Menu Close

The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 1

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.

Continued in The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 2—Strategies for Healing

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.

We Evolve To Embody Higher and More Inclusive Consciousness

Just to be clear, consciousness doesn’t evolve. It doesn’t need to. It is complete in and of itself. What does evolve through stages, however, is our capacity to recognize and embody an ever-expanding and evermore inclusive awareness of consciousness.

We recognize this easily when we look at children. We are aware that a child is complete and perfect as it is. A child’s worldview and perspective are perfectly appropriate for where it is developmentally. And, we also recognize that a child has a potential and capacity to evolve its worldview and perspective to be more inclusive, more empathic, and more compassionate. This evolution of capacity is reflected in the actual development of the adult brain.

We wouldn’t hold that a child is stupid because it has not yet evolved the consciousness that we have as adults or that it has the potential to. But, where we do get fooled is when we look at other adults and assume that they must share our level of consciousness simply because they look like us or even look older than us. Then, when they cannot seem to recognize the “facts” that seem so clear to us, we assume they are stupid or crazy or malevolent in intent. Most likely they are not. They are simply seeing the world through a set of filters defined by their particular worldview or ideology.

We also make a mistake when we assume that we can simply point out the facts, explain, embarrass, or ridicule someone into a more evolved worldview. It doesn’t work that way. Has that conversation with your more conservative family members at Thanksgiving ever ended with a “By golly, you’re right and I’ve been seeing it the wrong way all along?” Probably not. And it hasn’t ended that way because your relatives are stupid people or deliberately hurtful people. They’re just limited in terms of how much of the totality of consciousness they can embody at this time. Be patient. Try to understand how to speak their language while still holding to your values. That’s the best you can do.

Keep it in perspective, because as evolved as we may feel when arguing for basic human rights with our stubborn uncles, there are, undoubtedly, people who are more evolved than we are.

Nonduality for Two

Nowhere does the conflict between desire and desire-less-ness or form and formlessness seem more palpable than in the realm of intimate relationships between couples.

In fact most of the images we have of enlightened or awakened beings are of individuals who have renounced community and relationship to live isolated lives as hermits or in a monastic existence where the complications of intimate relationship do not intrude. Many, if not most, of the religious or spiritual traditions of the East and the West suggest that a choice needs to be made between GOD and an intimate companion in this incarnation. People who speak about nonduality often seem curiously asexual, as if transcending the separate self means denying the face of the beloved.

This bias might reflect the fact that those who have traditionally had the most to say about nonduality are those who have come from celibate or monastic traditions. They may actually have little experience and not much to say about nonduality in relationship, but I don’t believe that means that a relationship based in the truth of nondual awareness is impossible. It is difficult, but not impossible.

When we recognize the lack of separation between ourselves and another, we call that love. This is neither romantic love, nor erotic love, nor platonic love, though it may encompass them all. Love as a recognition of the unity of all form is deeper than that. It holds the possibility of transcendence and even awakening, but it may be the trickiest and most confusing of all the paths to pure awareness.

Ultimately, nonduality is a simple concept. It is in fact so simple that it is radically difficult for us to even conceive of. In order to conceive of it, we tend to use stories that make it seem like we can separate from the process or that there was something from which we could separate.

One of the deepest stories we carry in our genetic memory is that it appears to us as though two separate beings must come together and mix their essences (masculine and feminine) in an affirmation or recognition of the underlying state of oneness in order to create new life (another separate form). In many religions there is a story about whether the masculine or the feminine manifestation comes first. From a nondual awareness, however, this is not really a question.

In order for a masculine or a feminine something to arise, each needs to arise out of nothingness. Each needs to arise simultaneously with its polar opposite. Otherwise, there would be no knowing it—no recognizing it as something unique.

In the Bible the phrase “he knew her” or “she knew him or “they knew each other” is commonly interpreted to mean sexual intimacy, but there is a deeper meaning. To know someone is to have a knowing (a gnosis) of that person. But this “knowing” is not a surface knowing of “I know about you,” or “I know how you appear,” or “I know the details that make you seem to be similar to or distinct from me,” or “I know the degree to which you align with my sexual preferences.” This knowing is ultimately about a recognition that we are one. We can, of course, engage in sexual intercourse or intimacy without experiencing this recognition, but we cannot know the other as the self without it.

The deeper the recognition is, the more profound the nature of the sexual experience will be and the more profound the nature of the sexual experience, the deeper the sense of dissolution of separateness is likely to be.

One or both partners sometimes experience this sense of dissolution during sex and it can be very powerful. Unfortunately we are only capable of understanding an altered state of consciousness like this from the stage of consciousness we are currently at. Sometimes that means that we come to believe that the feeling, the awareness of no separation, was a result of the sex rather than a feeling we have access to at any moment and  then transcendent sex becomes just another thing that we add to our list of things or experiences we are seeking.

How Language Affects Suffering

Are you having the feeling or is the feeling having you?

It’s kind of trendy to dismiss the language we use around our states of mind as being just “semantics,” but I think there is something deeper going on. When we experience a sensation, it’s just that, a fleeting sensation. It’s a tightness, a heaviness, a tingle, a tickle, a clench, a release or some felt sensation. In meditation we might allow our attention to be aware of it, welcome it, and then let it go. But, in less mindful moments, our ever vigilant Ego (the owner and defender of the sense of “I”) takes on the sensation as a challenge. If it’s a pleasant sensation, Ego says, “How can we get more of that?” or “Let’s hold onto that,” or “How do I replicate that?” If it’s an unpleasant sensation, Ego says, “Who made me feel that way?” Whose fault is it?” What does that feeling mean?” or “How do we avoid that feeling?” In both cases Ego looks at the sensations as being foreign to the Ego body—things that need to be defended against or sought out. Also, in both cases, we are either demanding that things change on our time table (in the case of unpleasant sensations that we want to have end now) or asking them not to change (in the case of pleasant situations that we want to persist indefinitely). Hoping for either thing reflects a significant misperception around the nature of reality.

You can hear the Ego at work in how we language these states. In the feeling state of the emotional body, we describe rather than label. “I feel a stiffening of my neck,” or “I feel a tensing of my shoulders.” This is simply mindful attention to the sensations that arise and subside like waves in the body. We can describe and acknowledge without claiming or owning. At the frontier that runs between the emotional body and the mental body we might have labeled that stiffening or tensing based on some recollection of a similar state in the past and now our language moves to “I’m feeling fear,” or “I’m feeling anger.” Now we’ve labeled a sensation which makes it much more serious sounding and much less fluid or likely to dissipate on it’s own. On the positive side, we are still simply feeling it, rather than owning it. It is now an Emotion with a capital E (meaning one of a set of specific and identified emotional states).

But watch what happens when this sensation is fully taken on by the Ego in the mental body. Now I’m not “feeling anger,” rather “I am angry.” Now I’m not “feeling fear, I am scared.” This may seem like a small thing, but it is huge in terms of our suffering. Every time I feel anger is an opportunity not to be angry. Every time I am angry it becomes part of the story of who I am. When I feel anger, I have the opportunity to let it go. When I am angry, I either cannot admit it or I cannot let it go. When my “story” is that I am not an angry person (anger has become a shadow that we push away from ourselves), any anger I feel must belong to someone else. “I’m not angry. Everyone else is angry.” If anger is part of my story (I am angry for a good reason), then the ego is not going to want to let that go. It’s part of who we are, and the Ego does not give up anything that is part of who it is, part of it’s story. To the Ego that feels like death and our ego selves are fierce, determined, and resourceful when it comes to resisting ego death.

Try this: Next time you find yourself in an “I am…” moment, take a couple long, deep breaths to break the physiological fight or flight response and try re-languaging what your feeling from “I am…” to “I’m feeling…” If that helps, see if you can work your way backward and simply describe the sensations you are feeling with no labels and no judgement. See if that doesn’t make what you are feeling seem more transient and less fixed.

Newer Posts