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What causes suffering?

In a previous article, I talked about how to make right choices in life so we can diminish or prevent future suffering. In this article I will expand a little more on the concept of suffering and discuss the various causes of suffering. We’ll turn our attention to one of the sutras from Patanjali (sutra 2.15):

परिणामतापसंस्कारदुःखैर्गुणवृत्तिविरोधाच्च दुःखमेव सर्वं विवेकिनः॥१५॥

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pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkhaiḥ guṇa-vr̥tti-virodhācca duḥkham-eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ ॥2.15॥

"To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences; the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind."

What this sutra tells us is that a person with sharp discriminatory wisdom (the Sanskrit term used in the sutra is "vivekin") begins to realize that all life experiences are either actively or potentially full of suffering. When I read this sutra for the first time, it seemed a little strange to me that a person of wisdom should feel any suffering at all. After all, the purpose of all yoga practices is to attain enlightenment which will put an end to suffering. It took a little deeper reflection to understand the significance of the sutra.

In sutra 2.14 Patanjali states that good deeds (punya) bring about pleasurable experiences while bad deeds (apunya) bring about painful experiences. If that be the case then we might ask, "what if I start doing only good deeds from now onward and build my storehouse of good karmas and keep reaping the benefits of pleasurable experiences?" We must remember that even good deeds create samskaras, as do the bad deeds. These samskaras fructify in this life or a future birth and the cycle continues. Until we develop "viveka" (discrimination) we are likely to be driven by the ego rather than the pure intellect. The ego likes to bring into play "raga" (likes) and "dvesha" (dislikes), despite our best intentions to do only good deeds. All thoughts and actions driven by raga and dvesha result in creation of samskaras (impressions) in the mind. When we get attached to pleasure, that itself becomes a source of pain as we constantly crave newer objects of pleasure. When these cravings are not satisfied, which is bound to happen in life, then we have a painful experience.

In the sutra under study, Patanjali provides various reasons why everything turns into pain and suffering. Let us look at them one by one.

pariṇāma (परिणाम): The word parinama can be variously translated as change, transformation, result, outcome etc. We are constantly going through change in life. Everything in the world, animate or inanimate, has to follow the law of change. Every change has the potential to cause suffering (called "stress" in modern life). Change from childhood to adulthood to old age, change in profession, change in marital status, change in life – birth or death in the family, etc., can all lead to some form of suffering/stress.

Any pleasure that we experience is only short-lived. We experience happiness due to attachment to some object – animate (wife, kids etc.) or inanimate (house, car etc.). Because of attachment, we accumulate more karma in our "karma bag". When we engage our senses for enjoyment, senses become adept at demanding more enjoyment, resulting in more attachment. We begin to crave these sense-gratifying objects even more. As we live our life, every pleasure eventually transitions into some kind of suffering. We may or may not be aware of these transitions but they are happening all the time. It is only when we develop viveka (discrimination) that we realize that the so-called pleasures of life also lead eventually to some form of suffering.

tāpa (ताप): The word tapa means heat, pain, sorrow, affliction etc. It is almost another word for suffering. It is usually applied to pain caused by anxiety, fear etc. It can include suffering caused by anger, jealousy, hatred, greed, feelings of guilt etc. For example, we may fear the loss of something that we enjoy. This kind of pain results in more aversion and hatred, leading to further pain.

saṁskāra (संस्कार): As mentioned above, all experiences of pleasure or pain result in creation of samskaras which are subconscious impressions in our "karma bag". These karmas fructify in this or a subsequent life giving rise to more likes and dislikes and accumulation of further karmas. Thus the cycle of suffering continues in the form of death and rebirth.

Conflict among the three gunas (guṇa-vr̥tti-virodhāt – गुण-वॄत्ति-विरोधात्): The three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas – are in a state of constant flux. Our experience at any given time depends upon which of the three gunas is dominant at that moment. Sattva can give rise to the state "shanta" (peaceful), rajas to the state of "ghora" (intense or violent) and tamas to the state of "mudha" (confusion). The ever-changing gunas cause the mind to be in a constant state of agitation and flux.

Just as in medicine we have four stages – sickness, cause of sickness, recovery and therapy for recovery. Similarly, the yoga philosophy also talks of four phases – the constant cycle of birth and rebirth is the suffering that is to be removed (heya), the apparent association of Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter) is the cause (heya-hetu), dis-association of Purusha from Prakriti will lead to liberation (hana) and gaining the right knowledge is the means of liberation (hanopaya). As I wrote in my previous article, these are similar to the Four Noble Truths mentioned in Buddhism as well.

The root cause of all suffering, as stated in sutra 2.4, is "avidya" or ignorance. Due to ignorance, we are unable to distinguish between real and unreal, between permanent and impermanent etc. This ignorance leads to the types of "dukkha", suffering, that have been described in the sutra under discussion here.

The only way out of this suffering is to attain the wisdom whereby we recognize our true nature as pure consciousness and are able to diminish the influence of the ego. This is the state which has been referred to as "viveka" (discrimination) in this sutra.

2 comments to What causes suffering?

  • Kathy

    Thank you for this insightful share. My initial thought is that if we make more decisions using intellect (vs ego), then the choice may be less likely to cause suffering. As we discussed in class today, making an earnest effort to live a yogic lifestyle, following the principles of the eight limbs, will reduce the number of sufferings we carry in the ‘karma bag’. The heaviness of the ‘karma bag’ prevents us from recognizing and acting from our true inherent nature-the connection with the Divine or pure consciousness.