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..:: Suffering ::..


Alan Schneider


          This essay is concerned with the difficult subject of suffering, specifically human suffering, although all biological life is arguably affected by this omnipresent phenomenon. 

            In order to understand suffering, we must first define the opposite condition for humanity, and this is problematic for the simple reason that the obverse perceptual state to discomfort is (much like discomfort) actually not necessarily clearly perceptible itself.   While most of us know when we feel well or ill at ease, we probably have only more or less vague and indistinct perceptions of these as actual manifestations.   Certainly, when we are filled with joy and ecstasy – states defined in psychology as peak experiences – we might tend to say that suffering is very far away.   But how often do these peak experiences occur, and how long do they last before inevitable dissipation begins to erode them away?   And after they have left us, how then do we feel and perceive ourselves to be?   Well, or perhaps disappointed and empty, somehow?   Even the lesser pleasurable sensations are subject to this same waning phenomenon – they all fade from consciousness and experience in the absence of ongoing reinforcement.   Thus, positing a baseline of well-being in the pleasure zone is something that presents fundamental logical and psychological flaws for the observer.  

            Probably a more valid notion of optimal well-being is the scientific concept of homeostasis – organismic equilibrium or balance.   Homeostasis is the manifestation of median levels of well-being as observed statistically across time, and utilizing many successive observations in the process.   Homeostasis allows for an average perception of our condition across time that incorporates high, moderate, neutral, low, and depressed levels of functioning and self-perception, but generally posits a state of overall need gratification – we have most of what we need most of the time, and feel satisfied with our perceived condition at least some of the time.   The great adversaries of homeostasis are age, and its inevitable partner, infirmity.   With the passage of time, regardless of other factors, the attainment of satisfactory levels of homeostasis (whatever they may have been) becomes more and more difficult for the individual.   This even applies to entire cultures and societies – as they age across time, they pass into dysfunction, decay, and eventual collapse – to be replaced by other, newer forms that will be ascendant for awhile, and then follow the same path.   

            If we assume a relatively healthy, functional individual, existing in a relatively healthy, functional society, then a relatively high level of homeostasis is to be expected as previously noted – most of what we need, most of the time, feeling satisfied at least some of the time.   The problem with this assumption is that it is almost never the case in reality, because life’s inevitable turbulence continuously upsets the process in youth, and permanently upsets it in old age.   When this additional factor is introduced into the equation, we see that even homeostasis is still problematic, modest as it is as a measure of well-being.   Peak experiences notwithstanding, the truth is that we are actually frustrated and dissatisfied most of the time.   This is the justification for Buddha’s observation that all of life is dukkha – suffering – and this is the real “homeostatic” condition!  Those of us who have not been Karmically fortunate enough to have had peak experiences frequently do not even know they exist, and consider a relatively painless day to be a “peak experience”, though they may not have any specific knowledge of this concept.   Those of us who have been fortunate in this respect are nonetheless still cursed to seek the recurrent experience of such conditions – desire action – a search that is ultimately doomed by the passage of time.  

            Thus, frustration, dissatisfaction, and debilitation form the baseline human perceptual state – defined by Buddhism as the blanket ignorance of the rote human condition – and we are left with a very different understanding of what the obverse of this state may be.   If peak experiences and pleasurable states are inherently sources of implicit frustration and suffering, what states may hold forth hope?   If ignorance is the real median, what then is its opposing number?   The Eastern spiritual traditions are all in general agreement that this opposite conscious manifestation is the condition of Enlightenment – the perception of liberated consciousness above and beyond the limited bodily, sensory experience of material living.   What, then, is this state of Enlightenment? How may it be attained?   What is its ultimate impact on human suffering?  

            To begin with, to experience Enlightenment we absolutely must turn away from the continuum of the physical senses and the external sensory modes of knowing, and the only way to do this while still present in the flesh is to refocus our consciousness within upon the inner modes of knowing and being.   And, while simply examining our thoughts and feelings from the perspective of waking conscious awareness is at least a beginning, we must dive deeply into our unconscious mind to make substantial progress in this quest.   This requires the observation of dream or dream-like symbols either in sleep, or in a similar related state of relatively defocused awareness – i.e. trance induced by some practice such as yoga, meditation, or chanting.   As long as we remain focused in the physical senses, we are doomed to experience suffering and ignorance of greater or lesser extents.   The answers lie within, and are encoded in the symbolic language of the unconscious.   Once we have determined what tool of internal self-examination will work for us – and this alone may be the undertaking of many lifetimes – then we must learn to understand and interpret the meanings of the often fantastic, disturbing, and always perplexing images that we encounter in the inner experience.   This is where the real challenge of Enlightenment is encountered – understanding and interpreting the language of subconscious psychological symbols.   The reader should make no mistake about the fact that it is these images that determine all other awareness.   

            The work of understanding our inner symbolic thought is the second step in the departure from the surface level of comprehension (i.e. ignorance), and is, if anything, an even more daunting task than learning the way in to the region where these elements of psychology predominate in consciousness.   There are, in reality, at least three basic sets of symbol interpretations – Freudian, Jungian, and Individual – and each one has its own validity as a system.   The best approach incorporates then all, and proficiency in even one area of the three is often (although not necessarily always) a lifelong undertaking.   I cannot even begin to cover this material in this little essay, but what I can do is to describe the basic method that I use on those all too frequent occasions when I encounter some symbol, or set of symbols, that defy my comprehension.   I say all too frequent in the knowledge that the mind is an ever-evolving, ever-changing condition that has as a part of its intrinsic nature to constantly produce new symbolism as a key portion of its regulatory and growth processes.  

            Initially, I use a reasonably extensive understanding of primary Freudian symbolic meanings that has been amassed over this lifetime, and compare these to what is currently on display in my unconscious.   This will frequently not be sufficient to resolve the symbolic paradoxes present, at which point I delve into my registry of Jungian archetypal symbols – in fact, if I sense a significant amount of Jungian collective imagery in my symbolism, I may start there, and not with Freud.   The final step is to conduct an inner dialog with myself, in which I frame the general question of what a given symbol or symbol set means to me on a personal, individual level.   This involves a deeply sensitive intuitive probing of my personal past experiences that can be very intimidating to perform, but generally always yields the final answers which I seek.   And there may well be symbolic material that is not well understood even after all of these techniques have been employed – for a very telling reason. 

            And what is this reason?   The answer to this question resides with the ultimate nature of the universe and consciousness, and here one must take a leap of Faith, and consider that the apparently mechanical universe of physics and chemistry in all of its enormity and majesty is still only a surface phenomenon that conceals a profoundly hidden Truth: that the universe is a Consciousness unto itself at the deepest level knowable from our human perspective.   Whatever this Consciousness may be labeled verbally, it is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent in manifestation and action, both in the superficial material sense, and in the extended supernal condition of its full expression.   This level of Being is the ultimate and final source of all causality, and if it does not wish us to gain an understanding of the symbolic transmissions that, in fact, originate with it at the core of all consciousness, then that comprehension will not be forthcoming no matter what interpretive technique we attempt.  

            Now, there is, of course, a key process that enables as much of this comprehension as is possible at any given time, and this process is Sacrifice.   If we are willing to offer a truly significant level of personal sacrifice to this quest in order to attain the knowing that we seek, then it will be forthcoming.   There are many aspects to this sacrificial expression – time spent in meditation, study, and introspection, the conversion from a selfish personal lifestyle to a humble, simple life of poverty, chastity, discipline, and quiet grace, the effort spent in submission to the Truth of Consciousness as the ultimate truth in the universe, and the effort spent in submission to the Divine Will as opposed to our limited and delusional personal will.  Obviously, this is a tall order for any of us, but consider this – if the Truth of Consciousness (which I like to refer to as the Self) is ultimately the only real condition, aren’t we better off knowing this and living accordingly?   Why continue in a pathetic effort to preserve a doomed illusion when the Truth can be embraced and will result in Eternal Liberation through Enlightenment?   Why continue to suffer by choice when we can, with sufficient personal sacrifice, defeat the illusions of desire and desire action and live in Grace and Peace thereafter?   

            As much of the Self can be known as we are willing to encounter, because only the Self is real anyway – we, as bodily ego states, are not – at this level of manifestation we are merely transitory and evanescent little blinks of the Eye of Eternity.   Why not live in the Eternal Light of that brilliant and illuminating Oculus instead?   Yes, this requires a massive adjustment of conventional consciousness and thought, and yes, the outcome is well worth the effort made, because at least one of the rewards for this attempt is the cessation or considerable amelioration of most of our human suffering, the vast majority of which is the result of our ignorant personal choices in the first place, though we so often know this not.  The acquisition of this Self Knowledge is the greatest gift of Enlightenment, and it is attainable through the means just described herein.  

            It can be argued that our personal and collective Karma will always operate on this Physical Plane as the governing mechanism of conscious development, and this may well be true, but consider also that anyone who suspects the illusion of this existence for what it is has taken at least the first step on the Path back home, and we all potentially have this capacity.   Therefore, we all have the right, entitlement, and responsibility to deeply examine our lives, because, as the famous Greek philosopher Socrates once said, while on trial for his life for heresy, “The unexamined life is not worth living!”


                                                                                   - With Love, Alan -

                                                                (Copyright 2010, by Alan Schneider)


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