A07 Causes of Human Suffering: A philosophical investigation into why we suffer and what we can do about it


Philosophy is worthless to man if it does not help him live a happier life. Philosophy is not just a lot of intelligent words. It must put that wisdom in the context of our daily life and its problems. The philosophical Truths, if they are Truths, must be applicable to our material, emotional, economic, social, professional and family lives as they are to the spiritual dimensions. As the saying goes «As Above, So Below». The same laws are functioning at the various levels of reality.

Thus in this chapter we are concerned with how Philosophy can help us understand and transcend the sources of our suffering. Why is that important? Why is important for someone not to suffer? The answer is that suffering is the indication that there is ignorance. Just as smoke means that there is fire, suffering occurs when one is ignorant of his Real Nature as unlimited immortal consciousness.

Before we continue this extremely important discussion, we must make a distinction between unpleasant events and situations and suffering. Someone may be passing through the most pleasant of events and situations; having health, friends, money, success and various forms of pleasure. Yet he may be suffering intensely within because he is attached to something else which he does not have.

Another person may be seriously, perhaps fatally ill, may have just lost an important loved one and all of his material possessions and yet not suffer at all because he is aware of his real spiritual nature and of the temporary nature of everything in this material world. Or he may have total faith in the Divine Plan. He may believe that Life gives him exactly what he needs at every moment for his growth process. With this faith and knowledge, he does not suffer.

Suffering, then, is an inner state which is dependent on our beliefs and our degree of attachment to the world around us and not so much a result of what is happening to us, externally.

Consequently, the analysis of suffering is an important step towards getting free from the ignorance which binds us to that suffering. Let us begin that analysis.


No one likes to suffer. At least no one will admit that he or she likes to suffer. Why, then, is there so much suffering in the world? Pleasure and pain, enjoyment and suffering, happiness and sadness are dualities which occupy opposite sides of the coin of life. One does not seem to exist without the other.

Since we do not want to suffer, why then do we suffer? There must be some force which pulls us towards that which causes us to suffer. The answer is very simple. The need for identity pulls us towards situations in which we suffer.

In the previous chapters we explained that our real Self is the immortal and infinite, beyond every physical or mental limitation. However, through the illusory power of matter we are blind to our real nature. We are ignorant of what we really are. This ignorance is the basic source of our suffering.

This ignorance leaves us feeling empty and without identity or selfhood. For this reason we are motivated to identify with the bodies through which the Self is expressing itself on earth. We identify with the physical body, mind and personality. This is our basic mistake. This ignorance, and resulting case of «mistaken identity», are the root causes of all human suffering. They are the cause of all negative human interaction, all hate, all fear, all envy and jealousy, all wars and injustice. If we could remove this ignorance and mistaken identity, all these would become unnecessary. We would lose all fear and feeling of isolation and antagonism, and realize our innate oneness with all beings. We would live in brotherly love.

When we identify with the body or personality, or some part of the personality, we fear for our safety and self worth. In order to feel safe and worthy, we create a whole world of attachments and aversions. We begin to desire certain objects, relationships and situations which we believe we must have in order to fulfill that role that we are identifying with. We begin to spend so much time, thought, words, energy and action on trying to manipulate our external environment in order to fulfill these attachments and desires, that we forget completely that all this is a temporary drama. We forget that we are not the body or the personality that we are so frantically trying to satisfy. We forget that we are immortal spirits which have projected many bodies and personalities throughout the ages. We get lost in the drama of life, losing all objective perspective, forgetting that all situations, pleasant and unpleasant, dissolve in the rain of time. We forget that we are going to die and lose all that seems so utterly indispensable to us. Every scene has an end. In other words, we suffer.


We suffer when we cannot fulfill the attachments or desires which we «think» we have to fulfill in order to be happy. We suffer when we fear losing that which we think we must have. In reality we have nothing. All that we think we own, including our own physical body, is simply on loan from the plane earth. All will have to be once again returned to the earth sooner or later. We will take nothing with us when we leave. How can it be ours? It is all borrowed.

Look around the room. What ever you see will someday not be there. All these forms, animate and inanimate, are only relatively real. Some day they will disintegrate so that new forms may be formed from the same basic substance.

All these possessions i.e. my car, my wife, my husband, my mother, my father, my house, my name, my body, my profession, my emotions, my ideas, all these are part of a temporary ever-changing world of energy. They will all disappear some day. Our attachment to these causes us to suffer, because obviously we are impotent to keep them. This attachment is a result of our identification with the body and personality, which in turn results from our ignorance of our true nature.

The opposite of attachment and desire is aversion. Our false identification also causes us to reject certain aspects of life as not suitable for us, or unpleasant or dangerous. Many of our aversions are a result of our fear of harm to the physical body or ego. We like to avoid any thing or situation which might cause pain to our body or ego. Depending on our conditioning, we may try to avoid certain types of people, certain races or classes of people, probably insects, especially cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes and dirty places. We may also feel fear, or at least aversion, towards situations in which we have to face the truth about our personality, the death of a loved one, illness of any kind, perhaps riding in airplanes or boats; the list is endless. Each of us is conditioned with a different set of attachments and aversions. When we cannot avoid that to which we have the aversion, then we suffer. For example, if we have an aversion to being kept waiting, and we are in fact kept waiting, then we obviously will suffer.

We see now the evolution of suffering. Our ignorance of our transcendent spiritual identity causes us to identify with the body and personality. This identification creates fear and then various attachments and aversions based on what we think will offer security, pleasure or affirmation to the body, the personality or the various roles which the personality plays. When we are not able to satisfy our attachments or avoid the objects of our aversions, then we experience unhappiness; we suffer.

This increases the identification with the physical body, creating thus the most powerful attachment; the attachment to life itself in a physical body. Even the wisest of sages find it difficult to overcome this attachment. This is probably so because we need the physical body in order to continue learning the lessons which we have come to the earth to learn. It is said that the evolutionary progress can take place only while in a physical form on the earth. Between life states can be used for reviewing previous lives and planning new ones but not for actually learning lessons or taking exams. Each life is like a year in the cosmic school for the soul which is evolving out of the animal kingdom, through the human kingdom unto its divine nature. Lessons are learned and tests are taken. Depending on the achievement in a particular life, the lessons for the next life are prearranged. Thus, it is very natural for an individual to be attached to keeping the physical body alive. How else can he fulfill the purpose for which he has come to the earth? This does not mean, however, that he has to remain clouded by the ignorance of his true infinite nature and identify totally with the body. It also does not mean that he will not give up this attachment to the body when he has fulfilled his purpose in life and is ready to leave the body. He will die gracefully knowing that his body has served him well; and will gracefully discharge it from its service.


For example, a man has a car. He has the goal of reaching a certain destination with that car. If the car breaks down or someone tries to damage or steal it, he will react because he needs the car to fulfill his purpose. But he does not think that he is the car, and that he will suffer the damage that might be done to the car. He will take good care of the car and repair it if it should become damaged so that he can continue with his journey. But he would be silly to cry about the damage to the car as if the damage were done to himself. And when he arrives at his destination and fulfills his goal, he willingly gets out of the car and leaves it in order to carry on with other business. Thus when we come to the end of our lives on earth, let us gracefully leave our bodies which have served us well.

When we learn to see our bodies like cars which carry us around, we will not identify so much with the pleasures and pains which the body may experience. At the same time, we will be more careful to treat the body well, giving it the proper food, exercise and rest it needs in order to stay in good condition, so that we can safely and efficiently fulfill the goal for which we created the body.

The same attitude is required towards the ego itself. The ego must be seen as an instrument through which we perceive and interact with the world. It is like a window pane at the junction of the inner and the outer world. If we identify with the ego and its various personality roles, then we will be constantly trying to protect and defend the ego from possible hurt. We will blindly defend the ego, losing all objective discrimination as to whether the ego may or may not actually be at fault in certain situations. A person who fails to see the ego as an instrument through which he is functioning, and identifies with it as if it were his entire being, will always be on the defensive. He will not want to hear or face the truth about his ego and its habits. Such a person will be unable to change. But, as we mentioned earlier, life itself is in a constant state of change. One who is afraid to change will simply suffer in a world of change. He will unsuccessfully attempt to create a static secure environment. But because he is powerless to do so, he will suffer. Thus the cause of suffering is simply explained.

1) Man is ignorant of his real nature as an immortal, all-knowing, ever blissful spirit.

2) Because of this ignorance, he is forced to identify with the body and personality through which he is expressing himself on this earth.

3) This identification creates an intricate complex of attachments and aversions.

4) Because the nature of the physical world is change, and because man has no real power over external events, man is unable to always secure what he is attached to, or avoid that to which he has aversion.

5) Thus he suffers, and experiences the whole range of negative emotions, such as disappointment, envy, jealousy, anger, fear, resentment, bitterness, hatred; all these because he simply cannot get what he wants.

6) His need for his physical body until his life mission is completed causes a natural attachment to that body, which naturally causes him to suffer if it should be harmed or in danger.


Once a man asked a great wise man for inner peace. He said, «I want peace». The wise man smiled, writing these three words on the ground in front of them with a stick which was handy. Then he looked up at the man and said, «You see it’ s very simple», and with the stick he made two motions, «you cross out the «I» and you cross out the «want» and you are left with Peace. The man sat watching this simple but powerful image on the ground before him. The «I» and the «Want» were crossed out and only the word Peace was left.

How can we find the inner peace which we all desire so much? We can diminish our ego-centeredness and we can diminish our wants and desires, needs and attachments. It is not necessary to give up the objects of desire themselves, but it is necessary to give up our attachment to them. It is not our having or owning things which makes them an obstacle to our happiness. It is our dependence on them, our belief that we cannot live without them. That same wise man explained this to our friend with the example of a bird.

A bird is sitting on a branch. It rests there, enjoying the branch’s support. It is very happy there. It may even be the best branch he has ever sat on, perhaps his favorite branch where he sits everyday. Then one day a strong wind blows so strongly that the branch is ready to break. Is the bird afraid? Does he say, «O, my God, what will I do if this branch breaks? My life is coming to an end». No, of course not. The bird has no problem. Why? Because he knows two things. Firstly he knows that he can fly on his own power and that his safety is not dependent on the branch and secondly that there are plenty of branches in the world.

This is the type of relationship that we need to have with the people, objects and situations of our lives. We can enjoy them, care for them, serve them and grow through and with them, without fearing that we cannot continue without them. What kind of branches have you been resting on; a relationship partner, money, material objects, a professional position? Having these is not an obstacle to our spiritual growth. But fearing losing them, or believing that we cannot live or feel safe or happy without them is both an obstacle to our growth and also to our happiness on a day to day basis.

This diagram may help us to understand how completely these feelings of identification, attachment and aversion permeate every aspect of our lives. In the center we have the spirit which is, as you remember, pure existence – consciousness – bliss. It has absolutely no needs, desires, attachments or fears. It is fullness itself. It has within it all the possibilities of the universe. It lacks nothing. It is one with the Universal Consciousness.


Our individual consciousness is not aware of the existence of this spirit at the center of our being and thus focuses on the aspects of our being which are more perceptible to our senses, that is the mind, energy and physical body which are the three outer concentric circles. We identify with them, believing that we are them. Our identification does not stop there however, because that body and mind are connected to a wide variety of external realities to which we also become attached.


Each identification brings about its own attachments and aversions, and thus its own sources of worry, anxiety, fear, hurt, anger and in general – suffering. Take the physical body for example. A separate sub-circle has been projected outside of the concentric circles for this identification because it is one of our major concerns. Around this sub-circle for the physical body we have placed the various attachments which concern us: its state of health, its desires, its pleasures, its appearance to others, its comforts and discomforts, its age, its weight and various other factors. If these are not all the way we want them, we are unhappy, discontent.

This body and mind often create a relationship with another body and mind which is then called a partner or spouse. We then identify with this other body and mind and become concerned about his / her health, success, appearance to others, her/his comforts, desires and needs. We are also now concerned with whether her/his behavior is pleasant and supportive or the opposite. We are concerned about what we had expected to receive from this spouse and whether or not what we are receiving is what we expected. We are concerned that perhaps this spouse might pay too much attention to others or to other things and not to us as we had hoped. The identification with the idea of «my spouse» is on one hand a source of happiness and security but the attachments and aversions which are created, are a source of suffering. This type of happiness is fragile and transient because it depends on what is happening outside of ourselves, which is something that we can never really control. The tendency, then, is to try to control this spouse, to make her/him live and act in the way we want it to, so that we can feel secure, happy and affirmed, reassured of our self worth. This tactic seldom works, as it usually produces exactly the opposite results. Now this spouse is also likely to have friends and almost certainly a family, which means another whole group of beings to worry about their heath, happiness, success and, most of all, their behavior towards us and their opinion of us. More attachments and aversions. More prerequisites which need to be fulfilled in order for us to be at peace. We now have a longer list of «wants» which must be satisfied in order for us to feel inner peace. Now it is common to create children with this spouse, which means that we now have one or more beings for whom we are temporarily (we must emphasize the word temporarily) responsible. Now our peace is considerably disturbed as we cannot relax if everything is not perfect with our children. Their health, their progress, their success, the quality of their friends, their problems (which we believe they are incapable of solving without our intervention – even when they don’t want our help), and their appearance to others and what others think about us through their appearance, and of course their behavior towards us and others; if all these factors are exactly as we want them, then we are very happy. If just one of them is not, then we are not. We suffer.


That old wise man called this the mosquito effect. He says that if there are ten mosquitoes in your room and they don’t let you sleep, and you get up and manage to kill or chase away or in some way incapacitate nine of them, the tenth one will prevent you from sleeping anyway. That means that if we have ten wants or desires, and manage to satisfy nine of them, we still will not be happy because the tenth one is not satisfied.

We will not think «Oh how lucky I am that I have been able to satisfy nine out of ten of my desires». No, we say «Oh, how unhappy I am that I cannot satisfy that tenth desire, how difficult and unjust life is». That is the mosquito effect. Are you a victim of it? Think about it. Philosophy is useless unless we can apply it to our lives, unless it makes us more peaceful, more satisfied, more happy.

Continuing our analysis of the subcircles which represent persons, things and situations with which we identify, we notice the circle called parents. We are attached to their health, happiness and to a specific type of attitude and behavior from them. We are attached to their approval, to their agreeing with us and with our way of life. We might also be concerned about their behavior and what others think about us through them.

We can see as we look through these subcircles of identifications and attachments that the list is quite extensive. How easily the mind is drawn outward being forced to think about all these factors and about how we might be able to control them all so that they might be just as we «need» them to be, or more accurately how we «believe» that things «must» be in order for us to feel secure or happy. This has nothing to do with the love that we feel for these beings. Love is the desire for the other to be happy, well and to grow in his own unique way. It has nothing to do with needing the other, or needing a certain type of behavior from them.

The problem is not that we are connected to these sub-circles, but that we are trying to take from them. Through them we are trying to find security, happiness, meaning in our lives and perhaps affirmation of our worthiness. When we are focused on them out of need, we cannot feel real unconditional love. Need and love cannot coexist. Love is free of need. Just as wisdom is free of need. Perfect love and perfect wisdom are openings out of the cave of ignorance.

The solution then is to reverse the direction of the flow, so that we are interested in these relationships, in terms of what we can offer to them and not what we can take from them. We love our loved ones, care for them, help the, share with them, communicate openly with them; we even accept help and support from them; but like the bird on the branch, we do not let our feelings of security or happiness or meaning in life depend on them. We love and give without expecting in return.

Continuing the analysis of these sub-circles, we notice those labeled profession, material possessions, talents and abilities. Through these we usually seek to gain feelings of security and self affirmation; that we are capable and worthy through our achievements or professional position. We can easily create anxiety about these; how to obtain them, how to keep them, protect them, how to project them so that others notice them. And, if life circumstances threaten them, we tremble with fear, believing that we will not be able to continue without them.


Then there are the various roles which we tend to play. These too create attachments, aversion and, in general, obstruct our happiness. Some who play the role of the victim will be attached to being suppressed, ignored, and in general abused. They will avoid success. Being unhappy is a part of their role. They will prefer being unhappy and suppressed, rather than lose their role. We get used to these roles, believe that we are them and fear the unknown. Who would we be if we were not the victim?

Those who are identified with the role of the savior are attached to helping people, to saving them, occasionally even when they do not want help, even if that help is, in the long run, destructive to them. If they are successful in their attempt to save, then they are happy and feel worthy. If they fail, they feel unworthy and might even get angry at those who refused to be saved, because they are preventing them from feeling okay about themselves.

The «savior» along with the «Mr. Perfect» and «Mr. Strong» do not allow themselves to have needs. Of course, in reality they have plenty of needs but they are afraid to express them, because then they wouldn’t be saviors, perfect or strong. Thus they are attached to situations in which they can reaffirm their superior position. This often requires that the other be weak, needy or have a problem. Thus, these people will be attached to people, who through their weakness or problems, help them to feel stronger or superior in comparison. If the other changes and suddenly finds his inner strength, or looks elsewhere for help, then these «superior beings» begin to doubt their worth and feel unhappy.

Then there is the role of the rebel which forces us to reject everything, even if we like it. It forces us to be negative, «anti-everything», so as to preserve our «independence». Thus we are attached to being different, we are caught up in that role and cannot be ourselves, free to express what we really feel. We are trapped in our false idea of freedom. Some play the role of «Mr. Happy» who is attached to presenting an image of being always happy. He thus has an aversion to anyone discovering his unhappiness or weak points. This does not allow him to be himself.

Almost all of us play the role of the child to some degree. We put many others into the role of our «parents» and try in various ways to get their approval. We are then attached to being accepted by everyone all the time. Is this possible? To be accepted by everyone all the time? Only if you completely deny who you really are and become a “social chameleon”. But, even in such a case, you will have to find social groups in which everyone thinks in exactly the same way.


It must be clear now that we are caught in quite an intricate web of identifications, roles, attachments and aversions. These draw the mind outward into an incessant flow of anxious thoughts about how we are going to manage to keep everything from falling apart so that we can feel safe and happy. Every time one of these subcircles seems to be in danger or perhaps disillusions us, we suffer, feel fear, hurt, weakness, perhaps even inferiority, rejection or injustice and, in some cases, anger, hate and revenge.

Let us return to the wise man. He said «cross out the «I» and the «Want». This means less attachment towards these external sources of happiness. It also means freeing ourselves from the belief that we cannot be secure or happy without whatever we are getting from them. Let us remember his story about the bird again. Rest on them, enjoy them, love them, interact with them creatively, honestly and productively.

Know, however, that, if the «branch ever breaks», you have the inner power to fly and also that there are other branches. Then you will not suffer. If we are secure and happy those subcircles will also be much happier, because it is a great burden to them to know or feel that our happiness or security depends on them. It limits their freedom. It is not pleasant. How can we do this? That wise man used to tell us another story. There was once a great she-lion who went hunting with her newly born lion cub. One day in the chase after some sheep, she wasn’t careful and fell over a cliff and died. The lion cub remained with the sheep and grew up with them. It became programmed by their ways of thinking and acting. It learned fear. It learned to huddle with the others, never to go off by himself. He ate grass and made a bleating sound like the other sheep.

After some years another lion attacked this herd of sheep. As the lion was in full chase, he suddenly noticed this other «sheep-lion» running from him bleating like a sheep. He was outraged by this sight. He ran after him, caught him and asked him, «what are you doing behaving in this way. Running, fearing and bleating like a sheep». The Sheep-lion looked at him trembling in fear, «But I am a sheep, I am weak, and vulnerable. It is natural that I fear you».

The lion was shocked and saddened by this sheep-lion’s ignorance of the truth about himself. (You could say that someone had pulled the wool over his eyes).

He felt great compassion for him and wanted to help him, but no number of words could convince the sheep-lion that he was actually a lion and not a sheep, and that there was absolutely no reason for fear. Then an idea lit up in his mind and he took the sheep-lion down to the lake and said, «look at your self and look at me. Who do you look like, those sheep or me?».

The sheep-lion was shocked out of his sheepishness, realized his real nature and became a full lion free from fear. He never feared again. He was not longer attached to the herd and their ways for security. He was free.

We are all sheep-lions. Our spiritual nature is like a lion. Our personality which has been programmed by a sheep-like society is the sheep. We are identified with our sheep nature and thus huddle together our of fear. We attach ourselves to others out of fear, not out of love.

The great spiritual teachers and god-men are those who have realized their lion-nature and have come to awaken us to that. Their words sometimes help but seldom are enough to free us from our illusion of sheephood. We need to be taken to the lake of direct experience, which is within us so that we may see our lion-face within. This is facilitated by techniques such as meditation and various other spiritual disciplines. These disciplines can grant us the direct experience of our lion nature. Then we will be totally free of fear, attachment and aversion and thus free from suffering.

Self analysis will also help us to gradually let go of these external sub-circles of illusionary security long enough so that we can direct our attention sufficiently (in terms of time and intensity) towards our inner self, towards the inner circles (of diagram No.15) the higher intellect and spirit.

We will discuss methods of freeing ourselves from this web of attachment in chapter twelve.

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