The Science of “Why We Suffer”

I am sitting on my zafu. My legs are crossed Burmese style, because my body does not yet understand that I would be more comfortable if my hips could turn into a lotus position. The aches are starting to set in, and my meditation is starting to shift from concentrating on the breath to the pain in my knees.

At this point of my meditation retreat, the monk interrupts my attempted concentration to remind the practitioners, “All is impermanent. All is unsatisfactory. All this is soulless.”

That is when my mind— attempting to attach to nothing—attached! I felt truly embody the wisdom of impermanence. The idea of soullessness, in context, makes perfect sense me. But  the more I thought of the words the phrase “all is unsatisfactory” was pinging a little tin-like against my brain.

I know the Four Noble Truths;

There us dukkha (i.e. unsatisfactoriness).
The cause is from unwholesome craving and attachment.
There is a way to end dukkha.
That way is the Noble Eightfold Path.

What was sticking to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter was  the question“why dukkha?” I know what you are going to respond, “Sumitta, we have dukkha because we have unwholesome craving.” But that is my point. Why do we have craving? Not just the Buddhist answers of “ignorance.” That requires a fully evolved brain.

Why did we evolve into a being of craving? Why did we evolve into a being of emotionality? Why have we not evolve through Darwinist evolution into creatures beyond unwholesome craving? What is the scientific explanation of “why we suffer?”


In 1924, scientist Alexander Oparin proposed the “Primordial Soup” theory: that life started as a mix of oils and water creating amino acids in coacervate droplets. Processing energy through fusion, light and chemical reactions this “life” was the first created. It was unique in its ability to grow and reproduce.

The definition of “life” by Harvard professor Andy Knoll is “a system in which proteins and nucleic acids interact in ways that allows the structure to grow and reproduce. It is that growth and reproduction, the ability to make more of yourself, that’s important.”

The very nature of life is about absorption of energy. The very nature of life requires craving to survive.


As life evolves, whether by design or random natural selection, its needs become more complex. Plants require specific elements and light to grow. They evolve in appearance attracting insects and animals to spread their seeds and pollinate.

The animal kingdom develops brains that can reason to varied degrees. Some develop a sense of self-awareness: it is assumed that homo sapiens are a part of that category (but there are those I know who challenge that theory).

One evolutionary aspect of homo sapiens are their emotional complexity. Hormones are regulated in the body to best interact with the environmental situation. This is called pathophysiology. When the body and mind can manage the system successfully, the body is calm and in a state of homeostasis. When the body and mind are presented challenges and difficulty, the homeostasis no longer exists and a state of stress exists.

Like all living creatures, human being need to continually feed their body and are compelled biologically to feel the urge to reproduce. These two cravings alone continually put the body in a state of stress on some level. It also creates a mind that is always craving to some degree.

The mind also creates mechanisms to maximize survival and minimize stress. One of these superordinate systems is called emotions. The emotion is a psycho-physical process directing perception, attention, memory, motivation, the sympathetic nervous system, etc. The system programs are set and put in place to allow for greater survival, because each environmental situation requires a different skill set.


Most Buddhists use the terms “Hate, Greed and Delusion” to represent the three major poisons that hinder us from dealing mindfully with the world. I believe it would be more accurate to categorize the poisons by their actions “aversion, craving and ignorance”

The three poisons are our emotional states. They are actually, neither good or bad. The body/mind needs our emotional superordinate systems to survive, but when applied with ignorance our emotions exacerbate our unsatisfactory natural suffering.

For example: When a caveman comes across a saber tooth tiger, he only has moments to react. His mind triggers fear processes. Blood rushes to the legs. The world seems to move in slow motion as he mind races. His memory instantly starts recording every environmental factor so as to prevent entering a similar situation in the future. His adrenaline rushes and heart races.

Fear is the program that will create the actions that will save the caveman’s life—AVOID THE SABERTOOTH!

In the office, an office clerk sees one of his bosses, who he knows is always abusive to him. He only has moments to react. His mind triggers all the same emotional responses. He ducks into the bathroom until the coast is clear.

Fear is the program that created the actions that avoided his boss, but he is now constantly under fear and stress. He is unhappy with his job. He should have dealt with his situation and not avoided his boss. His fear did not save him, it exacerbated his suffering.

Knowing when fear is appropriate requires mindfulness. The awakened nature of a Buddha sees clearly the appropriateness of action through unconditional friendliness (aka without prejudice), compassion, sympathetic joy (aka without envy) and equanimity (aka without agenda).


At the end of my retreat my back hurt, my knees hurt, my mind was exhausted; and I was totally at peace. I struggled with monkey mind and discomfort. I learned that as my mind adapts to more advanced levels of meditation, my body is becoming less adaptive. My nature of suffering is forever changing.

The Buddha said, “I teach only two things: the understanding of suffering and the end of suffering.” He did not say “I teach happiness” or “I teach nirvana” or “I teach how to make life easy.”

The nature of suffering is the nature of all living phenomena that is born. A life requires absorption of resources to continue or it will wither and die. It is the unavoidable quality of the living.

As human beings, our minds and bodies have developed processes for our survival that when applied unmindfully and skillfully are useful and necessary. We will not end suffering by eliminating emotion. We will not end suffering without understanding why there is an unsatisfactory nature of life. We will not end suffering without the wisdom how we work mentally and physically instead of just spiritually.

Buddhism is a pragmatic faith and it requires practical application.

How do we end suffering? Certainly through our Buddhist study and meditation—but these are just tools that must be taken and applied to our daily lives with all the tools available to us: including science.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Four Noble Truths, Lifestyle, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Theravada


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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