A Formula for Suffering (Part 1)

Metaphors come in all shapes and sizes, which is good, because different people resonate with different images or concepts. Sometimes, even mathematics can be helpful in exploring an idea. A prime example is using algebra to better understand the nature of suffering. As a starting point, we will use two formulas that are attributed to Shinzen Young and his Fundamental Theorem of Human Happiness:

(1) Suffering = Pain x Resistance
(2) Frustration = Pleasure x Grasping

The basic idea is that suffering results from resisting pain and grasping at pleasure. As resistance and grasping increase, suffering and frustration increase. As resistance and grasping approach zero, suffering and frustration approach zero. These ideas go back to the earliest teachings of the Buddha over 2300 years ago, especially his teaching on The Four Noble Truths.

In working with these formulas, I like to start with a few assumptions. First, I assume that frustration is a form of suffering. Second, I assume that pain represents any negative feeling (-Feeling), including both emotions and physical sensations, while pleasure represents any positive feeling (+Feeling). Finally, I assume that resistance and grasping are both forms of control. Resistance is control used to push something away, while grasping is control used to pull something in. Here are my assumptions in mathematical form:

(3) Frustration = Suffering
(4) Pain = -Feeling
(5) Pleasure = +Feeling
(6) Resistance = Control
(7) Grasping = Control

If we apply these assumptions to our original formulas, we get the following:

(8) Suffering = -Feeling x Control
(9) Suffering = +Feeling x Control

In other words, suffering comes from taking our positive or negative feelings and magnifying them through control (i.e. resistance or grasping). We can simplify these formulas by realizing that, regardless of whether feelings are positive or negative, the rest of the formulas are the same. Therefore, we can combine them into a single equation:

(10) Suffering = Feeling x Control

If we assume that feelings are an essential part of life, even the negative ones, then perhaps we can hold feelings as a constant. In other words, reducing feelings is not really an option, so if we wish to reduce suffering, we must focus on reducing the level of control.

The implications of this formula (10) are profound, because control is a widely accepted, even celebrated, approach to life. I’m not just talking about “control freaks”. I’m talking about anyone who resists or clings to certain feelings, and that includes just about all of us! If control actually produces suffering, then we must question its effectiveness as a coping strategy, no matter how popular.

The formula does offer a simple solution to suffering, which is to reduce control. Unfortunately, while this solution may be simple, it is far from easy. There may also be negative side-effects to reducing control. Letting go of control means reducing a coping mechanism for handling stress, and with fewer coping mechanisms, anxiety increases. Mathematically, we might say it this way:

(11) Anxiety = Stress / Coping

In this formula, the amount of anxiety is determined by the ratio of stress to coping. As coping goes down, anxiety goes up. If we assume that anxiety is yet another form of suffering, we get this:

(12) Suffering = Stress / Coping

So, by reducing control, which is also a form of coping, we reduce suffering in one way (10) but increase it in another (12). What is the net effect? I believe that humans are not very good at control, and as a result, control is not a very good coping mechanism. Therefore, the benefits of control (12) are limited. I also believe that control efforts cause a lot of damage, so the costs of control (10) are great. If my assumptions are accurate, then the net effect is that control causes more suffering than it prevents.

In A Formula for Suffering (Part 2), we will continue this exploration by considering the role of trust. We will also attempt to combine our equations into a single formula for understanding human suffering.