We hear the word suffering all the time yet if you ask just about anyone to clearly define it, it becomes obvious that most people don’t really know what it means to suffer. Suffering is something that is abundant in life but also something that we are constantly trying to avoid. Perhaps one reason it isn’t clearly defined is because we intuitively know when we are suffering and our first reaction is to figure out what is causing it and how we can stop it. However, since it is such a large part of our experience it is worth looking at more closely and soberly. Especially since it is the largest problem we have in being human, and even arguably the only problem as suffering constitutes everything bad we experience. If we did not suffer we wouldn’t have anything to do but keep ourselves alive and focus on creating positive experiences for ourselves and others. Sounds great right?
So is it possible to end suffering in ourselves, let alone all humans? It depends on what our definition of suffering is but in short I think the answer is yes. If we look closely enough at suffering we see that it is a mental phenomenon that occurs, consciously or subconsciously, when we don’t get or anticipate not getting something we perceive we need or want. This could also be stated in the inverse: Suffering occurs when we get or experience, consciously or subconsciously, something we perceive as damaging to our needs or wants. Some people might reply, “Based on this definition it’s clear that suffering is unavoidable. There will always be times where we experience unpleasant things or we don’t get the things we need or want, that’s just a part of life.” The problem with this reply is that, while not untrue, the criticism is mis-aimed. This critique argues that pain and/or a lack of necessities is what causes suffering however there is another component involved. Namely, the perception that occurs to initiate suffering. This is what needs to be worked with in order to eradicate suffering from our experiences. This insightful and different way of looking at our experience of suffering is owed to a man known as Siddhartha Gautama or the Historical Buddha.
The Buddha realized that while there are myriad moral, ethical, social, and spiritual philosophies that try to improve life what really needed to be focused on was what is wrong with life which is suffering. He realized that suffering is a subjective experience, it happens in our minds and so the way we could get rid of it might be something to do with our minds as well. This is a possibility for you and all self-aware and sentient individuals in the world. Now, what steps exactly we may take to actually accomplish this is for another post but coming to this profound definition makes it infinitely easier and simpler to discuss issues of morality. This shows us that since suffering is the what is the problem issues of morality, ethics, society, and spirituality should be centered around what causes or lessens the suffering of individuals. Based off of this realization I think a transcendent and core ethic and moral definition starts to emerge.
Before we get all the way there however there is one more thing to consider. Often times suffering is blamed on others whether it be governments, other individuals, or even ideas that have taken hold in societies. Now that we know suffering is a subjective experience, however, it becomes clear that we ourselves, and ourselves only, are in charge of whether we are suffering or not for it is something in our minds that causes it based off of certain understandings of the world. This is not to say that morals do not exist and that the actions and speech of others don’t matter. Now that we have this piece the full definition of a core and transcendent value fully emerges: Individuals, groups, and institutions should not do anything, speech or action, that makes it more difficult for people to bring themselves to peace, an important step on the journey to learning how to not suffer. This can also be said in the inverse: Individuals, groups, and institutions can and should only participate in speech and actions that make it easier for people to come to and live in peace.
The next important definition must be what it means to come to peace. A good place to start could be looking at climbing Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. While maybe not perfect, Maslow’s Hierarchy gives a very clear and basic understanding of this exact issue. If you are not familiar with this concept, essentially the needs of humans are ranked from what is needed on a primary level to climb to higher needs starting with food, clean water, clean air, shelter, clothing, and sleep then climbing to higher things like safety and security, a sense of belonging, and eventually ending with being able to be an effective individual that can uniquely contribute to society. So in summary the core value states that individuals, groups, and institutions should make it easier, and not harder, for people to get all of their needs so that they may then more easily be able to take responsibility for their own suffering and can alleviate it. This effect can spread like wildfire.
Once one person has taken care of their own suffering they can help others with theirs, whether that mean upholding the core transcendent value in an extremely effective way or directly helping others through the process of eliminating suffering for themselves. Trying our best to uphold this value is the most important thing we can do as self-aware, sentient beings. Considering suffering as important so that we may get rid of it as long as it exists and doing so in a manner that helps everyone with this issue for this is the biggest, and arguably all of our problems wrapped up into one, we have as human beings.