Because we tend to conflate the terms pain and suffering as if they mean the same thing, it’s always important for me to define the distinction I make, and in fact that the Buddha made, when talking about suffering. Pain is part of life. Pain can be physical or emotional. Suffering, on the other hand, is a choice we make in response to pain, in an effort to give it meaning and claim it as part of our story and identity. Suffering comes when we cling to pain or run from pain.
So what are the biophysics of suffering. Not why it happens, but how does it seem to happen. First of all, in this incarnation, things seem to exist along a spectrum from the least dense to the most dense—from the purely energetic to the grossly physical.
We are vessels, transmitters, antennae, for the flow of consciousness. Consciousness, or love, or spirit (however you best understand what that energetic force is) is us. It is what we are made of, and also what moves through us. Suffering is the response we have when the movement of that energetic force is either constricted or too suddenly expanded. We all have energetic bodies. These are the most subtle templates upon which we manifest ever more dense form. A clench or constriction in our energy bodies restricts the flow of consciousness (energy), and comes with sensations we tend to describe as less pleasurable. An expansion in the flow of that energy comes with sensations we tend to describe as more pleasurable.
What causes this constriction or expansion is largely speculative. A lot of people have a lot of ideas but there isn’t much replicable science behind those theories. I’m not saying they are wrong, just that, when it comes to subtle energy, there are a lot of theories and many of them contradict each other. I could speculate, but it isn’t important at this point to come up with an answer to “why?” So I’m going to stay out of that debate and simply acknowledge that periodic constrictions and expansions in the subtle body—in the energetic template of the form we take—do somehow occur.
This constriction or expansion results in sensations and feelings we experience that usually correspond to where the constriction is manifesting at an energetic level. These sensations are just that—sensations. They are not thoughts about feelings. We might call them primal emotions (the sense we have that energy is in motion). I am going to label the body which experiences these raw, primal emotions the emotional body, but what we experience here are not emotions in the sense of having been labeled, because at that point they are on the verge of being thoughts about sensations.
When we have these sensations they are generally not localized, as in a point of pain or pleasure, but we tend to make sweeping reference to areas of the body, as in “I feel a tightness across my chest,” or “I have a heaviness in my stomach,” or “I have a lightness around my heart,” or “clarity to my vision.” Most of the time these constrictions or expansions and their accompanying sensations are minor moments of environmental ebb and flow—like the weather of consciousness.
Where suffering begins is when the mental body or the ego “I-body” clings to or reacts against the sensations themselves. That tightness across my chest now gets labeled as anxiety. I have anxiety. Now anxiety has become part of my identity and that is an identity that ego needs to protect. We look around for all the external causes of our anxiety and our ego sets out to control or change those circumstances so we can have less anxiety (because it doesn’t feel good) or more anxiety (because we receive some status or attention or validation from being a person with anxiety). The mental body drives everything from addiction to spiritual seeking. It wants answers and it wants meaning.
Eventually the constriction at the level of the energetic body that was felt as sensation in the emotional body and labeled as anxiety in the mental body translates to a symptom or condition in the physical body. This symptom or condition in itself is often painful, but is much less easy to let go of or abide with. It is also hard to recognize that the pain itself varies, because the pain is caused by the practice of physically clenching that the mental body has directed the physical body to undertake and the physical body has practiced to the level of mastery and unconsciousness the exercise of clenching.
Note: Sometimes as in the case of trauma, there is an alternate course for suffering to arise that does not or may not move from the most subtle to the most dense. In this story, I am walking along as a happy and open human being, flowing with consciousness and love and, out of nowhere, someone physically punches me in the stomach. I experience real physical pain in the physical body.
We often like to attribute our identity tales to these traumatic moments, but the truth is that the trauma causes pain, but not the suffering. The suffering is what happens when the mental body claims that trauma as my story and sets out to defend me from ever feeling pain like that again. It is what happens when the egoic mental body assigns blame and judgement and editorializes the traumatic event. It rails against the unfairness and claims an identity for us as a victim or survivor. It then institutes a physical regimen of tension (as in keeping the stomach muscles perpetual tense and always ready for attack) so as to never be caught off guard again. We tense so habitually that we stop remembering that it is us doing the tensing. We associate the painful sensations of tensing and clenching with the painful trauma and not the practice and it becomes very hard to heal or let go of pain. This dynamic in the mental body leads to more generalized sensations experienced as discomfort, dissatisfaction, and even dread in the emotional body, which in turn, one might speculate, creates a constriction in the energy field.
Of course, if you’re a fan of fate and pre-destiny, you might speculate that a constriction in the energy body around the stomach felt as sensations you ignored in the emotional body and which were then overlooked as unimportant by the mental body, attracted the punch in the stomach, but things are complicated enough as they are.