In my experience and observation the most tragic and insidious of all addictions is the addiction to suffering. The clinical definition of addiction is “compulsive repetition of a known behavior with adverse consequences.” In other words addiction is repeatedly engaging in actions that knowingly cause adverse results. There are two persistent issues connected with addictions, (1) what is causing the addiction and (2) how do we stop it?
The reason I believe the addiction to suffering is the most tragic is because many people do not even know they are addicted to it. They live their lives of silent misery oftentimes believing that is how life should be. Many religions promote suffering as necessary and a part of life. The most ironic of all ironies is that the one thing we all have in common is that we all want to be happy. Yet we all suffer from this addiction to be miserable. The lucky ones are the ones that realize that suffering is optional and they do something about it.
Suffering sometimes is difficult to identify. Oftentimes we experience periods of time when we are not in crisis mode and we are getting what we want. We think that we are happy. In fact, what we are experiencing is low-grade anxiety, not happiness. Happiness has nothing to do with getting what we want. The feeling that we experience when we get what we want is pleasure, not happiness. When we are experiencing pleasure, there is always the underlying fear that it will not last and we experience constant stress. In fact, suffering always follows pleasure. It is part of life.
It would appear that the addiction to suffering begins at an early age, when we learn that we can get our parents’ attention and the attention of loved ones when we engage in forbidden or negative behavior. This is known as “negative attention”. When we are “good”, and follow the rules laid down by the authority figures in our lives, we only get occasional attention. We quickly learn that we can get attention by breaking the rules, defying our parents, and engaging in anti-social behavior. It seems that most people believe that they can only get attention by being the best at something or being a pest. It doesn’t matter that engaging in behavior that results in punishment actually is painful, it does have the desired effect, and people pay attention to us.
Ironically, many times we are not aware we are engaging in this type of behavior. We mistakenly label life as unfair and ourselves victims, when we have created the behavior that has the adverse consequences. Then we suffer, stop making any effort to take responsibility for our actions and become drama kings and queens. Think of the people in our lives that live with the most melodrama, the most adverse consequences, and often view themselves as the ultimate victims in an unfair world. Both the behavior and the complaining about the adverse consequences are subconsciously calculated to get attention.
Many times this addiction is underlying a more visible addiction, substance abuse, sexual abuse, or criminal behavior. When society has had enough of this behavior, it simply locks these people away with others with similar addictions. We can attempt to recover from these superficial addictions, but end up miserable and self-defeating because we are not aware of the underlying addiction to suffering. AA has a saying, sober up a horse thief and you have a horse thief. You do not become happy by becoming sober. This is why so many people relapse.
So how does one recover from this addiction? As with other addictions, the first step is awareness and taking responsibility for what we do. When we admit to ourselves that we are unhappy and want to change, that is half the battle. We have to stop lying to ourselves and saying that we are happy when we are not. The suffering only increases when we lie to others and ourselves. We have to identify the cause of our suffering, which is our thinking. When we are completely honest and admit that it is our thinking that is causing our suffering, not outside circumstances, and then we have a chance of becoming happy.
You cannot stop thinking. That is humanly impossible. The only solution is to realize that our thinking is not who we are. In other words, we are not our thoughts. Our thoughts are the byproduct of millions of electrical biochemical events every second in our brain. Awareness is not thinking. We can be aware of our thoughts if we detach from them and realize that they are not real. So the addiction to suffering can also be described as the addiction to thinking.
In order to recover from this addiction — the addiction to thinking — we have to let go of our attachment to thinking. Thinking actually is good; it is what gets us dressed in the morning, accomplishes goals, life in society and helps us survive in this physical dimension. However, we have to recognize the difference between “I” as a self-aware life force and “I” as a collection of thoughts. The former is naturally happy; the latter suffers. The more we focus on the former, the happier we are. The more we fall into the trap of believing that we are our thoughts, the more we suffer.
Instead of believing our thoughts, we can look at the sunset, we can observe what is going on around us without thought or opinion, we can enjoy just “being.” Since we are human beings, we are going to lower ourselves into the hell of thinking from time to time, but it doesn’t have to be all of the time. If we remember that thinking is an addiction which causes suffering, perhaps we won’t do it so much and enjoy life more.
By James Robinson