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Levels of suffering

{written by : Ian Heath}

Article word count : 3407 -- Article Id : 1446
Article active date : 2009-01-21 -- Article views : 7962

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Article is about :
When a person is subjected to regular episodes of suffering and sorrow, then sooner or later he starts to ask himself "Why ?", "Why am I suffering ?" . When this questioning becomes serious and something that he cannot let go, then he begins the search for meaning in life.

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Power, Justice and Freedom each produces
its own kind of Suffering

The ideas in this article are a continuation of ideas in two previous articles. I begin with a review of some relevant ideas.

When a person is subjected to regular episodes of suffering and sorrow, then sooner or later he starts to ask himself "Why ?", "Why am I suffering ?" . When this questioning becomes serious and something that he cannot let go, then he begins the search for meaning in life.

The search for meaning is really the search for the source of one"s suffering, and it can lead to one of three possible destinations. There are three levels of meaning, and these correspond to the explorations of power, justice, and freedom.

First Level : Power

This level revolves around the pursuit of power, which everyone engages in, in one way or another (consciously or subconsciously). Power is pursued through the use of the loop of projection and introjection. Since everyone uses this loop, so everyone pursues power. When this pursuit is conscious, when the person knows that he wants power, then power generates an exhilarating buzz. The buzz is similar to that felt by driving a fast car, or a fast motorcycle, or being at the helm of a fast motorboat.

Power is the basis of one"s definition of oneself, of one"s sense of identity. At some time, however, the person will experience powerlessness. When this state happens regularly, the person"s sense of identity crumbles. As he struggles to survive psychologically, he embarks on the first stage of the search for meaning. He now seeks faith : it may be faith in god, or faith in a teacher, or even faith in himself. In lieu of a teacher, he may find faith in a religious tradition or the tradition of science. Once he finds faith, he acquires a new sense of power. (See article on Faith).

Second Level : Justice

At some point in life the person may realise that faith is not enough. Faith answers some questions, but not all questions. The person discovers that there are limitations to faith, since his suffering continues. Where is the justice in this state of affairs ? . Now the concept of justice may become more important than faith. If this happens then the search for meaning rises to the exploration of justice. Everyone engages in power, but not all people follow justice.

Third Level : Freedom

If the person has satisfied his search for justice, then the search for meaning comes to an end. Only when justice is denied to oneself can the search be continued to the third level. As the ideal of justice fades in importance, the person turns to the ideal of freedom. The pursuit of freedom is the final stage of the search for meaning in life.

Previously, the person may have understood intellectually that suffering cannot be avoided during an Earth life. Now he understands it from the depths of his being. The issue now is to learn to detach oneself from harbouring grudges and regrets. To go through suffering, without blaming anyone or oneself, and learn detachment from it. The person takes to solitude and may withdraw from social life for a time.

The final illusion to master is that solitude is only a necessary step in the overall process of self-discovery : it is not the end. The final step is to re-engage in social life whilst remaining detached from it. Or, as it has been traditionally put, to be in the world but not of the world.

This process of encountering three levels is a general one.
It applies to problems in any sphere of life where there is a psychological factor. For example, if the person"s focus is on politics, then the three levels are experienced as a political process. First the person may acquire faith in a political ideal or a political leader. Then he explores political justice, and finally ends in a concept of political freedom.

A person may have several serious problems, though not all active at the same time. Each problem produces its own influence on power, justice, and freedom. For example, he may have faith in a political leader, as well as faith in science. Within science, justice may relate to a concept of technological society – he may be enthusiastic about the possibilities of bionic appliances replacing diseased and painful body parts.

The person uses his concept of justice to explore the reasons for suffering. The reasons are many, but the single most important one is that suffering eventually forces the person to learn self-awareness. Self-awareness enables the person to learn how and why he relates to others (humans and animals), and the consequences of his actions on others. Self-awareness helps to dispel psychological ignorance and delusions about oneself. Thus self-awareness becomes the true foundation of ethics. And ethical theory becomes tied to psychology theory.

The new ideas in this article focus on the different levels of suffering.
Suffering varies not only according to intensity but also according to its level. There are three levels, corresponding to the three levels of power, justice and freedom.

When a deep psychological problem is created, it can be experienced on all three levels. To find a solution (or, if this is not possible, to successfully manage the problem) requires the person to examine the problem at each level. Why should a person do this ? . We need to understand that each of these levels produces its own theme of suffering, and each theme produces its own compensatory response.

First I note the central themes, and then I describe the responses.


I note the experiences and states of mind that occur when the person cannot access power, justice or freedom.

Level 1

When a person has no faith and no power, then life is uncertain and the person is likely to be a pessimist. This is bad enough, but life may get even worse. If life becomes bleak, then the person may give up, feel completely beaten by life, even feel trapped in circumstances and/or relationships which cannot be changed for the better. He may be functioning at the bottom of his social class. Hopelessness sets in.

The most important emotions to work with here are vanity and self-pity.
The way out lies in changing one"s beliefs.

The negative themes of this level are degradation and hopelessness.
The positive theme is belief.

Level 2

When a person has been subject to injustice, and there is no love in his life, then life seems to offer him no choices. He seems to be the subject of abuse and is victimised and humiliated, even betrayed and rejected. When one"s family, class, or society denigrates oneself, then one learns to hate it. As life gets harder, the person feels crushed. Life is experienced as a succession of punishments.

The most important emotions to work with here are love and hate.
The way out lies in the pursuit of goodness.

The negative themes of this level are denigration and punishment.
The positive theme is goodness.

Level 3

When a person has no freedom, then he may regularly experience failure in life. He feels that he is too dependent on others : dependency leads only to disappointments. He feels as though he is a puppet on a string, dancing to the tunes of other people. Life seems to have abandoned him, and so apathy sets in.

The most important emotions to work with here are fear and anger.
The way out lies in the pursuit of truth.

The negative themes of this level are desolation and abandonment.
The positive theme is truth.


There are three levels to a deep psychological problem. When a problem is intractable, it usually means that the levels have either not been clearly separated, or else have not been completely explored. For example, a person may be stuck at level 1, so that levels 2 and 3 are vague and unattainable. Or he may be stuck at level 2, or stuck at level 3. As he successfully negotiates each level, his sense of identity changes in tandem (ie, his core values and ideas of meaning will change).

Level 1 centres on the validation of negative experience.

Level 2 centres on the justification of negative experience.

Level 3 centres on the consolations of negative experience.

The process of experiencing all three levels should lead to the assimilation of the original problem. Either the problem is brought to closure or it becomes manageable.

I consider each of the responses in turn


All psychological problems start from the issue of validation.

When the person has power, he assigns positive valuations to his experiences : he interprets them as being varieties of happiness. Level 1 centres on the emotions of vanity and self-pity. His power comes from having a stable identity, which is founded on vanity. When, eventually, he succumbs to powerlessness, his emotional base changes to self-pity. He now finds that he is assigning negative valuations to his experiences – he interprets them as being varieties of sorrow. He cannot think of his experiences as positive ones since he has become subject to degradation and hopelessness. His sense of identity is crumbling.

He searches for someone or something that can enable him to verify that his ideas, his hopes, his aims are sound and acceptable. He is searching for a support, for something that can validate his experiences. He needs to believe that his experiences are authentic (for him), that is, that they are steps on the path to self-growth and empowerment. This way he can re-evaluate them and assign them positive value. This is what faith does. Faith re-orientates his beliefs and shows him that sorrowful experiences can have positive value. Faith validates his states of mind.

Validation means accepting that a person"s belief systems have positive value for that person. Validation is not concerned with truth but with the authenticity of experience.

To climb out of the negativity of this level, the person pursues beliefs and acquires faith. The pursuit of belief counteracts degradation and hopelessness.

Even outside the issue of faith, validation is a serious problem for many people.

For example :

Mental health. A person may see a psychologist or a psychiatrist for treatment. If the person"s attempt to understand his problems are dismissed or belittled by the therapist, then the person"s beliefs are invalidated. Then psychological therapy fails automatically.

Dreams. A psychologist may believe that dreams are nothing more than nervous discharges in the brain – the brain is discharging the day"s accumulated tensions. Whilst this view may be true of some dreams, to believe that it is true of all dreams invalidates the beliefs of others who use dreams for personal guidance.


Justification is the way that a person interprets his experiences in order to defend his beliefs and exonerate himself. It is the manner of upholding his code of ethics. Even if he has acted badly, he believes that he could not have done any better. He does the best that he can, even if sometimes his best leads to a calamity. That is, when disaster happens, he accepts that the disaster is of his making, but believes that he could not have acted otherwise without compromising his integrity.

The person adheres to an interpretation of justice that enables him to make sense of his sorrows, to make sense of why his life is the way that it is. If, for any reason, his interpretation of justice changes, then his sense of personal identity will also change in order to assimilate the change in his beliefs. (See article on Justification).

The difference between validation and justification is a reflection of the difference between science and religion. Science concerns the question "How ?" – "how does life function ?" . The description of reality is the prime concern. Validation is the painful counterpart to the question "How?" . Religion concerns the question "Why ?" – "Why does life exist ?" . The meaning of life is the prime concern. Justification is the painful counterpart to the question "Why ?"


Validation reflects psychological values.
It centres on the authenticity of experience.

Justification reflects existential meanings.
It centres on the interpretation of experience.

To climb out of the negativity of this level, the person pursues goodness and focuses on love. The pursuit of goodness counteracts denigration and punishment.


The person may experience failure sufficiently enough to sink into desolation. Life, or god, has abandoned him in his hour of need. He seeks consolations that will enable him to overcome his fears, and point him in the direction of freedom. In mysticism, "consolation" is the opposite state to "abandonment".

If desolation and abandonment are too severe, he may feel that something has died within him. He then rejects some traditional values and becomes a rebel, a non-conformist. He may achieve a new freedom. If he can handle desolation and abandonment sufficiently well, he remains a traditionalist and may achieve a traditional freedom.

If he is non-conformist, he will create a new definition of himself. His creativity arises from his struggles with the old order of things – the greater the opposition, the more he has to turn within himself, and so the new identity achieves greater depth. He focuses on the content of his struggle : the new ideas that are waiting to emerge. He embraces change. His new ideas become a source of inspiration for other people who want to welcome change and modernity.

If he is a traditionalist, he reinforces his old definition of himself. He focuses on the process of his struggle (his rituals and "trials"). He does not change much ; instead, his old ideas become a source of inspiration for other people who want to stay within stability and tradition.

To climb out of the negativity of this level, the person pursues truth and learns detachment from his fears. The pursuit of truth counteracts desolation and abandonment.

For example :
the severe desolation of World War I eventually led to the creation of new values, new freedoms, in western society – such as transgressing the old boundaries of art, architecture and music (the new values disturbed many people), innovation in entertainment, a downward shift in the age of acquiring responsibility (leading politicians and army generals achieved power at younger ages), etc. These were the consolations for the despair, fear and bitterness of the war.

Moving from Level 1 to Level 2

It is always sorrow that changes the character of a person, never happiness. But how he changes depends on his ideals. Ideals catalyse change. The most important ideal that anchors him to either level 1 or level 2 is how he interprets justice. So long as he sees justice as revenge, then he stays at level 1. "Revenge" is a level 1 concept. However, eventually the stresses and resentments that afflict him, because he holds on to revenge, become too wearying. He learns to prefer equity or fairness, since it facilitates the practice of forgiveness and helps to dispel his resentments. "Fairness" is a level 2 concept.

Sorrow plus the change in the concept of justice are the catalysts that move him to level 2.

Moving from Level 2 to Level 3

As the person begins to focus on love, his sorrows begin to increase in their intensity. The major reason for this predicament is that love always increases the intensity of experience. The consequence of this change is that the intensity of the subconscious mind also increases, thereby increasing the intensity of abreaction as well.

The person fulfils his social duties. "Duty" is a level 2 concept. Over many lifetimes, duty becomes onerous and less romantic as his social conflicts increase in intensity. He begins to long for peace. "Peace" is a level 3 concept. The most important ideal that anchors him to either level 2 or level 3 is how he interprets freedom. So long as he interprets it to mean "freedom of choice", then he stays at level 2. Eventually, however, as peace increases its attraction to him, "Freedom" comes to mean "freedom from stress and mental conflict". The world has become an unsafe world for him, and so his fears increase. Then the desire for detachment arises, and level 3 appears on the horizon.

Sorrow plus the change in the concept of freedom are the catalysts that move the person to level 3.

Another View

This process of changing from level 2 to level 3 can be considered in another way. It is most acutely felt when the person is exploring spirituality. By the time that he is developing spiritual awareness, he finds that his spiritual problems tend to be greater than all other problems. The reason for this situation is that love increases the intensity of joys and also the intensity of sorrows.

When the person experiences sorrow, he has two choices :

a). Either he can seek support within relationships and the community.

b). Or he can turn within himself and become independent and solitary.

The result of choice (b) is circular and progressive, in terms of increasing the intensity of psychological effects. As he begins to desire solitude, the process of abreaction begins to increases in intensity, since it is no longer softened by receiving regular social support. This increase in intensity of abreaction leads to an increase in the desire for solitude. Solitude and abreaction increase in tandem with one another. So the allure of the solitary life progressively entrances him.

As the person gradually detaches himself from social obligations, the practice of goodness is no longer his major concern. Instead, he begins to follow the path of truth. This change causes more problems and more confusion. The separation from social norms is never complete. The more he becomes solitary, the more he can experience intense loneliness. Hence the seeker follows truth yet yearns for social relationships that may ease his sorrows. He oscillates dialectically between truth and companionship as he follows his unique path through life.

Goodness has to be practised in the community,
but truth is followed in solitude.

A person stays at level 2 so long as life is felt to be exciting. It is exciting to have choice and exercise free will. At first, the sorrows of life are merely unpleasant incidents within the passion for existence. Eventually, in some lifetime, the excitement fades. Excitement ceases to be glamorous, since it can no longer mask the sorrows of life. Bitterness has become too powerful. Then detachment to excitement is born, and begins its long, slow growth over many lifetimes, a growth that will eventually propel the person to level 3.

The pursuit of belief explores what is authentic.

The pursuit of goodness explores what is just.

The pursuit of truth explores what is real.

Note on Karmic Influences

The format of psychological problems can be described under the theme of form and content. The form is the particular type of belief or attitude that is generating confusion or conflict. The content is the number of actual occurrences of this problem in a person"s life.

A psycho-analysis, if deep enough, can eliminate all the anxieties and guilt that have arisen from the content of a problem, but the psycho-analysis cannot eliminate the form. The form is karmic, and has developed over many lifetimes. A person reincarnates with the form of his problems but not with any content to them.

For example :
a person may have a negative attitude to external sources of authority. He can accept authority that is exercised harmoniously, but bristles when he comes up against abrasive authority. This is the form of the problem. As life goes by, he will come into conflict with external authorities, perhaps many times – this is the content. When he goes into a psycho-analysis, the effects of the actual occasions of conflict can be dissipated. But he will leave therapy still possessing a negative attitude to authority. The form of the problem has to be handled by other means.

Psycho-analysis cannot remove the form of a problem, only the content. Why is this ?

All psychological problems start from the issue of validation. In karmic problems, there is no way of re-visiting the original experiences, and so there is no way of validating those experiences. Hence there is no way of closing the issue of justification. And so assimilation cannot be brought to closure either. The person finds that karmic problems can produce their corresponding psychological phantasies numerous times ; the problems may even repeat a seemingly-endless number of times within a lifetime. Management of such problems is the goal : detachment becomes the aim, rather than a solution.

Author Bio :
Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.

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