream food. The fellow beings you find hungry in the dream have to be provided with dream food. You can never mix the two states, the dream and the waking state.

  2. Comment by Mark Drew

    Pain is reflexive – you touch a hot plate and it hurts, you react. Suffering is a condition caused by some issue of pain either mental or physical. My shop worn metaphor of the oncoming bus is the world at eye level – all the intellectualizing, denial etc. does not alter the root experiential reality of pain and suffering – the bus hits you and your body will suffer for it and react at some level. The issue of dealing, coping or preempting basic cause and effect may be quite intricate depending on the individual. Mind control may be appropriate if one wishes to fire walk or melt snow in one’s underwear – but cause and effect remind as the basic issue no matter the method of coping, thwarting or even understanding . When the bus hits, one may wish to call a Christian Scientist Reader, a doctor, a yogi or just ignore it completely- but the game is the same when the bus has hit. Pain & suffering comes and goes as it wills. The bus too comes and goes unbidden, the bell tolls for all – often I think that sometimes we think too much. Possibly suffering may be just trying to understand too hard. Does knowing the source of the arrow ever defer the result of the wound? We all burn.

    This above may be too harsh – Job wants to know why – sometimes, “why” can help to cope but it doesn’t really cure the boils. Often the only answer is “because”.

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