On Suffering (and How to Fit the Entire Human Race into a Single Sugar Cube)


I thought I deserved to suffer, but when I discovered the true purpose of suffering, it was transformational.

In my teenage into early adult years I felt like I deserved to suffer. I’m still not sure of all the ins and outs that caused those feelings but I would drink myself to the brink of death, complimented by excessive drug use, cutting, empty sex, horrible dietary habits and even a couple of suicide attempts for good measure.

In my endeavor to understand suffering and its root causes better, I came across a metaphor by spiritual teacher Ram Dass who wrote, “Suffering is the sandpaper of our incarnation. It does its work of shaping us.”

While at first glance that statement may sound simple enough, as I took it into my heart and truly contemplated what exactly it was saying, it began to profoundly affect me. Those simple words helped me to realize that even though I was still yet to understand the psychology of my past actions, that at the very least, maybe all of the suffering wasn’t for nothing.

I learned that I could use the mental and physical suffering that I still experienced as residuals from my old ways of living as a transformational tool. I began to face my past and the things I’d done. I opened myself up to the pain of those dark times—to exploring the uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and memories, rather than burying myself in the drugs, food and sex—and through those modest acts of bravery, I was able to transmute some of my pain and misery into compassion for both myself, and others. (*Please note that this work can be extremely heavy at times, so doing it with a therapist, mentor, spiritual advisor etc. is recommended whenever it begins to feel like too much.)

I also began to recognize that on a broader scale, suffering was rampant in so many people’s lives, yet for the most part it went unrecognized. The Buddha taught this in his four noble truths — the first of which says that existence is characterized by suffering. I mean, if you think about it, birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, not getting what we want is suffering, and often, even getting what we want turns into suffering via attachment and clinging.

There is grace to be found in this suffering however. Through opening my heart to the pain and beginning to work through it, I learned an even greater lesson — that I am so much more than this physical body called Chris Grosso and that everything I thought I knew about reality, wasn’t necessarily true.

Take for example this random fun fact — we are made up of atoms, which are 99.99999% empty space. So what that’s really saying is that if you were to squeeze the space out of all of the atoms of all the people in the world, the entire human race would fit into a sugar cube.1

You may however be saying, “great, but what am I supposed to do with that information?” Well, my point isn’t so much about the information itself as it is in the implications, which is that for many of us, we’ve been living a long time with our life’s paradigm on autopilot, and that autopilot applies to pretty much everything we experience — from our ingrained perception of reality to living with unnecessary suffering in our lives.

So basically, I’m trying to offer a gentle wake up call for those of us who find ourselves complacent in life, accepting these underlying low levels of stress, pain and suffering because they’re what we’ve come to know as familiar, and we believe familiar is safe.

Sometimes familiar is safe, but not when it comes to accepting unnecessary pain in our lives. For me, suffering has now become a calling card from, oh let’s say “the Universe”, and that calling card is an invitation to remember that I am much more than this physical body, the 99.99999% empty space I’ve strictly identified myself with for so many years, and in that recognition, there’s a lot of peace.

I mean, of course we are our physical bodies, but the awareness of our physical bodies in the first place (which is beyond the limits of our rational, thinking mind) offers us a place to experience life without taking things so personally. The dumb shit we did in our younger years, or hell, that we may have even done last week no longer needs to be a source of suffering for us. We learn from our mistakes, making amends with ourselves, and those we may have harmed, and we let it go.

The greatest gift we can offer ourselves, and others, is our own being, so why not make that the best being we possibly can?



1 – http://www.physics.org/featuredetail.asp?id=41

Photo credit: Flickr/Yogendra174

About Chris Grosso

About the Author: Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist (Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2014) and his new book, Everything Mind: What I’ve Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening, and the Mind-Blowing Truth of It All (Sounds True, October 2015). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Mantra Yoga & Health Magazine, and The Huffington Post, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, and more. A self-taught musician, Chris has been writing, recording, and touring since the mid-90s. Visit theindiespiritualist.com.


  1. While reading your article and Veronica’s comment, I am reminded of the book by Ernst Becker, “Denial of Death”, where he suggests that our ability to contemplate our mortality (suffering) drives us to create symbolic lives is a frenzied effort to avoid suffering and extinction. Becker believes that in order to reconcile the paradox of our existence, man has literally chosen to live in a symbolic world of madness to deny and repress the reality of our frail mortality. He sees that the two dimensions of human existence – the body and the self – can never be fully reconciled, creating an existential anxiety of almost maniacal intensity. “Much of both the good and evil that man has imagined for ourselves and the world are results of our struggle between our instincts and our evolution, and the toll of the pretense of our sanity as we try to deny our true condition.” We build civilizations, create religions, develop financial systems, write laws and legal procedures, and even wage wars to preserve our symbolic worldviews. We will even sacrifice our lives for symbolic illusions, because somehow it makes more sense to die for a “cause” than just a meaningless random extinction. The space between our atoms is filled with illusion, which, for most of us is of far grander proportion than our human presence. To come back to our bodies, our humble humanity, is our salvation as the Buddha said, but our entire civilization is built on the illusion of an escape hatch and there is much to undo.

  2. Veronica Grace says:

    I think our culture really feeds the idea that suffering is something that can be avoided. Which of course makes everyone not only try to get to the place of no suffering but also feel like they have failed or like someone else is getting something they want(no suffering).

    Thanks for this article. One more drop in the bucket out there to help people shift their perception of suffering.

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