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What Causes Suffering & Stress?

Ever wonder why life can be so hard sometimes? What can we do to make life easier? Or maybe it’s not us, but instead the content of our lives, the world around us - work, family, traffic, money, relationships, politicians, and so on - that needs to change to make life easier. Buddhism offers a direct proclamation regarding some of the key causes of life's stresses, distinct mind states called the three poisons, which are, greed, hatred, and delusion, another translation being, grasping, rejecting, and desensitizing.

Looking closely at our moment-to-moment experience, we notice how these three mind states function - and that at least one of them is operating at any given moment. They are also deeply intertwined with our preferences, likes, and dislikes.

But how does having likes and dislikes cause stress? Before we answer this question, it’s helpful to be aware of three phenomena inherent to all sentient beings. These are the phenomena of moving toward pleasant experience, moving away from unpleasant experience, or feeling indifference in regard to a particular experience or object. I’d like to address the various layers and aspects of the second one, which can also be thought of as aversion to an experience.

Is it Pain or Suffering?

First, it’s important to distinguish between pain and suffering, as they can mistakenly be used as synonyms. Sometimes it would be accurate to do so. However, in the way I’m using them here there is a key difference. Pain is anything that makes us say, “Ouch!” From subtle discomfort to emotional or physical anguish. Suffering is the reaction we have to that initial pain.

For example, let’s say I stub my toe on a coffee table. The painful experience that follows is a physical one: heat, heaviness, tingling, throbbing, and additionally, my face wincing and maybe my body bending at the waist. This is a straightforward, unavoidable experience of pain.

Suffering, on the other hand, are the additional layers of mental commentary layered on afterward (suffering could also arise as physical responses I’d chosen to engage in such as pounding my fist on the coffee table, for example). Ugh, I’m so stupid! I can’t believe I did that! The third time this month! This is bad…Maybe I need to get my eyes checked. I hope it doesn’t swell up overnight. I should take an Advil - ugh, I think the bottle I have is expired. And on and on!

Notice that that line of extraneous thought does not have to happen. In fact, it only makes the situation worse, doesn’t it? But how often do we do this in our everyday lives? Feeling pain - whether physical or mental - and then adding on commentary of anger, agitation, worry, fear, and so on. We cannot avoid getting hurt or experiencing pain. However, we do have a say in how much we suffer following that initial pain.

Resistance is Futile

Another way of viewing this - and it summarizes most everything I’ve said so far -

is through the pithy expression, P x R = S, or


In this case I’m using the word resistance synonymously with the second poison mentioned above, which can be thought of as aversion, hatred, rejecting, or any other word that causes us to be unaccepting of what is happening now.

You might be thinking, well, of course I want to move away from pain and of course I have an aversion to unpleasantness. What's so wrong with that? Well, actually, nothing, really. But consider the reality that a great deal of our waking hours are in fact experiences of something unpleasant, from a subtle itch on our nose to long hours in a hospital waiting room. And in my experience SO much of these experiences go unnoticed. What more often gets noticed is the often unhelpful behavior that grows out of resistance and avoidance.

If minute after minute and hour after hour, we are constantly reacting and adjusting our minds and bodies to every single experience of unpleasantness large or small, how could we ever find peace? Rather than just waking up and hoping that the world turns our way for once, that life treats us kindly, we ought to bring our own tools of awareness and intelligence to the vanguard.

With enough mindfulness practice we’ll find that we not only become more aware of what is going on both in and around us, but we become more aware of how we relate to our world. And it is this wholesome shift in our relationship with our world that has a great deal more promise in relieving suffering than constantly trying to avoid or run away from pain.

In other words, it’s not wrong to move away from pain. In fact, it’s a very smart thing to do. However, when resisting pain is done with mindfulness, it can reduce a great deal of suffering.

But when we resist pain without enough awareness to even know that we are resisting at all, then we are chasing one pleasant experience after the other, never quite feeling settled.

One can imagine then stubbing their toe, feeling the pain…and just leaving it at that. Then the P X R = S formula falls apart. Thus, we are (at least) temporarily bypassing or liberating ourselves from suffering.

Paying Attention Provides Possibilities

The richness of this formula extends further. Again, “P” stands for pain, but it can also be thought of (as far as I understand it) as, discomfort, unease, anguish, trauma, anything in the field of “unpleasant.”

To move on to a “better you,” it’s instrumental to know how the “current you” is right now. Which by virtue of being human includes unrelenting unpleasantness. To be able to change our minds and live happier lives, we must bring keen awareness to the wide spectrum of unpleasant experiences. Then really with not much effort at all, we notice in real-time how the mind reacts to all those subtle and gross moments of difficulty.

This means that we have a choice for what to do next. I can go down the same habitual road I’ve always gone down of avoiding, running, numbing, and thus, create more suffering. (And of course the initial avoidance creates some temporary relief. But once that relief dissipates we’re back to sitting in the feeling of discomfort because we still want to (or maybe we’re so entrenched in the habit that it seems impossible to avoid) suppress whatever experience, emotion, or thought that is trying to break through the gates into our consciousness. Then we’re back to resisting via seeking temporary relief. It’s an endless cycle!)

From the practice of full presence - or mindfulness - a number of roads open up, pathways to possibilities. Does an addict have freewill or choices around their chosen substance? What if we’re addicted to something else, like worrying, or planning, or ruminating? If you’re reading this I assume you’re bought into the fact that this is not a desirable place to be. And that you prefer peace of mind, which can be experienced by increasing freewill, choices, a sense of empowerment.

When we perceive we do not have choices, or when we don’t even consider such a thought, that is when the “R” of P x R = S runs amok. Again, “R” = resistance, reactivity, anything in the area of friction, avoidance, not wanting, distractions, numbing, etc. Even controlling falls into this category. Ever try to control a situation and only end up feeling worse?


If we are serious about feeling better, living a fuller and happier life, it’s my personal opinion that we ought to become very familiar with the process of how we are in relationship with the world. And probably best to start on a smaller scale. Traffic. Long lines at the grocery store. Slow internet.

When I teach about the process of becoming familiar with our own experience, I typically am referring to three areas: body, thoughts, and emotions. When you are stuck in traffic, what does it feel like in your physical body? Does your body react in some way to this unpleasantness? What thoughts arise? Maybe there are judgements of the other drivers or futurizing about the possibility of being late to a dinner. And what emotions are present? You may notice that P x R = S is quite dynamic. There is the pain of traffic, the reaction of a thought, then the pain of emotion, the reaction to that emotion, the reaction to that reaction, and on and on it goes. Mindfulness before or during the reaction can short-circuit this whole process.

Being vs. Doing

In my experience, I have found it quite helpful as I said earlier to be aware of the whole process of how suffering arises and continues. But more simply, we can minimize (or stop all together) the (mindless) DOING that is resisting and reacting, and move into BEING and feeling the sensate experience of what is happening in the moment. Here are a few different ways to do this.

1. PAUSE - Focus on a neutral object. Staying with the traffic example. We notice we are feeling aversion to our experience to some degree, then we choose an object to pay attention to that has a neutrality to it. Whether it’s the view of the trees on the horizon, the sound of your engine when you hit the gas, or - one of my personal favorites - feeling the physical sensations of an exhalation. And if I’m still able to stay present, then the inhalation as well.

2. STAY with the direct experience of the pain. This is similar to what I mentioned above around tuning into the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of your present moment experience. Oftentimes, when we move closer to pain (without reacting) - whether physical or mental - the pain decreases, and so does the suffering.

3. LABEL - Also known as noting, labeling is a wonderful technique for bringing to the fore our moment-to-moment experience. The practice is simple: Note what you notice. Use a one or two-word label that describes your experience in the present moment. Aware that you're worrying? Note silently to yourself, worrying. Aware that you're walking? Note, walking. And yes, notice that you are resisting the present moment? Note, resisting. When we don't notice what is going on in our minds, we are subject to its will. Only when we are aware of our current mind state (and more so when we are able to label it) can we then choose to disembed from it or to prolong it.

4. ANTICIPATE - You may know that in the coming hour, day, or week, that you will experience a specific kind of unpleasantness. You can then imagine and create a plan for what to do, whether it be one of the suggestions above or another kind of healthy distraction. This mental frontloading will help you see the pain sooner after its initial occurrence, and thus having the chance to unhook from it sooner as well.

Clearly, it is no easy task to meet suffering head on with the intention to unhook from it. But it’s noble and worthwhile. What else are we going to do? What are the other options? Give in to the same old patterns that got us feeling miserable in the first place? Just sit back and hope things go our way?

It’s Up To Us

If we are adamant about being different in the future, it’s essential that we see clearly how we are now (and how we’ve been). This seeing clearly is cultivated through the practices of mindfulness, awareness, pausing, any wholesome activity that breaks us away from our ingrained habits of avoidance that cause suffering. And this journey is further supported by offering kindness and compassion to ourselves along the way. So, whether we are moving toward pleasant or moving away from unpleasant, what we do next is ultimately up to us. And thus, to a greater degree than we may realize, suffering is up to us as well. Which means happiness is here for the taking.


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