Why do we suffer?

I’m going for yet another deep (if relatively brief) dive on the question of suffering. The natural orientation of the Universe towards dissolution and decay or disorder is precisely the reason why we have life, sentience, experience and intelligence – the entropy of material dissolution is a precondition for the structural aggregation and compression of complexity, of life into, through and as the living systems we embody and inhabit. It is also precisely why we suffer – an embodied memory and experience of dissolution is always oriented towards the persistence presence, maintenance and management or emotional negotiation of symbolic and material disassembly, uncertainty and insecurity. There are ways in which this can be temporarily negotiated with relative success but if you have noticed – melancholy emotion and a sense of sadness seems quite bound to return, no matter what we do. Life is, as the Buddha most saliently and succinctly observed, nothing if it is not suffering.

I interpret this situation through a filter of logic, physics and an intricately non-linear dance of information and energy in and as the complex systems we inhabit (and that also, it must always be said, inhabit us). There are senses in which whatever success any one of us has in dealing with the omnipresent chaos and dissolution of material (as much as psychological) reality, we only ever complicate life and the world even more by inadvertently amplifying or otherwise multiplying the total possible entropy and degrees of freedom of a system that finds ever more ways to fall apart than to recompose itself; there are always more snakes than ladders in this game.

Happiness as an emotional state is very much transient and tends (and, it must be said, not entirely coincidentally – like money) to hemorrhage away as rapidly as we might acquire it; a concentration in one place is only ever at the cost of a diffusion elsewhere. We fundamentally and foundationally misunderstand our existential situation and while it is a pithy phrase to suggest (as I serially do) that “freedom is not of self but is from self”, even under this view we still tend to reflexively conceive or frame happiness and freedom where and when it does occur as a very intimate and personal possession, as an owned thing.

A question worth asking in any conversation of suffering is as of the ways in which fear, anger and their necessary corollary of suffering are quite naturally produced as components of gestalt (global or world, physical or material as much as symbolic) information system feedback loops in or as this world. These things are unfortunate and hardly an obligation or useful burden for any person (or civilisation) seeking happiness, freedom or sustainable growth but the persistence of a negative emotional quality in or as an intrinsic or implicit potential in our environment and psychological experience tells us as much about that environment as it does about ourselves.

What is it about the structure and adaptive flow of autonomously self-propagating information and energy-processing systems (i.e. the world) that relentlessly generates destructive, diffusive or frictive inertia? It is quite probable that we do not (and perhaps never will) fully understand the nature and metamorphosis of the distributed social and information networks we inhabit and that, equally, inhabit us. Reflexive psychological aspirations to closure and control tend to generate fear as a property of isolated, individuated and alienated subjectivity. Notice also that nationalism and xenophobia represent an exceptional edge case of collective pathology in precisely this way: a psychological and associated cultural or ideological dependence on borders and difference or notional distance only ever truly serves to recreate and aspirationally self-validate the existence of those borders and difference – it is a hollow (and haunted) recursive equivocation, a tragic tautology.

It is not the individual that is necessarily or inevitably driven to live in fear or unhappiness, anger or suffering. It is the kind of individuals that this global information system, this world, optimally self-propagates through that suffer. The world we have made has been quite accidentally refined to reproduce precisely the kinds of unhappiness that optimally self-propagate and recreate existing information and energy-processing patterns as the recursively self-generating complexity of the world itself. This is nobody’s fault – it is the natural orientation of a (human) world endemically oriented towards disassembly to seek ways in which to generate order from that disorder – even as a recreation of the decay itself.

Like a Möbius strip – this is all folded back upon and through itself in one continuous and unbroken loop and to be quite honest, it is in this twist and globally-distributed discontinuity that we should seek our individual freedom as much as that of the world we share. This is in many ways a rhetorical question, an entity without an opposite and because it is, quite simply, its own opposite. We can observe here that it is also something that can never be fully explained in a language and cognitive grammar that is always oriented to and enervated by the possibility and presence of difference and antithesis, just as is the Self that language produces and through which information and logical structure (as language) endlessly recreates itself.

So, we suffer but the place where we are most likely to find the freedom from this is counter-intuitively located in the suffering itself. This is a subtle wisdom that I doubt our world is perhaps ever going to be ready to hear and most certainly will not be particularly keen to listen to.

Why do we suffer? Because we must, because we exist.

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