Suffering is a Path, not a Pathology

Recently I gave a keynote presentation on Finding Compassionate Care at the 19th International Conference on Palliative Care in Dublin.  A key message I wished to communicate was that a clear distinction needs to be made between pain and suffering.  A second message was that in order to truly and fully understand human suffering we need to respond to it symbolically, rather than literally.  Literal interpretations do little to resolve human suffering and typically block the emergence of more creative possibilities to resolving it.

Pain is physiological and, most often, though not always, pathological, whereas suffering is psycho-spiritual, for it inevitably attempts to draw attention to a life unlived, to buried hurts and hidden vulnerabilities and to the presence of powerful protective forces against further emotional and social lessening of one’s presence.  Suffering can also be spiritual because it invites us to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are.  In my seven years in an enclosed Catholic monastery and several times over my lifetime to date I frequently endured “the dark night of the soul” where a deeper meaning to our human existence eluded me.  At this moment in time I feel much closer to the mystery of who we really are.

When physical pain is present it needs to be alleviated whenever possible, for pain can erode the person’s aliveness and energy.  Medication is a very powerful force for relieving pain.  Sometimes when suffering is alleviated, pain can disappear.  There is no greater suffering than psychological and spiritual despair, such that individuals in such dire distress may physically cut themselves to gain relief from that overwhelmingly sad emotional state.

No matter how suffering manifests itself – emotionally, socially, behaviourally, physically, spiritually – its purpose is to enlarge a person’s sense of self and to find the meaning of our being here in the first place.  As far as we know, what particularly distinguishes our species from others is that we alone suffer and endure the need and search for meaning.   Responses to suffering are formed at an unconscious level and because the language of the unconscious is symbolical – the only universal language – as pointed out above – we need to approach both psychological and spiritual suffering with the tools of metaphor and symbol.  For example,  being socially anxious may symbolically represent being isolated from one’s own inner self; being fearful of public speaking may metaphorically mean not having a voice of one’s own due to childhood experiences of ‘being seen and not heard’ and lacking any ambition may symbolically represent a total disconnection from one’s unique aliveness and individuality.  Each person’s signs of suffering are different and there are as many answers as there are people.

Rather than understanding suffering through symbol and metaphor, there has been a relentless search for physical causes or signs of suffering that are taken literally and which have limited our access to the depth, creativity and spirituality of our nature.   This is evident in most modern psychotherapy, in cognitive-behavioural modification, neurolinguistic programming and pharmacology – all useful approaches, but by themselves superficial and unintentionally devaluing of our deepest being.  We have been called the “Prozac Nation” due to our belief that relief from suffering and happiness can be found in some sort of pill.  Indeed, there is now a pill for every ill and for every thrill!  However, such reliance on drugs has not healed inner hurts nor brought a spiritual meaning to our lives.  What is especially worrying is that even though research suggests that the chemical properties of anti-depressants don’t work (Kirsch 2009)(what effects some change is the placebo effect – what I call the ‘hope’ response), most people still persist in seeking a chemical rather than a psycho-spiritual resolution to their suffering.  Sometimes anti-depressants or tranquilisers can reduce the symptoms of distress but cannot resolve the deeper emotional and spiritual issues that underlie it.

Depression is a suffering that many individuals experience.  Symbolically, depression is about what has been “pressed down” of our true nature and the fear or terror of allowing what is buried to come to consciousness.  Depression is created by the deep emotional self, the soul, to draw attention to the blocks to expression that exist and, at the same time, attract a substitute attention to one’s presence,  Without some attention, the self, necessarily plunges into despair and, metaphorically, wants to ‘disappear’ from the profound suffering of invisibility.

The therapeutic secret of depression is not found by suppressing it with biochemical agents, but by inquiring into its meaning.  This therapeutic approach is enlarging and when we encounter unconditional holding, non-judgement, compassion and patience, the soul will reveal what is hidden and offer a healing direction – as it does so often in our dreams.  In my own life and with many individuals I have accompanied on their inner journey, depression has been the blessing that provided the opportunity to become more conscious and to change our lives.

Reference: Kirsch, Irving (2009): The Emperor’s New Drugs, London, Bodley Head

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author and National and International Speaker. His book The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking is relevant to today’s column.