What Is Suffering? Why Psychotherapy? (part 1)

In the fifth century before the common era, the Historical Buddha taught the world about the commonalities of human suffering. In essence, all human beings suffer in the same and in very predicable ways; such that no matter who you are, where you were born, when you were born, what God you worship or what culture you were raised in – if you are a human being, you will suffer in these ways:

1. Birth 2. Aging 3. Sickness 4. Death 5. Unfortunate Circumstances Beyond Your Control 6. Separation from People, Places, and Things You Desire 7. Impermanence

It is useful to walk through these sufferings to make them more readily apparent to you. We begin, of course, with birth.

All humans are born. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 250,000 people will be born this very day. All of us begin in the uterus, enveloped in warmth and darkness, with all of our needs being automatically met. We are then forced, through violent muscle contractions, into a world that is illuminated; where we must breath with our lungs. We are utterly helpless, not even able to lift our own heads. We are completely dependent on other beings (primarily our mothers) for every single aspect of our survival. So dependent are we that if left to our own devices, for even s short amount of time, we would surely die. This state of complete dependence is not a pleasant one. And we have said nothing of the mother’s experience of the birth. Despite that fact that tremendous emotional bonding usually takes places after the birth, the mother’s experience of the birth itself is, without doubt, quite physically painful. Many women also experience psychological suffering after the birth. There is post-partum depression and, additionally, the often inevitable disorientation of the family unit as it shifts from its original state to accommodate a brand new member. Thus in addition to the joy and happiness usually associated with a birth, there are also the above realities.

Now we turn to aging. All humans age. From the moment sperm and ovum met in the womb, we are in fact getting older. The cells divide and multiply and we are born, We age in an ongoing, unceasing fashion; all the way until the moment of our death. And we humans tend to be rather uncomfortable with our ages. When you ask a child how old they are, they typically reply in fractions, such as, “I am 4 and a half.” Always wanting to be older, most children tend to up their ages as much as possible without stretching the truth to a lie. Teenagers do the same thing. If a young man is fifteen years old he will readily say, “I am almost sixteen.” And when we arrive in our late thirties and forties, we commonly begin forgetting birthdays so we remain “thirty-five” as long as possible. We become uncomfortable about people knowing just how old we are. We search for and exert energy to have the appearance of youth. Botox, plastic surgery and the stereo-typical mid life crisis are evidence of this discomfort with our ages. And aging brings inevitable physical suffering with it. For instance, how is your body now compared to twenty years ago? Are there any differences you can think of? And how will your body be different from its current state if you fast forward your life twenty-years?

Now to sickness. All humans fall sick. From the simple infections and colds of childhood to cancer and AIDS, human beings are vulnerable to illnesses of all shapes and sizes. Books attempting to chronicle medical pathology fill whole sections of the library. There are so many things that can go wrong with the human body that science must compartmentalize into armies of specialized doctors who focus only on very specific areas of the human body. Now, please think of the last time you had the flu – how did you feel? Your experience of life became much different than it is when you are physically healthy. To see this clearly, all you need do is visit the nearest cancer ward or hospice and talk to some of the patients you find there. And as we age, we become increasingly vulnerable to sickness. When a man turns forty, his doctor will begin routinely checking him for ailments and conditions that he never would have looked for when that same man was twenty years old. No human can avoid sickness and everyone falls sick at least once before they die.