The Suffering Cycle Explained

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“There is suffering. There is the cause of suffering. There is the end of suffering. There is a path to the end of suffering. These four noble truths teach suffering and the end of suffering.”

This is a quote from the Buddha. One of the wisest beings to walk the face of the earth.

In this article, I want to define suffering, break down the causes, and outline the path to end suffering also known as the noble truths in Buddhist philosophy.

What people miss is that this isn’t a religious thing. It’s a science of the mind.

It applies to everyone who is a human being.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand how the cause and effect of our minds work in this world. 

Even the Buddha encouraged his followers not to listen to him without testing his ideas in their own lives to determine if they were true.

My goal is to break down the suffering equation as clearly as possible so that we can reduce our suffering and maybe even eventually eliminate it completely.

Defining Suffering

First, let’s start by defining suffering.

In the western world when we think of suffering what usually comes to mind is a war scene where soldiers are crawling around dripping in blood or a car accident where someone is paralyzed and rolled off to the hospital.

This is a misperception. 

This is an example of intense physical pain and not a good example of suffering. The soldiers who are dripping in blood are experiencing intense physical pain but not necessarily suffering. 

Suffering is a mental activity. If a soldier was suffering it would be from his mental response to the physical pain.

This is why some of the soldiers may actually experience very little suffering in response to the pain they experience, while others may suffer greatly during or after the event. 

Suffering is different from pain. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Suffering doesn’t have to be.

So how would I define suffering?

Suffering is the uneasy state of mind and body that occurs when unpleasant or pleasant thoughts and emotions are not felt and experienced completely.

Each person will have their own ways of suffering and some people will naturally suffer more than others due to their mental makeup.

The key point is that suffering can be overcome. 

While pain and change in life are natural occurrences that can’t be avoided, suffering is optional. 

The Suffering Cycle

Pictured above is the suffering cycle. 

If we can understand how suffering occurs in ourselves and in the world at large we have a better chance of reducing and eliminating suffering.

This would make our lives and the world a much more enjoyable place.

Suffering is a key source of war, violence, hatred, addiction, division, illness, and a plethora of other problems.

Let’s discuss each step of the suffering cycle.

1. A Problem Situation

The first thing that happens in the suffering cycle is a problematic situation. 

Often these situations are created as problems in our mind while in reality, they are just life unfolding in a natural way which happens to affect our idea of the way we want the world to be.

They are often natural disruptions, health problems, changes in life and financial circumstances, situations that provoke fear, and other events that trigger something in your psyche that you weren’t able to face in the past.

When we come face to face with these realities (which we view as problematic) they trigger our subjective states of thought and emotion.

2. Subjective States of Thought & Emotion

When we encounter a problem situation it triggers uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.

The thing to realize is these thoughts and emotions will be triggered differently in each individual based on their past memories.

A lot of the time these intense thoughts and emotions suck us in and escape our awareness.

The reason being is when they are strong emotions and thoughts, they can be painful to bear.

Since they can be so painful to feel, we do anything we can to avoid them if they seem too strong. 

That’s if, 1) you are ignorant of the suffering cycle or 2) they are simply too intense to be felt without support.

This is where the main problem occurs in the suffering cycle which allows it to continue operating.

When we aren’t able to completely feel and experience these emotions and thoughts they lead to suffering.

3. Suffering

Like I defined above, suffering is the state of mind and body which occurs when we can’t experience our thoughts and emotions completely.

States of irritation, anger, anxiety, physical dysfunction, tension, blame, an inability to relax, and ways of numbing out occur when we suffer. 

Often suffering can manifest in the body with physical symptoms and chronic stress.

This state makes us feel like we can’t enjoy anything or like life is just unbearable. It’s a struggle to get through the days and we may even have some anxiety or depression.

Suffering is tough. It’s a natural part of life and we have all experienced it.

At this point, if we don’t recognize what’s going on and stop feeding it, our suffering may distort our behavior and perception of the world. 

This can lead to a suboptimal or even harmful response.

4. Suboptimal or Harmful Reponse

If we suffer a lot or we don’t recognize and catch ourselves when this cycle occurs it can lead to a suboptimal or harmful response.

The reason being is that we will do anything to try and feel good and escape our suffering.

We all just want to feel good. 

On the extreme level, this could take the form of drug addictions or destructive behavior.

On a more subtle level, this could be stuffing your face with ice cream and cookies or yelling at your girlfriend for something stupid.

The main point is that when we suffer our thoughts and emotions take control and we become delusional. 

This leads to poor responses which can perpetuate this vicious cycle or even cause a new or worse problem than what we started with.

If you look closely, you can see this play out not only on the individual level but on the collective level.

Breaking Down the Causes of Suffering

When we aren’t able to feel and completely experience our thoughts and emotions, suffering occurs.

But why aren’t we able to experience these emotions and thoughts?

The second noble truth of Buddhist philosophy which describes the cause of suffering mentions the causes as grasping, aversion, and ignorance.

Basically, we grasp and cling to our idea of what life should be like and we have an aversion towards painful or uncomfortable events.

Truthfully, I’ve dealt with a lot of aversions to fear and uncomfortable feelings in my life. 

At the time, these feelings and thoughts can seem too strong to handle or make us want to avoid them.

We think that we can control absolutely everything in life, we try to feel only pleasurable things, and we become somewhat delusional because of it.

If we have a strong desire for the way we want things to work out and they don’t go as planned we will suffer.

Not to say that we shouldn’t have goals and dreams. We just need to understand that we can’t control the exact outcomes that occur.

Grasping, aversion and delusion give rise to all the other unhealthy states such as jealousy, anxiety, hatred, addiction, possessiveness, and shamelessness.

How Do We Reduce & Possibly End Suffering

So we know more about suffering and the vicious cycle that occurs.

Unlike pain, there can be a reduction and end to suffering.

Freedom from suffering is possible when we let go of our reactions, grasping, and aversion to the natural unfolding of life.

We will still experience pain and tough times but because we are able to completely experience our pain, root emotions, and thoughts, they will arise and they will release leaving us free of suffering.

To reduce and end suffering a few things need to happen:

  • We need to acknowledge, understand, and become aware of our own suffering and problems
  • We need to feel and experience our painful and uncomfortable thoughts and emotions allowing ourselves to let go
  • We need to allow life to unfold as it does and release our clinging and aversion
  • We need to see the world and ourselves in a clearer more truthful way 
  • We need to take positive actions in our life that match up with reality
  • We need to purify our speech and mind
  • We need to make an ethically sound living, being honest in business dealings

If we can do some or even most of these things we will dramatically reduce our suffering and maybe even one day be totally free from suffering.

Final Thoughts

In all honesty, I’ve suffered a lot in my life, which is exactly why I wanted to write this article.

Suffering and pain are a part of life. We all deal with painful and hard times.

Pain, death, sickness, and aging are inevitable, but suffering is optional.

If we can understand our individual and collective suffering better we will be able to reduce and eventually eliminate it.

Despite the fact that life contains pain and suffering it’s a beautiful and magical world. 

So let’s have the courage and resolve to acknowledge and feel our uncomfortable emotions or get help if needed.

This way we can heal ourselves and the world. We can enjoy our lives more and live without suffering. 

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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.