Suffering: The Paradoxical Experience of Being Alive

“I am convinced that much of what we now

call psychology is the

study of the tricks we use to avoid

the anxiety of absolute

novelty by making believe the future will be like the past.”

(Abraham Maslow, 2011, p. 15)

The search for what it means to be alive, in particular, why humans suffer, is laced in religions, spiritual practices, philosophies, medicine, psychologies, and wisdom teachings worldwide.  Suffering is a universal phenomenon, one that is part of the human experience.  It is a conglomeration of the past and shrouded with the future, and it affects all aspects of ones physical, emotional, social, and spiritual existence.  All too often, in clinical psychology, psychiatry, and other mental health professions, suffering is scientifically categorized, placing emphasis on eliminating symptoms of mental disorders, disabilities, diseases, and dysfunctions—a “stop the bleeding” approach to suffering (e.g., DMS-V, pharmacological healing).  What is lost in translation is the phenomenological meaning of the injury, loss, or harm occurred.  Psychiatrist Peter Breggin is a critic of biological psychiatry and psychiatric medication.  He maintains that although symptom suppression is useful in much of modern medical procedures, it is counterproductive in the treatment of emotional suffering:

“In the arena of emotional problems, it is even more important to avoid suppressing pain.  Attempts to suppress painful feelings can do more harm than good.  These attempts give the wrong impression to clients—that their suffering is the problem, rather than a signal of their problems.  Intense emotions should be viewed as indicators that something important is going on rather than as symptoms to be eradicated” (2006, p. 33).

Both existential and Buddhist philosophies concentrate on the meaning of life, paying particular attention to suffering.  Their premise, albeit through different disciplines, is that human life is full of anguish; however, there is a way to live in which such anguish is utilized for insight into the nature of life.  Both philosophies emphasize impermanence and the experiential nature of the present moment.  To be aware of suffering from these perspectives, is to be in touch with one’s own creative responses to improve, heal, and communicate—if suffering is reality, reality is also suffering, and as such, creativity, compassion, and meaning may also be paralleled in the process (Maslow, 2011).

The aim of this paper is to examine the meaning of suffering and its relationship to health from the perspective of existentialism and Buddhism.  Both existentialism and Buddhism view suffering as a spiritual phenomenon.  As such, a transpersonal perspective on suffering is explored, advocating epistemological pluralism verses monism. This paper is divided into five sections.  This first deals with a transpersonal understanding of suffering; the next presents an understanding of suffering from both existential and Buddhist philosophy; the fourth explores suffering in relation to time; and the final section deals with the paradox of suffering.


Transpersonal Understanding of Suffering

In the late 1960s, transpersonal psychology emerged in response to mounting concerns and diverging values about suffering in Western culture.  The popular psychologies at the time, including psychoanalysis and behaviorism, focused on pathology and behavior.  In doing so, certain human experiences, such as spiritual experiences were pathologized (Vaughan & Walsh, 2000).

Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich were both influential in this fourth force of psychology (psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic psychology were the other three forces) (Ruzek, 2007).  It was Maslow’s (2011) theoretical contributions on self-actualization and peak experiences that proved to be pivotal in the transpersonal movement.  Maslow was interested in psychological health verses pathology, and found that psychologically healthy, self-actualizing individuals were more likely to experience peak experiences.  Self-actualizing individuals value “being rather than becoming” according to Maslow (p. 24).  This “being” encompasses the present moment experience, which often includes suffering; self-actualizers live less in fear or denial and more in the reality of the current situation.  Further, peak experiences are dynamic and unique including love, mystic, aesthetic, and creative experiences (Maslow, 2011).  Maslow not only argued that self-actualizing individuals have peak experiences more often, but he also contrasted them from ordinary experiences of life, which he attests Westerners emphasize.  In ordinary experiences, “everything is done for the sake of some further goal, in order to achieve something else” (Maslow, 2011, p. 75).  From a transpersonal perspective, this live-to-achieve orientation of life perpetuates suffering by minimizing innate creativity, which is the transpersonal experience.

Transpersonal experiences are when the identity of the self expands beyond the self, encompassing a polyphasic perspective of consciousness, while Western cultures emphasize monophasic consciousness, the waking state.  Transpersonal psychology integrates the continuum of human experience such as dreaming, cosmic awareness, spirit, contemplative states, near-death experiences, introspection, and the waking state.  In transpersonal psychology, the focus is on the whole person, rather than the symptoms (Vaughan & Walsh, 2000).

In general, transpersonal experiences and spirituality are about responding to the deepest questions of existence.  Spirituality in this sense is very different from the duality of religion or religious practices; it is a nondualistic approach to what it means to be alive without labeling experiences as right or wrong.  The search for what it means to be alive is addressed through spirituality in both existential and Buddhist philosophies.

Suffering in Existential Philosophy

Existentialism is an ontological origin vested in human experience and finding meaning in the uniqueness of such.  Of course, part of that uniqueness is the existential reality that in the end one always dies.  Grounded in existential philosophy is the view that suffering is a spiritual phenomenon (Walsh & McElwain, 2002).  Suffering is unavoidable; however finding meaning in suffering is possible.  In fact, existentialists argue that meaning in life may be integrated by discovering the positive in that which is negative.  The phenomenological experience is of importance to existentialists—the subjective manor of suffering may be very different from one individual to the next, including feelings of despair, anger, anguish, dullness, speediness, or pain.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor.  Frankl was also the founder of logotherapy, a form of existential analysis.  In his revered book, Man’s Search for Meaning (2006), he maintains that suffering has meaning and is self-transcendent.  Frankl views suffering as a gift to human beings, seeing it as a vehicle to transcend the normal state of existence and create meaning.  At the same time, Frankl is careful to state that suffering is to be avoided when possible (Frankl, 2006).  Self-transcendence is the ability to make use of suffering, believing that meaning is found in the spiritual dimensions of an individual.  In this way, self-transcendence is the freedom to act responsibly and to overcome the realities of suffering in life.

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task.  He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe.  No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden” (p. 78).  In essence, the ways in which suffering is viewed determines its value and meaning.

Comparable to Frankl’s self-transcendence, Maslow (2011) delineates the difference between the “seriousness and profundity of living” contrasted with the “shallow and superficial life, which is a kind of demised living, a defense against the ultimate problems of life” (p. 13).  Maslow maintains that suffering is therapeutic, in that is has the ability to force individuals to choose; the choice is to continue to live with shallowness or to find the profundity and uniqueness of life.  Suffering may be a part of the human experience, but so is the freedom to choose the meaning of such suffering.  Similarly, Rollo May (1994) attests that, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in the that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.  The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness of self-awareness” (p. 100).  Frankl, Maslow, and May maintain that creativity creates meaning (e.g., creating art, creating a relationship, expression) (Frankl, 2006; Maslow, 2011; May, 1994).  Buddhist philosophy also regards suffering as a possible vehicle in the creation of meaning making.

Suffering in Buddhist Philosophy

Buddhism, like existentialism, views suffering through the lens of spirituality.  Buddhism’s spiritual approach to suffering (samsara), just like existentialism, is linked to the impermanence of everything in life.  Samsara is the cycle of suffering from one moment and from one lifetime to the next.  Samsara influences life through ignorance and has three characteristics: suffering, impermanence, and nonself (Fremantle, 2001).

The four noble truths are regarded as the central doctrine to Buddhism and point towards the universal existence of human suffering its cessation.  These four truths explain the nature of dukkha, which is typically translated as suffering, but the Sanskrit word has deeper philosophical meaning such as existential anxiety or dissatisfaction in impermanence.  The four noble truths are: the truth of dukkha, the truth of the origin of dukkha, the truth of cessation of dukkha, and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha (Epstein, 1995).  So while the phenomenon of suffering is a universal human experience, Buddhism denotes there is a way to use suffering as the path to a better life, which is the cessation of such suffering.

Buddhist philosophy views suffering as an emotional attachment and craving, and are the three characteristics of samsara mentioned above (suffering, impermanence, and nonself).  As such, attachments to the lure of pleasure, desire for permanence, and illusion of self manifest suffering (Fremantle, 2001).  Scholar and Sanskrit translator, Francesca Fremantle (2001) suggests that, “Samsara is like a sickness; [Buddhism] offers a cure, but the patient must recognize the illness, with its causes, its symptoms, and its effects, before the cure can begin” (p. 23). This recognition is bringing awareness to the impermanence of the present moment.  The past has expired and the future has yet to be determined.  The present situation is all that exists, and how it is perceived either perpetuates the samsaric cycle of suffering or initiates its cessation.  The path of the cessation of suffering, thus, is one of letting go of attachments and cravings in the newness of this very moment, over and over again.

Samsara’s characteristics of impermanence and suffering were highlighted, but it is also important to have a basic understanding of nonself in Buddhism.  The self, or the ego in Buddhism is very different from the Western Freudian ego.  Western cultures value individuality and monism.  The self is placed into categories or identities such as I, me, or mine (Fremantle, 2001).  On the other hand, Buddhism accentuates egolessness, which is a letting go of identities.  In this context, the self is always in flux, and the grasping onto identities of self is an illusion and thus perpetuates suffering.  Buddhist monk, Chogyam Trungpa (2005) maintains that with egolessness,

“One begins to let go of clinging to one’s neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them.  The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself…When problems arise…they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one’s own mind, and to continue on one’s journey” (p. 10).

Buddhism presents an optimistic approach to suffering.  Suffering is inevitable, but the cessation from suffering, thus, becomes the spiritual path to a more meaningful life.  Taking responsibility and freedom of choice are emphasized, in both existential and Buddhist philosophy, as the means to dealing with the ultimate transitory reality of life, suffering, and death.  Freedom of choice is available throughout the development of a lifetime, however the transformation of suffering is only possible in the immediate moment.

Suffering and Time

Within the structure of development and suffering understood by transpersonal, existential, and Buddhist psychologies, life exists not only horizontally along a line from birth to death, but also encompasses a non-linear and vertical erection of experiences that happen in the present moment.  Western science and developmental psychology portrays human development horizontally assuming that principles can be objectively known and measured by reducing the order of things into categories.  However, this model does not explain the subjective uniqueness of life that is pregnant with feelings.  Self-actualization, peak experiences, transcendence, and cessation moments, in this framework, thus occur vertically, and are moments of integration, connection, and timelessness—they are the spiritual aspects of human life (Gordon, 2010).

Maslow (2011) subsists that meaning in life is not clock oriented: “It would be accurate to say that in these moments the person is outside of time and space subjectively.  In the creative furor, the poet or artist becomes oblivious of his surroundings, and of the passage of time” (p. 76).  In this context, there is nothing to rid, nothing to fix.  The transpiring of suffering in the present situation is engulfed with its own timeless intelligence.  It is often the case, however, that suffering is identified in the “fix-it” category—it becomes contingent on time.  The present moment is submerged with flashes from the past and goals for the future in hopes to make the next moment “better”.   This may work for a period of time, but transpersonal, existential, and Buddhist psychologies suggest that individuals can run from their suffering, but they cannot hide, and individuals can numb themselves from suffering, but the creative aspects of life are full of vibrancy, not numbness.  A life built on the foundation of fear, fear of discovering who one really is, including suffering, only propagates suffering.

Clinical psychologist, John Welwood (2001), terms these timeless momentary experiences of life as undifferentiated mind-moments.  They are nonconceptual vertical moments that surpass the past and future horizontal orientation of development.  Welwood states that, “When we start to observe the play of the mind, what we most readily notice are the contents of consciousness” (p. 48), these are differentiated mind-moments.  However, he also suggests that behind the contents of the mind are “inarticulate gaps or spaces appearing between our discrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions” (p. 48), which are undifferentiated mind-moments.  Undifferentiated mind-moments are always present and are separate from “beliefs, attitudes, identities, or emotional reactions” (p. 49); they are the ground of which creativity is born.  There is a paradoxical relationship taking place: suffering only begins to change when one begins to let go of how one thinks things should be along the horizontal development of life.

The Paradox of Suffering

Psychologist John Suler (1998) suggests that a paradox “thrusts one, literally, into ‘nonsense’ by challenging common sense and violating one’s basic assumptions about reality” (p. 321).  From a transpersonal, existential, and Buddhist perspective, suffering is a paradoxical human experience.  Suffering is painful or at least uncomfortable, but any attempt to avoid it only generates more suffering.  The meaning that is attached to suffering has the potential to transmute suffering into a more meaningful life or a life of more suffering.  The causes of suffering are also its means for release—a paradox (Epstein, 1995).  Life, then, is bounded in paradoxes.  While individuals may want to change and grow, change only originates when there is an acceptance of what is.  Suler (1998) provides some psychological examples of the suffering paradox:

“The insomniac who tries to force himself to sleep never will; the phobic who worries about avoiding an anxiety attack inadvertently triggers it.  The paradoxical intervention amplifies the problem until the person, reaching the limits of exhaustion and despair, finally lets go of it, allowing change to be spontaneous” (p. 326).

This idea of spontaneity is also reflected in creativity, and may be viewed as a paradoxical tension.  Maslow (2011) studied creativity in his clients, and the clients he found to be most creative were those who were self-actualizers.  These clients lived paradoxically: “These most mature of all people were also strongly childlike…[with] the strongest egos ever described…[and the] most easily ego-less, self-transcending, and problem-centered” (p. 131).

Suffering also tends to instill feelings of isolation.  While the events that propelled an individual’s suffering may in fact, be unique, suffering is also innate to sentient beings.  This is the Buddhist notion of compassion, and is also a paradox.  The Latin etymology of compassion is com (together), and passion (suffering, enduring).  Within this etymology, the construct of compassion means to suffer together (“compassion,” n.d.).  Furthermore, the more one lets go of perfection, the more creative connection through suffering transpires.  Isolation is overcome by its opposite, compassion.  “We realize that this is not just the suffering of one individual, but that it is shared by countless other sentient beings…and this realization arouses deep compassion” suggests Fremantle (2001, p. 32).


In the motion picture, The Little Mermaid, Sebastian may have been onto something profound when he pleaded to Ariel:

“Ariel, listen to me.  The human world, it’s a mess.  Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.  The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake.  You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake.  Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor.  Such wonderful things surround you, what more is you lookin’ for?” (Benson & Barnes, 1989)

Life under the sea may be a metaphor for the subjective nature of experience, a suggestion of introspection rather than avoidance of suffering.  There is nothing else to look for, but the newness of this very moment.  Meaning in life, then, is found within suffering, and not in the fantasy of what life should or should not be like.  Transpersonal, existential, and Buddhist spiritual perspectives view suffering as a means to encourage people to literally wake-up to this very moment.

Suffering is dynamic because, on one hand, suffering has the ability to diminish meaning in life, propel isolation, and squash creativity.  The reality of the horizontal line of development suggests that death is on its way—this very reality often manifest suffering.  On the contrary, human beings have the freedom to choose to take responsibility and they are only free to the extent that they are responsible–a paradox.   As such, the vertically timeless birth of compassion, creativity, and meaning, may in fact be paradoxically mothered by suffering.



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