“Life is suffering,” the Buddha stated as the first of the Four Noble Truths. The Pali word he used for suffering, dukkha, has its roots in the term for a cart’s axle badly fitted to a misaligned axle hole. The ride in such a cart is bumpy. The longer the trip the greater the possibility of breakdowns and additional damage and discomfort.
Whatever the plans of the cart’s owner, much can go badly. Perhaps he saw such a cart on his first forbidden excursion beyond his father’s palace walls. In English, the word suffering has its roots in the Latin sufferre derived from the Greek pherein, to bear or carry a heavy weight. Let’s imagine, then, to suffer is to carry the burden of having a damaged cart or body.
Wise men and women suggest that some degree of suffering is unavoidable. But they also distinguish between kinds of suffering. For some it is necessary or unnecessary, conscious or unconscious, inevitable as with aging or a consequence of indulgence or greed, sudden and acute or enduring and feeding on its own misery, intimate or insistent on infecting others.
Much of our suffering is a result of our attachment to our desires, not simply for desire itself. Do we suffer because we desire food or shelter or to be good? Surely, it is more than desire of itself. I, for example, desire some ice cream. But, unfortunately, we have none. Okay. I’m fine with that. It is what it is and life goes on. Or do I jump up and down in frustrated rage, or more likely due to my attachment to my desire and feeling a lack, a dissatisfaction that will emerge: life cannot be good nor worthwhile if I can’t have my ice cream.
Of course, it is natural to want good health. Being human we experience disappointment or sadness at its loss. But being human we can learn to limit the degree to which illness causes unnecessary suffering because of false beliefs, such as the necessity of the absence of illness to live well or our identification of the unfulfilled desire with the totality of our being.
A second type of suffering is the grief or sadness that naturally arises from death, injury, or loss to those whom we love. This is an emotion built into our human or mammalian nature and as a result of the drives that lead us to seek attachments to and bonds with others. The absence of these feelings may indicate a defect in my character rather than spiritual achievement.
It is the presence of these emotions that inhibit the prince Arujna, as described in the Bhagavad Gita, from going to battle against his relatives, dear friends, and honored teachers. Krishna, charioteer and divine advisor, does not dismiss the legitimacy of Arujna’s emotions, but engages in dialogue with him about how best to practice the detachment necessary to perform his duties as warrior and prince despite them.
On the other hand, there may be a ”too muchness” to this natural, even inevitable mourning, as when a mother or father ignores the well being of living children because of the death or illness of another child. The gods are offended by Achilles enraged grief at the death of his beloved Patroclus by the hand of Hector, fueled as it is by Achilles shame that Patroclus was killed on the battlefield while Achilles sulked in his tent honor insulted, disrespected by Agamemnon, the war king.
Physicians face this painful dilemma as well. The best do not want to numb themselves to the suffering of their patients. They wish to be able to give hope and at the same time to acknowledge reality. They want professional detachment and human feeling.