Episode 1: The Pseudo-Problem of Suffering

In the inaugural episode of the Open Secret Podcast, Sashank Aryal and Alan Yan explore the problem of human suffering and why they believe it is a pseudo-problem. They distinguish pain from suffering, the role of concepts in processing our lived experience, and what it means to see reality as it really is.

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Alan’s poem, The Sand and The Sun

Episode transcript:

Behind a face with pensive eyes, with the Sand shifting boundlessly beneath my feet and the Sun bursting overhead into an infinity of pomegranate seeds, I am thrust again into that eternally recurring moment, when I am reminded of the lesson I have had to learn time and time again. It is that moment when I feel that neither the Sand nor the Sun can sense that quiet desperation deep inside my heart. A dreaded despondency, a harrowing meaninglessness, a suffocating separation from the contents of my consciousness; no matter the nature of that quiet desperation, this moment always burns away with the same realization: that what my heart desires is too small for it, that there is enough space in every human heart for both the Sand and the Sun.

This was a prose poem I wrote recently when I was feeling a bit low about a few things that happened in my life, you know, when things didn’t go quite as I expected; I thought I captured the recurring nature of the feeling of suffering, you know, and how the things that cause me to suffer are often quite trivial in comparison with the totality of all things – grand things like the rising sun or the sand on the beach.

Hello, this is Sashank, and I’m Alan, and you’re listening to the Open Secret Podcast, brought to you by Psyche Lab Studios. Studios.

In this podcast, we meditate on questions that we as self-conscious beings helplessly find ourselves asking. These are questions which we nevertheless feel we’ve come across satisfying answers to, or rather often we find ourselves dissolving the questions altogether.

Most of our thoughts and realizations have come through our own intellectual or phenomenological explorations, but as Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “Truth is a pathless land”, and by that he meant that truth can only be realized first personally through one’s own self-understanding.

So as we alluded to in Alan’s intro poem, we’ll be talking about the perennial problem of suffering, and most importantly, why we believe it’s a pseudo-problem borne out of failure to see the world as it really is.

So a few words stick out in what you’ve just said Sashank – the word “suffering” obviously, our main topic, and just clarifying what the difference between suffering and pain is, and are there different types of suffering, like is there physical suffering, and psychological suffering, and how do those relate to the word “pain”. And my second question is, what does it mean to see the world as it really is?

So let’s go into the first question Alan, that of the difference between pain and suffering. I think suffering is manifested when an associated is made between the raw sensation and an unchanging self, or the sufferer.

So what you’re saying is that, the sensation, the raw sensation, of pain in my knee is undeniable and a fact, but any sort of thoughts after the fact, where I attribute this pain to this, you know, I’m this person that always experiences knee pain, why am I like this, uh, in the future I’m always gonna have this condition, any of these thoughts after the fact about the sensation themselves, these are what you’d cluster as “suffering”.

Yeah, quite so, Alan. It actually reminds me of the metaphor of when birds try to get through glass windows, and from a third-person perspective, it looks like something really absurd, and you can assume that smashing your body against a glass window is particularly painful, but assuming that the bird lacks any reflective capacity, I’d say that it doesn’t suffer.

So it’s mainly this reflective capacity, this sort of conceptualization, that we’re about to do as humans, that, you know, we can conceive of states that are alternative to our current state, that, you know, we might perceive as better, and this sort of capacity is what makes us liable to this suffering. And moreover, the fact that this concept that you call suffering sort of requires a dualistic conception between, you know, a sufferer – who is suffering from some condition, they emerge at the same time, is that correct?

I think that’s what Lao Tzu meant in Tao Te Ching when he said, “When there’s this, then there’s that”; or when the Buddhists talk about dependent origination, “When this ceases to exist, that ceases to exist”. 

Yeah, that’s a great point. Dependent origination is something that we should definitely go into more; maybe we even should do an episode on Taoism or something. But dependent origination also reminds me of this section from Nietzsche’s first part of Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” called “On the prejudices of philosophers”. I’ll just read it because it’s so beautiful – 

“How could anything originate out of its opposite? for example, truth out of error? or the will to truth out of the will to deception? or selfless deeds out of selfishness? or the pure and sunlike gaze of the sage out of lust? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, indeed worse; the things of highest value must have another, peculiar origin – they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, paltry world from this turmoil of delusion and lust. Rather from the lap of Being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself’ – there must be their basis, and nowhere else.” This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudgment and prejudice which give away the metaphysicians of all ages; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this “faith” that they trouble themselves about “knowledge,” about something that is finally baptized solemnly as “the truth.” The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values.

That’s basically Nietzsche looking at philosophers before him and criticizing the way they’ve kind of bounded the conversation, uh, with these opposites.

I like how he makes a fool out of the metaphysicians with his usual polemic sensibility, and I also like that in his writing, there is a distinct tone which sounds like an injunction for an emerging species of philosophers who are more willing to engage with the ramifications of embracing the groundlessness of opposites.

Yeah, it seems like people presuppose one end of the spectrum – say evil, and, you know, from there, they justify their good, and that’s the general thesis of Nietzsche’s critique here.

And of course the irony is not lost here that Nietzsche is using language and concepts to point out the inadequacies of language and concepts, and we’ve seen this time and again in Zen, and in Advaita, and we’ve seen this in Taoism. Yeah.

Yeah, definitely.

So these concepts, they can, seems like there is some right amount of conceptualization, uh, that one could do that kind of sits outside of this suffering. So when I’ve a pain in my knee, I should probably go get it checked out to resolve the pain, and that kind of conceptualization is necessary for the progression of… uh, you know for the well-being of my knee in this case.

It definitely has some pragmatic meaning and communicative power, and oftentimes is a pretty good substitute for human experience. 

The word “substitute” you used there reminds me of the quote by Alfred Korzybski which is “The map is not the territory,” and what I think he meant by that was any sort of concepts that kind of map to, in this case, reality are not real in any sense; they’re just useful pointers and directional layers that kind of help us make sense of it, but in the end they’re not truly real, if you will.

So I guess we can safely conclude that while concepts are useful, the ontological weight that we assign to them is something we’ve to be careful of.

So seeing the world as it really is necessitates that meta-understanding of the significance of these concepts, like in the end they’re only concepts and they’re only useful pointers so that we can, you know, get what needs to be done, or fix our knee pain, or whatever it might be, but anything beyond that is what we clustered before in this episode as suffering.

Yeah, it’s also important to remember that having a mere intellectual appreciation of the futility of concepts is not enough to see the world as it really is. It requires the quieting down of your mind, and a careful listening of our embodied experiences. Now you can get there by meditation, or perhaps even a psychedelic experience, but one thing I think for certain is that this realization doesn’t afford itself to a conceptual knife alone.

Yeah, that’s a great point Sashank, and I think it’s a good stopping point for this podcast. I think we’ve done a pretty good tour of the pseudo-problem of suffering, and I know we left a loose-threads out there, Daoism… but these are all topics we can cover in future episodes.

I’m looking forward to our future episodes.

So basically the Open Secret podcast will be us finding all your problems, and calling them “pseudo.”

Until next time.

Yeah, thank you for listening.