Suffering is the experience of pain or distress; loss, injury or harm.1 The intensity of suffering is influenced by the extent to which we view it as avoidable or unavoidable, useful or useless, deserved or undeserved. There are reasons to believe that suffering is not avoidable, always useful and neither deserved nor undeserved.
Suffering is not avoidable
“Everything in this life has a purpose, there are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” (Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, 1926 – 2004, Swiss-born psychiatrist and pioneer in Near-death studies)
Scientific knowledge of the “vacuum” (discussed below) indicates that personal events are indeed subject to forces beyond the individual’s control.
Suffering is useful
“God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.” (Elbert Hubbard, 1856 – 1915, American writer, publisher, artist and philosopher)
It might be easy to see the usefulness of suffering when it is not excessive or the benefit is self-evident. However, when an individual is physically / mentally broken beyond repair, with no discernible benefit, the usefulness of adversity is far more difficult to appreciate. In these situations it may only be possible to find purpose in suffering at a spiritual (incorporeal consciousness1) level.
Before considering the spiritual value of suffering, it is necessary to address the nature of reality and the continuity of consciousness.
The only reality is spiritual. There is a trend in theoretical physics to view the physical world as made of information, with energy and matter as incidentals.2 In this approach the universe is seen as holographic. If the world is a holographic blur of frequencies, and if the brain is also a hologram and only selects some of the frequencies out of this blur and transforms them into sensory perceptions, objective reality ceases to exist.3 All ‘reality’ is subjective (e.g. physicist Amit Goswami, 20014 ), that is, it exists only within the experiencer’s mind.
Spiritual reality continues. Summarizing 30 years of research, one of the world’s leading near-death experience (NDE) researchers, psychiatrist Peter Fenwick (2004)5 reported, “consciousness may survive death of the body” (p. 6). One of the most important studies to find evidence of consciousness beyond clinical death was by cardiologist Pim van Lommel. It was published in The Lancet (2001).6
Spiritual benefits of suffering
In most religions all suffering is considered useful at a spiritual level. Pope John Paul II explained7 that our suffering represents divine love, as did the suffering of Christ, and that through suffering we can have eternal life. This view is consistent with scientific understanding of the vacuum and the role of stress (suffering) in the expression of consciousness and love.
The vacuum. This is the physically real dynamic virtual-energy substratum that endures through all of time and fills all of space. It is equivalent in meaning to “Allah” and “God.” The vacuum generates events that can be located in the manifest world and it is the holographic memory of everything that happens in the universe. Further, it seems that the vacuum develops consciousness (awareness) through the universe.8,9
The development of consciousness is stressful. Examples of this include the origin of our cosmos in the Big Bang, the birth of new life, the psychological development of human life (e.g. the psycho-social “crises” from infancy to late adulthood described by psychologist Erik Erikson) and artistic creation. Artistic creation involves suffering10 and it is inspired by suffering.11
Suffering is associated with love. The only way to appreciate suffering is to experience it, and this power of understanding is essential to the development of compassion for others.12 Conversely, suffering evokes compassion in others.13 The interconnectedness in the natural world of seemingly contrary forces, such as suffering and love, is described in Chinese philosophy by the concept of yin yang.
The link between suffering (associated with the development of consciousness) and love is consistent with (a) the quantum mechanics-based theory of physicist Amit Goswami (1995)14 who reasoned that love and consciousness are the fundamental ground structure of the universe and (b) the review (Fenwick, 2004)5 of research on NDEs which found that “love and light are fundamental to the dying experience” (p. 6). Further, the connection between suffering and love supports the view common in both Eastern and Western religions that love is the ‘ground state’ or essential foundation of the entire universe, e.g 1 John 4:16 (“God is love”), 1 John 1:5 (“God is light”) and 1 Corinthians 13:2 (“If I have . . . but have not love, I am nothing”).15 Moreover, it is well established in psychological research that nurturance (love) within interpersonal relationships is a powerful therapeutic force. Such findings endorse the view of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1997):16 “The only thing I know that truly heals people is unconditional love” (p. 15).
We suffer together
Subatomic particles are able to communicate with each other instantly regardless of the distance separating them, whether they are 10 feet or 10 billion miles apart. This is because at a deeper level of reality such particles are not individual entities, but are actually extensions of the same fundamental something.3 This implies that the electrons in a carbon atom in the human brain are connected to the subatomic particles that comprise every salmon that swims, every heart that beats, and every star that shimmers in the sky.3 The suffering of a particular individual is therefore inseparable from all other instances of consciousness and cosmic consciousness as a whole.
2. Bekenstein, J. D. (2003). Information in the holographic universe. Scientific American (August).
3. Talbot, M. (1991). The holographic universe. Harper Collins.
4. Goswami, A. (2001). The quantum book of living, dying, reincarnation and immortality. Hampton Roads Publishing.
6. van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358 (15 Dec), 2039-45.
7. The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II (1984). On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. Apostolic letter, (11 Feb).
8. László, E. (2009). Science and the akashic field: An integral theory of everything. The Great Rethinking: Oxford.
9. László, E. (2009). The old and the new concept of a self-renewing universe.
10. Salles, C. A. (1994). Artistic creation as a semiotic process: The esthetic lure of final causes. Semiotica, 102 (3-4), 225-236.
11. Storr, A. (1988). Solitude. Flamingo.
12. Hoisington, W. D. (2010). A Theory of Compassion Development.
13. Gilbert, D. T., Fiske, S. T., & Lindzey, G. (1998). The handbook of social psychology, 1, 4th ed.
14. Goswami, A., Reed, R. E., & Goswami, M. (1995). The self-aware universe: How consciousness creates the material world. New York, NY: Tarcher.
16. Kübler-Ross, E. (1997). The Wheel of Life…A Memoir of Living and Dying. New York, NY: Touchstone Press.