A Day in a Life: What Is Suffering & Why Is It So Necessary?

Today, I follow up on last week’s blog, Wounded Children. I ask the question: What is suffering? And why is it so necessary?

I grew up in the Catholic religion. I went to Catholic schools and learned that Jesus wanted us to be innocent children, to be free of sin, yet the world itself did not support me in my endeavors. The world was full of sin and yes, suffering. I suffered as a child, as most children do. As much as I tried to live a sin-free life, there was no getting around sin, it was everywhere. I realized that everything, even breathing could be considered sinful.

In my weekly forays to the confessional, as often as I tried to articulate my sins, I found no actual release from them. Any absolution was momentary at best, because as soon as I walked out of the church I was back in sin-ville. As a child, suffering meant not only trying to find ways to deal with what happened to me out in the world, but, on a deeper level, it meant dealing with the fact that I would never be holy enough. I was a sinner and so I must suffer.


My child’s perspective was not all that far from the Buddhist perspective, which accepts that the reality we live in, samsara, is indeed an ocean of suffering. Samsara is an endless cycle of obsession and illusion, the more we try to escape it, the more it assaults us. Until, that is, we turn to it and ask: What is life trying to teach me? Why is it so necessary to suffer?

The Shamans of Carlos Castaneda’s lineage tell us too that this world is an illusion and that we are born to struggle with breaking through that illusion. They tell us that the world constantly assaults us in an effort to wake us up to this fact by presenting us with things that we want to push away and other things that we want to constantly cling to in our efforts to uphold that illusion. But in the end the Shamans contend, as do the Buddhists, that we must face the illusionary reality of the world and break it down, one illusion at a time. By challenging our perceptions, by challenging the way we think and act, and by challenging ourselves to face our deaths as new life, we offer ourselves the opportunity to break through the endless suffering of being human.

If we believe that all lives are meaningful, that our personal suffering and the suffering of everyone else in the world is important, then perhaps we might understand the necessity of it. Samsara, illusion, is endless. We are all being confronted with the truth of this as the revelations of sexual abuse swirl through the media, assaulting our personal illusions, coming into our homes on the nightly news. Our illusions are being shattered.

From a Buddhist and Shamanic perspective, this is very good. Such shatterings offer us the opportunity to view the world differently, to accept the necessity of suffering as a means of breaking us out of endless samsara. In my book, The Man in the Woods, I present the sufferings of my child self. It’s often hard for people to fathom that I suffered such abuse and yet survived the experiences. But I know that my own experiences are not all that exceptional. I hear stories of equal or worse horror every day, of abuse that went on for just as many years or even longer.

I am both humbled and hopeful as I hear the stories being told to me personally or by the media. And yet I know that, as people face their personal suffering, they are facing the shattering of their lives. But I also know that this shattering is the necessary breakthrough point to new life.

The universe itself is challenging us to face the reality of samsara and the necessity for it now. As a catalyst to shattering our illusions, constant exposure to the horrific reality of sexual abuse against innocent children is a mighty force. This exposure alone has the ability to change our world as we discover what has been kept hidden for decades, but even more deeply meaningful as we face our personal secrets.

When we are finally ready to face our personal suffering, we are ready to shatter the illusions that we have constructed in an effort to both get us through our lives but also to protect us so we could survive. When we face our inner turmoil, the suffering and the illusion of it, we face the fact of the world as indeed samsara, endless suffering.

On the bright side, in facing our personal suffering, in shattering our illusions about who we are, we begin to see the world differently. Suffering becomes understood as the means to enlightenment as the Buddhists present it and the means to accessing the warrior self as the Shamans suggest. In recapitulation, in deep inner work, in allowing ourselves to sit through the horror of the news, facing the truth of human suffering, we offer ourselves a new opportunity to evolve beyond this world of endless suffering.

Both the Buddhists and the Shamans use suffering and death as the greatest teachers and advisors. Both the Buddhists and the Shamans are aware of death at all times, preparing for it, using the challenges in this world to break through to a new awareness that we are all beings seeking enlightenment.

The reason we must suffer is the same for all of us. We are being challenged to grasp the truth of suffering as our greatest teacher, so that we may crack through it and make our deaths as meaningful as we want our lives to be.

In samsara we prepare for new life; in suffering we discover what that might mean. With each new life we are offered the opportunity to discover the illusions we steep ourselves in, that are presented to us in myriad ways by the world outside of us and by our inner reactions, disturbances, and challenges to that world. We are all here to live deeply meaningful lives—that I have no doubt about.

As I look around at the world each day and discover yet another reason to be disappointed in my fellow humans, to be distraught, disturbed and disgusted, I know I am being challenged to not turn off the television set. I am being challenged to face samsara and to ask others to face it as well. It is only through facing the onslaughts of horror that we can change the world.

We must face our inner darkness—mirrored unrelentingly, it seems lately, by the outside world—and ask everyone else to do the same. Suffering leads to enlightenment. I keep that in mind.

Thanks for reading. Love to you all,

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