3 Levels Of Suffering

I think I am safe to wager that 100% of humanity has been dissatisfied with the circumstances of his or her life at least once.  I’ll even go out on a limb and say that you have felt that dissatisfaction recently in one way or another.

In Eastern philosophical analysis, dissatisfaction is loosely defined as suffering.  The actual word that the Buddha used was “Dukkha”.  That word has no direct English translation.  Most of us who have studied the concept of Dukkha define it as dissatisfaction or more commonly as suffering.  I’ll just be using “suffering” because it’s a universal human condition that all of us go through.  Plus, I don’t want to alienate anyone who might be uncomfortable (dissatisfied?) with non-western ideas.

Suffering makes its appearance in our lives in three basic levels or forms.  It’s important to understand these three basic levels of suffering so we can live more effective and harmonious lives.
The level of suffering that we can relate to most readily is the first form.  It is the most basic type of suffering or dissatisfaction we know.  We’ve all been there just by virtue of the fact that we’re alive and breathing.

I can think of the time that I pulled my shoulder out of its socket a few years ago.  There was physical pain and temporary disability associated with that incident.  On a different level, when my brother died this year, I experienced a great deal of mental sorrow and grief.  All of us have experienced similar events.  This part of pain and hurt is not suffering, it is simply a primal hurting.

The first level of suffering is wanting these circumstances to be different.  We don’t want them to hurt so bad or we don’t want them at all.  In the case of my shoulder injury, I suffered because I didn’t like that my shoulder was in pain.  I didn’t want the disability to get in the way of my happy, active lifestyle.  In the case of my brother’s death, I suffered because I didn’t want to feel the grief of losing a close family member.  I wanted for him to still be alive.  (And I still do.)

The second level of suffering takes place when you go beyond the aversion of the first level.  The second form happens when we intentionally make mental thoughts about the incident.  This is when we go through the shoulds, woulds and could haves.  We tend to make all sorts of judgements and create anxiety.  In the case of my shoulder, I later thought that I should have been more careful when trying to rescue the bird.  I could have used a ladder.  I wasn’t thinking, etc.  Regarding my brother, the suffering ensued when I wished I had spent even more time with him.  If only he had not smoked cigarettes.  He should have had more regular visits to a physician, etc.  None of these thoughts helped matters, they only caused more upset and suffering to occur.

At first glance, the third level of suffering or dissatisfaction is a bit more subtle and elusive.  This level does not come from unpleasantness as do the first and second levels.  This third level arises from pleasure and positive events.  It’s the bittersweet suffering that we feel in our gut during the pleasure.  I think of the World Series victory by “my” Giants last year.  In the middle of my jubilation, I also thought of the vindictiveness of the next season when the Dodgers, Cubs, and Phillies will exact revenge.

Maybe peacefully watching clouds, while the songbirds sing and the temperature is perfect.  I also know that the sky will darken, the birds will go away and the temperature will change.  It could be while I’m wrapped in the arms of my lover, feeling safe, joyful and loved.  I want that to go on forever, but I know that such experiences cannot really be infinite, not actually.  That is the third level at its most poignant.

Where does this suffering end?

We crave a more pleasant experience in the first two levels of suffering.  In the case of level three, we want the pleasure to continue forever.  In any case, we need to become more mindful of our thoughts and cravings.  In doing so, we are more able to let go of the thoughts.  Even if you can do this letting go for a few minutes, you will experience relief.  If you make a conscious effort to remain aware of your self-indulgent mental attitudes, you’ll experience even more relief and strength, too.  This is all a part of practice and the art of accepting your mortal, human nature.

Good luck with all that!


The Blue Jay of Happiness says to just accept and let go.  Be nice to yourself.


About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Contemplation, Health, Meanderings. Bookmark the permalink.

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