06/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Suffering Got A Bad Name

In my role as a Buddhist meditation teacher, I've observed a phenomenon that I call the "stigma of suffering syndrome" among many beginning students. They are uneasy with the fact that their lives contain suffering; therefore, they are ineffective in coping with whatever difficulties and disappointments arise. For such individuals to admit to suffering would mean defeat, humiliation, or shame because they did not measure up to our culture's view that winners don't suffer. Their ineffectiveness manifests as passivity, helplessness, guilt, or self-hatred. I've repeatedly witnessed people respond unskillfully to stressful situations at work, in their home life, and even in the political arena all because of a fundamental misperception of what suffering really means, which is understandable because suffering has gotten a bad reputation in Western society. We view it as a mistake, something shameful, or a sign of powerlessness and inadequacy.

Our culture's debasement of suffering represents a major loss to us. It denies the validity of many of the significant emotional events in our lives. It narrows life such that we are constantly reacting to a set of questions: How do I get and keep what's pleasant and avoid or get rid of that which is unpleasant? Am I winning or losing? Am I being praised or blamed?

It wasn't always like this in Western culture. The Greek philosophers and playwrights understood that suffering is ennobling. In fact, they placed it in high esteem, giving it context in their art and mythology. Just think of Homer's Odyssey and Odysseus's epic struggle to return home, in which his suffering is portrayed as noble, even glorious. For hundreds of years, the Western mind took comfort in this noble view of suffering, which gave it meaning and did not equate it with failure.

Since all of us experience suffering, how has it become stigmatized? First of all, our culture evolved into one that is pleasure-based and ego-identified, and that emphasizes immediate gratification. It also began to define success as your ability to control outcomes. Today, we teach our children that if you are an effective person, you can control your life. You can get and do what you want. If you do, you win in life. This modern image portrays "winners" as people who have it all together. You are not supposed to have internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety--that means you are incompetent. You're a loser.

Furthermore, our culture teaches you to constantly judge yourself based on superficial measures: How much money you make, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the level of recognition and reward you attain at school and at work, how beautiful you are. But this perspective flattens life. It denies the possibility of finding a deeper meaning to your experience. If you measure your self-worth and effectiveness according to these superficial cultural standards, then each time you suffer you are forced to interpret suffering as humiliation. Why would you choose to acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?

Suffering is derived from the Latin word ferre, which means "to bear" or "to carry." Helen Luke, the late Jungian analyst and classics scholar, likens the true meaning of conscious human suffering to a wagon bearing a load. She contrasts this definition of suffering with grief, from the Latin word gravare, which refers to "the sense of being pressed down," and affliction, from the Latin word fligere, which means, "to be struck down, as by a blow." When you deny or resist the experience of your own suffering, you are unwilling to consciously bear it. It is this resistance to accepting your life just as it is that makes suffering ignoble, despicable, and shameful.

The Buddha understood the ennobling power of being able to bear your suffering over 2500 years ago. In his very first (and most well-known) instruction--the Four Noble Truths--the Buddha taught that it is not your suffering but rather your reaction to it that is crippling. But if you can learn to separate your resistance to suffering from the actual pain and loss in your life, an incredible transformation takes place. You are able to meet your suffering as though you were a wagon receiving the load being placed on it. Paradoxically, the effect is that your load is lightened. You are no longer expending energy denying your suffering; therefore, you have the willpower to respond skillfully to your life's circumstances. Moreover, in surrendering to the ups and downs of your life, you discover the truth of your inner dignity.