Is Human Suffering Hard Wired?

‘Suffering’ is a very broad term.

People use the term ‘suffering’ across a vast array of life experiences. Sometimes the way in which it is used justifies its definition and negative connotations whilst others bastardise and dilute the concepts of suffering itself through claiming to ‘suffer’ for incredibly superficial reasons. It seems the global spectrum of suffering is endless and not something to easily comprehend or calibrate on. Our mental idea of suffering comes from our life experiences and life circumstance and is subjective to how ‘hard’ we feel life is for us. I have friends who experience ‘first world problems’ like not being able to access Facebook for a day who exclaim they are suffering. I’ve also witnessed death, sheer poverty and sickness – real suffering.

I’ve suffered… mainly from guilt as my air-conditioned Toyota Tarago would cut through the Indian slums honking wayward children standing on the road in no clothes, brushing their teeth with putrid water. However I’ve also been guilty of claiming to ‘suffer’ in my life circumstance.

Just getting the bus to work is a life and death experience in developing countries.
Just getting the bus to work is a life and death experience in developing countries.

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So is it all relative? In a country like Australia, is being without your iPhone for a day the same suffering as abject poverty where you don’t know where your next meal is coming from? I think not. However what I’m discussing here is two types of suffering. There is actual suffering and then there’s mind-made or mental suffering.

Actual suffering is living in a moment of pain, sickness, distater or poverty and doing everything you can to survive and live. In these situations people don’t often complain of suffering and some don’t even see themselves as suffering at all. Sometimes they’re even happy and just get on with surviving without time for contemplating how their situation may compare with others who are ‘better off’.

Then there is the mental notion of suffering where – if no real suffering exists, the mind creates mental suffering in which it becomes a condition rather than a circumstance. Are you restless? Do you notice the background static… the mental noise of your negative thoughts that cause suffering on some level? Do you project hope toward the future where you think when this happens or that happens, then I’ll be happy? Or do you draw your suffering from the past through guilt or regret?

The point I’m trying to make here is that it is as if suffering on some level is innate and is part of the human condition.  In developing countries where life and death are considered daily and working becomes the difference as to whether you feed your family or not, we survive and our innate human desire  for suffering, or inbuilt survival mode is activated and satisfied. In these situations, we don’t have time to turn our suffering in to a mental story of “me and my suffering” and nor do we need to… we just live to survive. There’s something to be said about experiencing a moment of true suffering.

People who have been through life or death situations or some natural disaster or emergency always recount how time slows and you go in to to survival mode where you just accomplish amazing things without great thought or contemplation. Great stories of sacrifice and bravery come from such situations because something takes over, something deep within us is suddenly stirred awake. Our dormant survival mode is abruptly awoken by the sharp jab of adrenaline that surges through us in a life or death situation.

Being an ex-police officer, I’ve experienced this. I’ve been in emergency situations of absolute chaos and I remember how time grinds slowly, almost to a halt. I remember how everything becomes vivid and alive. Sights, smells and sounds are acute and you notice the detail. It’s as if someone just turned up the resolution. You don’t have time to think, judge, criticise and use your mental labels to perceive the world around you. You just perceive it as it is.

Being a police officer I was thrown in to many situations that don't have time for mental suffering or judgement. You just see, assess and act.
Being a police officer I was thrown in to many situations that don’t have time for mental suffering or judgement. You just see, assess and act.

This moment of clarity can be liberating. For a moment we glimpse the world free from our putrid lens of mental filters, judgement and labels – we are in the moment. For some this becomes an addiction (not a bad thing – in my opinion it is, after all, our natural state). The desire to be free from our own mental noise and thoughts is a noble cause in my opinion and I’ve written about this in a previous blog ‘Do You Remember the Clarity’. Some access this through meditation whilst others turn to extreme sports like sky diving, base jumping etc in order to reactivate the survival mode of no-mind and experience the word in that vibrant, crisp clarity again and again.

It’s as if, whilst we have evolved and come along way from primitive man, our psyche has not yet evolved to the point where it no longer craves suffering, survival and fight or flight. In a world where getting a meal isn’t about trekking through the dense jungle to kill a dangerous animal, or selling enough of your goods as a street vendor to be able to buy bread on the way home to feed your family, but instead using an app to get our food home delivered, our psyche is designed to deal with more and craves more. In a world where survival is not a primary regular focus, our minds are over active. Like a bored child, robbed of his toys, the mind creates drama, bangs on the walls, screams and finds attention and suffering in any means possible.

A beach vendor wanders along Marina Beach ringing his bell selling birght fairy floss to beach goers and fisherman. Chennai, India.
A beach vendor wanders along Marina Beach ringing his bell selling bright fairy floss to beach goers and fisherman. Chennai, India.

If we are hard wired to endure suffering and survival, yet live in a world where surviving is no longer a conscious and ongoing effort – what happens to these ancient systems deep within our evolved (or perhaps not so evolved) psyche?  It’s like buying a Ferrari super-car designed for speed, performance and adrenaline and only driving it to the local corner store and back – you’re going to crave more. When these hard wired systems of survival are left dormant they don’t die or fade away, it’s as if they hijack the mind and use it to create drama to satisfy a deep subconscious need for survival traits to be satisfied. Anxiety becomes our mechanism for suffering  and we must survive having our ego threatened instead of our life threatened. No wonder depression and anxiety are an increasing problem in ‘developed’ countries yet don’t seem prevalent in ‘developing’ ones.

So what’s the answer? What do we do?

I don’t have the answer. I am, however, a big believer in quietening the mind and practising mindfulness. Our minds control our world with their incessant chatter, mental noise and other bullshit. When this happens we don’t experience the world as it is or the moment as it should be… We view it through our perception of experiences and instead of just allowing things to be and experiencing the world, we label, judge and categorise what we see. I believe we can achieve a state of no-mind and experience the world in crisp, clear and beautiful high definition we vaguely recall from childhood memories and I don’t think our life needs to be threatened to achieve it. It’s not easy and my mind rarely shuts up, but I’m trying. . When you’re able to quieten the mind, everything changes – your world becomes vibrant and new again.

Maybe it’s this state of presence and no-mind our psyche craves, not survival itself. Perhaps it’s just that the only way our psyche knows how to achieve no-mind is through real suffering and survival. Perhaps all we need to do is train ourselves to find that gentle oasis of no-mind in a world where we rarely really suffer and perhaps then and only then we will stop creating our own suffering and finally conclude the mental story of ‘Me and My Suffering’ and experience the hidden world again.

A happy young girl, living in the moment in one of India's slums.
A happy young girl, living in the moment in one of India’s slums.

 If you’d like to seem more of my photography from my travels through India – visit my India Gallery.

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