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Also are there behaviors that all humans do when they suffer? For instance, do all humans try to alleviate suffering when they experience it?

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-- "Does suffering entail being overwhelmed"

Yes, I think it often does...

...In some cases, when a disagreeable experience arises (irrespective of its sensory modality) we have a strong and completely unconscious attachment - and so suffering arises immediately and without any resistance. In this case we can't speak about "overwhelming" (or else we could categorize this as an absolute "overwhelming" that meets zero resistance) This probably happens more often to children and to people with relatively undeveloped Emotional Intelligence...

-- But in most cases, modern people have developed various coping techniques to try and alleviate potentially disagreeable experience and prevent it from turning into suffering.

The main technique I see people using every day, many times a day, is "reinterpretation". This is when a person re-frames a (potentially) disagreeable experience to make it agreeable. For example, someone drives to a supermarket and sees all parking spots near the entrance taken. The spots in the middle of the lot are taken too. The only available spots are on the far end of the parking lot. The person then re-frames the experience by saying (out loud or to oneself): "This is even better. Will make me walk a longer distance, and I can use some exercise."

Most healthy people have very "healthy" but also rather unconscious habit of re-framing everything they encounter as to protect their inner comfort. They re-frame circumstances, objects, people, and events in such a way as to reduce a sense of failure, doom, inadequacy - and ensure inner peace. Because we are intelligent species, many of us (but not all) prefer these re-interpretations to be logically consistent and to add up to some sort of more-or-less cohesive life philosophy. This requirement of logical consistency makes this process exhibit a kind of self-sustaining growth, what I call hardening of the ego. What I mean by that is the fact that for most people, their newly made (re-)interpretations arise from -- and add to -- the existing set of internalized interpretations. In other words, the new interpretations are offered by the ego to ensure its integrity. If a new re-interpretation successfully manages to prevent a disagreeable experience from turning into suffering, and does not meet too much rejection from the external world, it is added to the ego's collection of workable interpretations. Thereby tightening up ego's space of possible interpretations, or "hardening the ego".

For example, if someone's life grew out of a difficult background, and he or she was not taught positive re-interpretation, this person's ego starts framing the difficulties as something normal and expected, using this as its coping mechanism -- suffering getting reduced when experience match expectations. This interpretative style continues to accumulate new interpretations until it hardens into a cohesively negative or pessimistic worldview. Other people harden into an optimist, a villain, a victim - with corresponding worldview to match.

Most people who grow up in a consistent and non-conflicted environment, by the time they reach adulthood end up having a virtually impenetrable ego with no possibility of interpretative ambiguity - and therefore no space for maneuver when a re-interpretation is required to alleviate another piece of disagreeable experience - but no logically consistent interpretation can be offered without breaking the logical network of assertions comprising the ego. When this happens, we end up being helpless in the face of the disagreeable experience, which at that time can be said to "overwhelm" us and arise as full-blown suffering.

As Buddhism developed historically, it developed various techniques for dealing with this entire pattern of suffering, its arising and prevention. These techniques range from primitive, such as simply "enduring"; switching attention; and forcing the thoughts out, to re-framing, such as seeing things "phenomenologically" as mere "stimuli", "notions", "feelings", "energies" etc; to detachment or letting go of deep-lying assumptions&preconceptions that lead to evaluation of experiences as something negative, to methodical deconstruction of ego's existing interpretations, to non-evaluating acceptance of all experiences, and finally to interpretative ambiguity.

What's cool about interpretative ambiguity is that it ends up being rather enduring in the face of disagreeable experiences of all kinds. The complete mastery of interpretative ambiguity prevents any possibility of being overwhelmed with a disagreeable interpretation of any and all experience. In other words, it prevents suffering.

  • What is interpretative ambiguity? You introduced the term without explanation – ruben2020 Jun 17 '18 at 3:39
  • Sorry. Basically, it's what we casually call "to give someone the benefit of doubt" – Andrei Volkov Jun 17 '18 at 4:25
  • Does “Give someone the benefit of the doubt” mean seeing everyone as manifestation of Buddha or Bodhisattva? – Yeshe Tenley Jun 17 '18 at 14:30
  • Not just every-one, I think everything is Dharma-kaya in some sense. So everything is Buddha and our teacher. – Andrei Volkov Jun 17 '18 at 14:43
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No, it doesn't necessarily mean that one is overwhelmed.

Example: Let's say I like eating ice cream. Am I overwhelmed at the moment of eating ice cream? No, I'm clearly not. And yet, there is suffering involved there. With a lot of unwholesome states people don't even see the suffering. Like with craving, or the delusion states. They are called that way for a reason.

I think it is one of the most difficult things to understand that there is suffering when following ones desires, like listening to music, eating nice things, watching a loved show/series on TV and so on. And I guess, not seeing the suffering there, is one of the reasons people just think everything is fine and don't bother looking deeper into things.

So, no. I would add that most people don't try to get rid of their suffering, simply because they don't realise they are suffering. Yet.

  • Does it sometimes entail being overwhelmed? Also, when eating ice cream and after that feeling full and deciding to stop eating it, is that done to avoid suffering? – Yeshe Tenley Jun 17 '18 at 14:15
  • Yes to both questions, imho. As I see it, experience of suffering is a spectrum. On the one end suffering is not noticeable at all (ice cream example) and on the other it's clear and unmistakable. As you said in your answer, every organism will avoid suffering when experienced clearly. It's nature. A full tummy usually comes with unpleasant feelings. And to lessen those and avoid further unpleasantness we stop eating. Less clear is restlessness. When eating ice (without full tummy) we often miss the unpleasantness that comes with the restlessness. – Medhiṇī Jun 17 '18 at 16:26
  • @YesheTenley Experiences on the end of the spectrum where suffering is clear and unmistakable can be very overwhelming. – Medhiṇī Jun 17 '18 at 16:29
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All sentient beings wish to avoid suffering. This is universal. There is no sentient being that wishes to suffer. However, we do not always understand suffering and sometimes mistake suffering for happiness. Generally speaking we are quite a confused lot!

I like the answer by Medhini quite a bit and the ice cream example is great. There is suffering when eating ice cream, but few understand this. In fact, just existing in samsara is suffering. It is not satisfactory.

Sentient beings are like a dog tied to a pole. We don’t wish to be tied to the pole so we struggle to escape it thinking that freedom from the pole is happiness. In so doing we wind ourselves ever closer and tighter around the pole. We are just so ignorant about how to help ourselves that we keep pulling. The pole is unsatisfactory and so is the whole situation. We need to develop wisdom to understand our predicament before we can release ourselves from the yolk of suffering.

Hope this helps!

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In response to cravings and also in response to suffering, people tend to have expressions of the three poisons of greed or lust, aversion and delusion.

For example, if you eat something that you find pleasurable, you would have cravings to get more of it. When you endeavour to get more of it, that would be the expression of greed or lust. If you crave to become a respected person who has the Doctor title, then you would try to obtain this title. That's also an expression of greed.

If someone prematurely takes away something that you're enjoying, or causes you pain, you may become angry or agonized and try to alleviate the source of pain and suffering. That's an expression of aversion.

If you become so consumed by anger when someone hurts you that you vow to take revenge on them, that's delusion. Or if you desire something so much, you cling to it and become addicted to it, affecting your normal life experience. Delusion causes you to not be able to see reality clearly and have your judgment clouded.

In my opinion, the three poisons could overwhelm a person, but I would say that delusion is more overwhelming than greed and aversion. It makes suffering worse, deeper and longer lasting.

In the Magandiya Sutta (MN75), the Buddha speaks of one being overwhelmed by lust and delusion over sensual pleasures:

"Now suppose that there was a leper covered with sores & infections, devoured by worms, picking the scabs off the openings of his wounds with his nails, cauterizing his body over a pit of glowing embers. The more he cauterized his body over the pit of glowing embers, the more disgusting, foul-smelling, & putrid the openings of his wounds would become, and yet he would feel a modicum of enjoyment & satisfaction because of the itchiness of his wounds. In the same way, beings not free from passion for sensual pleasures — devoured by sensual craving, burning with sensual fever — indulge in sensual pleasures. The more they indulge in sensual pleasures, the more their sensual craving increases and the more they burn with sensual fever, and yet they feel a modicum of enjoyment & satisfaction dependent on the five strings of sensuality.

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