Q: Why is there suffering? And why do nondualists say it’s all in our heads?
Let’s consider the second part of your question first. Putting it as simply as I can, the nondualist perspective is that what we call reality is nothing more than a reflection. No different than the watching of a film. You can watch the film on the screen, and get so absorbed, that you’ll have emotional and physiological responses, but the movie isn’t real. So, therefore, suffering isn’t real. Considering otherwise just reinforces the illusion. Find out who you are and stay in that. For those who are serious nondualists, that’s pretty much the end of the conversation.
But since most of the world doesn’t live in the consciousness of the All That Is, where the all is one, the answer that suffering is really just in our heads is not helpful at this stage. To be told to leapfrog over that and accept that all is an illusion—even suffering—is too big a leap for most.
I believe it’s more helpful to meet the student where they are, and then work to bring them forward. To begin answering the question: “How do I reach the All That Is and get beyond suffering?” we need to back up a little bit first. I see the challenge in understanding as similar to the different plateaus we reach climbing up a mountain. When you reach a certain plateau, you look out and see what you see. Within that seeing, there’s a certain understanding of what you’re seeing. And that’s all you can see because that’s all you have available to you. But then you get to the next plateau. From there you realize more but you’re still not at the top. You still might have a long way to go, but awareness is dawning. And there’s a sense that it’s possible by moving forward to reach the fully awakened state.
Q: So, again, why is there suffering?
Many people ask this question through the lens of religion. “Why does God allow suffering? How could a loving God create that as part of the plan?” The fact is suffering is nearly entirely human-made. Almost all suffering comes from a perceived lack of one kind or another. Lack of health, lack of good fortune, lack of opportunity, and so on.
In fact, suffering occurs primarily because of four states of being: ignorance, greed, fear, and a real or imagined sense of scarcity. Resolve these issues and the acts that cause suffering disappear because suffering can’t exist without these conditions.
There has to be a sense of not-enoughness. I want more. (Scarcity.) I want what you have. (Greed). This can trigger an abuse of power. (Abuse of power is greed, scarcity, and fear combined.) Or, when I have what I have and what you have, or I am trying to keep what I have away from you, I will need to protect it. (Fear). Ignorance arises and causes suffering from not being taught enough about life, health, money, how the world works, etc. Again, resolve these issues and suffering goes away.
The process of death often involves physical suffering, leading up to the release of consciousness. In the case of suffering that occurs during the dying process, we all need a way to exit the body.
When we understand the cause of suffering, we begin to understand this happens because we are acting as separate entities in a zero-sum game rather than as one unified spirit. Once we have this realization, the urge is to go out into the world to do something to try to help stop the suffering. To help people feel less greedy or fearful, or all the other things that are attached to that suffering.
The next level up is an awareness of, I see that I must change myself. And that’s what’s going to change the suffering. We realize that we can’t change the world. We can only change ourselves. Then, through meeting up with other people and affecting their experience of being in contact with us, they are changed.
As we keep walking onward and upward, we begin to have a deeper understanding of ourselves through a spiritual connection to something greater (for now, we’ll just leave it at that). Then we have the realization that “okay I’ve changed myself, but now I’ve climbed up high enough to see there is no self.”
This approach doesn’t deny the student’s reality that there is suffering. And it doesn’t ask the student to leapfrog over the Grand Canyon into the state of oneness. Instead, it begins to create a through-line that the student can pull themselves along.
Because when somebody asks the question you’ve asked, they are already on that path. In their own way, they’re already trying as hard as they can. And to dismiss that question is to do them a great disservice.
This is where I feel the female energy really needs to be more present in these conversations. “OK. I’ll be your spiritual mom for a while. I’ll help you feel safe. I’ll protect you from the things that are hurting you.” And then that person can open up in that safeness, to realize there’s more or there’s an entirely different way to look at everything.
But to ask somebody when they’re in the middle of a field with bombs going off to just stand up and not worry about the bombs, doesn’t help anybody. So, this is where I’d say, “No, don’t stand up yet. Crawl this way first to safety and then stand up.”
I feel that’s what the process should be. You have to meet this student. And you have to answer the question, “Why is there suffering,” And I don’t feel, at this level, the answer should be “suffering is all an illusion or all in the imagination.” That’s not an answer for 99.999% of the human population. Because it’s not their experience.