Pain and Suffering.


WE ARE ALL ON A PERSONAL JOURNEY WHICH IS UNDERSCORED BY EXPERIENCES OF PAIN, HAPPINESS AND THE CONCOMITANT EMOTIONS WHICH INSPIRE OUR CREATIVITY AND DETERMINE WHAT IT IS TO BE HUMAN.  The journey is never easy. People struggle.  People can be happy,   but people also experience various degrees of mental and physical pain, which can escalate over time and become highly problematic both mentally and physically.  This can have an accumulative effect on families, communities and the world.  Often the smallest pain becomes a long-term suffering and a burden that outweighs any daily routine and the numbers of people experiencing this malady are ever increasing.   Further, all attempts to get rid of the pain and suffering can make it worse. The more we try to eliminate pain the bigger the chasm we create around it.

Pain is the way the body deals with injury, it is a natural phenomenon, but it can also put the human body into a survival mode that has negative consequences.  Pain raises the heart rate, depletes energy and makes for feelings of sickness and hopelessness. Evolution has created a duality where we must feel the intensity of pain in order to know pleasure; but there is not always a guaranteed route to the immediate elimination of pain.  Better, we deal with the causes of the pain and learn how to push through it so the body and mind can heal naturally. There is always an underlying cause to human pain. We live in a biological system of cause and effect. Hence, dealing with causes is the obvious route to solving the human condition of ongoing physical and existential pain.

Understanding Pain.

Removing pain and suffering generally requires a special kind of work because getting rid of an internal problem is not the same as getting rid of something bothersome in the external world.  The mind is very different in the way it processes and stores information and especially emotional data.   A problem in the external world can often be pushed aside.  However, if one tries to push aside a mental problem it becomes repressed and manifests in much bigger problems.  All pain has mental and emotional data. This happens because brains accumulate memories and grow them into complete and often disturbing discourses. These discourses are not the truth of pain. The pain dialogues originate from mythologies and are often events that have been distorted.   Indeed, our ancestors understood the world around them by telling themselves elaborate stories because the capacity to fully understand the world was limited.  This art of storytelling has been called naïve realism.    Ernst Cassirer provides a very good example of the naïve story and how its language has formed the root of the stories we tell ourselves today:

…take the myth of Daphne, who is saved by Apollo’s embraces by the fact that her mother Earth transforms her into a laurel tree… it is only the history of language that can make this myth ‘comprehensible’ and give it any sort of sense. Who was Daphne? In order to answer the question we must resort to etymology, that is to say, we must investigate the history of the word.  ‘Daphne can be traced back to Sanskrit Ahana, and Ahana means in Sanskrit the redness of dawn. As soon as we know this the whole matter becomes clear. The story of Phoebus and Daphne is nothing but a description of what one may observe every day; first the appearance of the dawn light in the eastern sky, then the rising of the sun-god who hastens after his bride, then the gradual fading of the red dawn at the touch of the fiery rays, and finally its death and disappearance in the bosom of the Mother Earth.  So the decisive condition for the development of the myth was not the natural phenomenon itself, but rather the circumstance that the Greek word for laurel and the Sanskrit word for dawn are related; this entails with a sort of logical necessity the identification of the beings denote.[1]

Mythology is inherent in language, rather than having been created by our language as Cassirer makes clear.   As a species we have not always had the benefits of rationality, knowledge has come from observation and primitive explanations of experience.   Without the ability to think rationally, our ancestors created stories out of their experiences, which can never be viewed as a uniformed system for understanding as naïve realism was only a beginning, everything changes over time.  Nonetheless, understanding became a collection of experiential distortions formulated into myths., which have served to influence the language we use today.

After the arrival of language words could never fully define objects or subjective experience so they were coupled together to create new mythologies. Hitherto, all language and thought has its roots in distortions.    Not only have we grown our minds on the memories of experience, we have distorted the memories in our attempts to try to explain them with tools of abstraction.   Humans have very creative minds, which are an integral part of our survival, but they do not always work to our advantage, in fact the human mind can be the essence of self-destruction, the destruction of others and the world around us, which is what we see a lot of in the world today.  When we realize there is no absolute truth in thoughts and words it should not surprise us to find that reality can never be played out in real time; we live with a holographic view of reality and we must contend with explanations based on mythologies, which in modern times tend to be made up as circumstances permit.  It is not all doom and gloom.   The responsibility for healthy, affirmative thought processing is ours. We can take control of our language by way of actions and rituals. There are many ways for creating changes to thought patterns, but in order to reach this point we need to understand how we got here in the first place.  Knowing how we got here is the immediate objective of all human beings, which in turn becomes the core of every human journey.  Many people attempt to explore this journey to the fullest, while others prefer to walk around with their minds and eyes closed, hoping that everything will turn out for the best.   Unfortunately, it is likely that people who close their eyes and minds and who fear the confrontation of life’s journey will suffer the most. The greatest of all suffering comes from ignorance.  Think about it, when you break an arm or a leg, you have a fair idea of what is going on and how to get it fixed.    When the mind is broken, where do you start?   When knowledge is repressed problems do not go away, they surface in other forms that are very often more severe than they might have been if they had been dealt with earlier.

It is not just a few people who experience pain and suffering, everyone does; it is just a fact of life.  Being human does not take place without a struggle.  No other animals suffer mentally the way humans do, we are unique in this respect. Humans experience psychological pain because we rationalize thoughts, emotions, sensations and memories like no other creatures and because we dwell on the rationalization. [2]  Humans, unlike other animals do not simply observe things, they attempt to analyse what is happening and  how they might change it without asking the question, is there a problem in the rationalization  processes in the first place?   In other words,  is    rationalism in and of itself problematic to the equanimity of the human mind?

There has been an abundance of research on what causes suffering and how to alleviate it, but we are only just beginning to understand how pain works at physiological and psychological levels, there is also still much to learn about existential pain and suffering.  Humans suffer because unlike other animals we have a complex language system, which has been cited as having its origins in myth and distortion.  It may seem strange to assert that our minds produce distorted images of reality.  Or, to put it another way, humans have no given reality; they must make it up as they travel through a physical and psychic life.  Indeed,  while language has made humans the dominant species, it may also have been the root cause of all human suffering, this is because we are able to put words to objects and experiences that afford them a false essence.  This essence  extends the objects into seemingly rational explanations that connect to other rational explanations, otherwise called  relational frames.[3]

Since, we construct language and give it meaning based on ancient mythological precepts  it is not surprising to see ourselves living in an environment of fictions and images that are not real, but which stimulate the mind in ways that create the illusion of a solid reality.  When we distance ourselves from this constructed reality we find a mind that is fluid, but one which can also interpret itself thought creativity.  The result is a copious field of art, architecture, literature, music, theatre, dance, film, video, and more.  As it happens, we find ourselves in a reflexive mode creating our own world of mythologies.  This is not to say that real suffering does not exist; only that we need a better understanding of its aetiology, but understanding the mythologies that have given rise to it.

Relational Frames.

The trend has been to understand language and its implications in terms of  relational frames.  A relational frame means to associate one subject, object thought or group of thoughts with another mode of focus. As already indicated the origins of this trait occur in language the evidence of which can be gleaned through the etymology of words.  For example, to put this into a more modern idiom, the word disaster is derived from the Old Italian disastro, itself derived from Greek. The pejorative prefix dis- and aster (star) can be interpreted as bad star, or an ill-starred event. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by astronomy and the cosmos, and believed wholly in the influence of celestial bodies on human life. For the Greeks, a disaster was a particular kind of calamity, the causes of which could be attributed to an unfavourable and uncontrollable alignment of planets. It is therefore interesting to note that the strict, modern English definition of disaster explicitly stipulates that a disaster is human-made, or the consequence of human failure.[4]  Of course we know that disaster in the modern sense of the word is not always the cause of human failure, rather humans also become implicated in natural disasters.

Associated frames and how they work are said to guide human decisions, and they might be seen as a way of  expanding consciousness in order to understand social connections and how they are embedded into language, keeping in mind that the whole of human behaviour is dependent on language.  Relational frames are taken from relational frame theory.  Relational frame theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language.  It was developed originally by Steven C. Hayes of University of Nevada. [5]

Relational frame theory describes how the building blocks of human language and higher cognition form relations, otherwise ‘the human ability to create bidirectional links between things’. Relational theory compares with associative learning and how all animals form links between stimuli in the form of individual and group associations that are held in memory.  Relational frame theory argues that natural human language typically specifies not just the strength of a link between stimuli, but also the type of relation as well as the dimension along which they are to be related. For example, a tennis ball is not just ‘associated’ with an orange, but can be said to be the same shape, but a different colour and not edible. In the preceding sentence, ‘same’, ‘different’ and ‘not’ are cues in the environment that specify the type of relation between the stimuli, and ‘shape’, ‘colour’ and ‘edible’ specify the dimension along which each relation is to be made.[6] Relational frame theory suggests that there are an arbitrary number of relations with different types and cognitive dimensions along which stimuli can travel in order to create language and understanding.    This core unit of relating is an essential building block for much of what is commonly referred to as human language or higher cognition, but its origins became lost in its construction.  We might also liken this to the work of Ferdinand Saussure who was one of the founding fathers of semiotics, (which he called semiology). Saussure’s concept of the sign/signifier/signified are the referent forms at the core of the field of semiotics where meaning in language is found along a chain of signifiers (much like relational frames).  This theory has been applied to many forms of communication including art and philosophy, politics and economics and lends itself to the understanding of the way mythologies have distorted the way humans think about the world.  For example, when we buy a product or adopt a belief we do so because it relates to other beliefs, products, phenomena we are not consciously aware of.

Relational frames are discernible associations, but they are rarely made cognitively clear to the individual as they are experienced in daily life. We do not for instance take a moment to ask where the last thought came from along a chain of signifiers.  The analyst might approach the results of an experiment this way, but humans generally do not think in the same idiom.   This is because humans are not very consciously aware either of their own existence or the world around them.    Almost 98% of the human brain is believed to be outside conscious awareness; nonetheless, the data strongly influences consciousness.  The result is this, when we think we have thought something through very often we have not been able to tap into the origins of the thought processes. That said, we can work towards being more consciously aware, which in turn helps us to comprehend and relieve pain and suffering.

Creativity, and in particular the use of the visual senses, are ways of  responding powerfully to stimuli that is outside language.  Art, for example can tap into the unconscious in a manner where day-to-day dialogue often does not work.  The combination of dialogue and video  can serve to distance the sufferer from the pain and suffering he or she is experiencing.  It can  elucidate and minimize the causes of the problem and change the pathways in the brain. However, creativity alone is not enough to solve the entire problem of suffering; first we must examine the motivation.

The transference of pain to an object is common practice in psychotherapy, a practice that has its roots in the processes of association, which now form the fundamental methodologies of the relational frames approach, but the motivation must be towards the compassion and the healing of others, not simply self-healing.  We formulate our being in relation to others and it is only in offering compassion and healing to others that we are able to heal ourselves.  Let us look more deeply at what this means.

First, what do we mean by healing? In modern medicine when we are sick we go to the doctor, s/he examines us, maybe s/he does a few tests then prescribes a remedy. Why is it then that the individual is rarely fully healed?  Maybe they overcome the original diagnosis, then something else happens and a continual cycle of ill health often occurs.  What is missing?     This brings me to the purpose of this thesis.   The connection between the mind and body are usually ignored. Many modern healing techniques regard successful healing as the cure of the presenting physical problem with little or no thought to how the mind is implicated the health or sickness. Modern medicine can often make the situation worse when it holds the individual responsible for the illness, this can lead to depression and a sense of hopelessness.

Let us briefly examine another possibility.  The mind is the creator of all illness. Let us say that the mind and the brain are not necessarily the same thing.  Rather, the mind is an energy, which the brain utilizes, but may not have full control over.  Let us posit that the mind is non-material,   it is formless, shapeless, colourless, genderless and  it has its own consciousness and knowledge.  Could it be that this illusive mind is the creator of all illness when the body is not properly in balance?  Let me go back to an early statement, pain and suffering are the body’s natural mechanisms for healing. Let us assume that the mind itself is pure, limitless and pervasive and that the problems of sickness can be obliterated by the mind (this of course cannot preclude death as a cure for sickness, but unfortunately in western society death is invoked as a medical failure, not a pathway out of pain and suffering). Let us for a moment examine healing from the Buddhist perspective of the mind.

The problems or sickness we experience are like clouds in the sky obscuring the sun. Just as the clouds temporarily block the sun but are not of the same nature as the sun, our problems or sickness are temporary and the causes of them can be removed from the mind. From the Buddhist perspective, the mind is the creator of all sickness and health. In fact, the mind is believed to be the creator of each and every one of our problems. [7]

This is what Buddhist’s believe:  We are the sum total of our mind and its karmic journey. Karma, which literally means action suggest that actions can be positive, negative or neutral. These karmic seeds are never lost. The negative ones can ripen at any time in the form of problems or sickness; the positive ones in the form of happiness, health or success.[8]

To avoid sickness we have to turn our attention away from ourselves and adopt compassion for other sentient beings.  Some people do this consciously, others fall into it through creative means. Either way a purification occurs. According to Buddhism, we have to engage in positive actions and we have to purify or clear the negative karmic imprints that remain in our mind from previous lives and/or actions.  In other words, Karma is the creator of all happiness and suffering. If we don’t have negative karma we will not get sick or receive harm from others. Buddhism asserts that everything that happens to us now is the result of our previous actions, not only in this lifetime but in other lifetimes. What we do now determines what will happen to us in the future.[9]

I know to a lot of people this idea might seem very far-fetched, but there are many ways of looking at this philosophy.  Harking back to the mythologies and their remnants in language we can see a similar pattern taking place.   Science has revealed that when we turn our attention to gratitude and the compassion for others we are very likely to live longer and often we are free of sickness. Buddhism is … a philosophy of total personal responsibility. We have the ability to control our destiny, including the state of our body and mind. Each one of us has unlimited potential – what we have to do is develop that potential.[10]  We do not even have to call it Buddhism, we can call it common sense.  Nonetheless, let us for a moment continue with this theme.

Tibetan Lama, Zopa Rinpoche, says that the most powerful healing methods of all are those based on compassion, that is the wish to free other beings from their suffering. The compassionate mind – calm, peaceful, joyful and stress-free – is the ideal mental environment for healing. A mind of compassion stops us being totally wrapped up in our own suffering situations. By reaching out to others we become aware of not just my pain but the pain (that is, the pain of all beings).[11]

Another way of looking at this is to suggest that by experiencing a disease or pain, all the other beings in the world might be free of the disease or pain. Can we take on pain on behalf of others?  Does this ease the pain?  Well yes!  This is a common belief in the Christian concept of sharing in the suffering of Jesus on the cross and it also lies at the heart of psychotherapy in the role of transference.


One of the main problems associated with pain and suffering is our expectations of life.  We ask ourselves, what is the purpose of our life?   If the purpose is merely self-interest there is never going to be a sense of fulfillment because as individuals we are never satisfied with what we have, we always want more.  A lot of people accumulate material objects around them because they are unsatisfied with their ‘self’.  Even in creativity we must be prepared to create for others, not ourselves.  Giving is receiving. Blessing is being blessed. Living is recognizing the other’s right to live and be fulfilled.

[1] Ernst Cassirer 1946/1953 Language and Myth New York. Dover Publications pp4-5.

[2] Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith (2005) Get Out of your Mind and Into Your Life. Oakland CA New Harbinger  Publications, p1.

[3] Ibid.



[6] Ibid.

Compiled by: Ven. Pende Hawter

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.