When I suggest to clients that our pets don’t suffer, I usually get a wide range of reactions. It might be a subtle, confused look or a blatant, “Excuse me. My pet is certainly suffering.” It all comes down to a simple misunderstanding.
A while back, I wrote a blog about grieving and explained how we can look objectively at the topic and get a better understanding as to why and how it happens. With basic understanding of any topic, it makes it easier for us to deal with it. Suffering is no exception.
Even the Buddha said that life is suffering. But, he also said that the root of suffering is attachment and another quote stated that pain is inevitable and suffering is optional.
No person in their right mind wants their pet to suffer and I have found that to be a major consideration for my clients when dealing with their senior pets with chronic or life-ending diseases. But, we need to understand what suffering really is and why it is impossible for our pets to suffer. Yes, I wrote impossible.
The word suffer, like all words, is a conceptual idea. All conceptual ideas, at best, can only point us in a certain direction and get us in the ball park. Conceptual ideas, words, etc. were never meant to be exact or certainly not the Truth. When Donald Trump ran for president, someone came up with a brilliant conceptual idea that probably was a major factor for his winning the election. His phrase was Making America Great Again. The word great, is certainly conceptual. Imagine what great meant to every person who read that slogan. It might range from wealthy, independent, strong, isolation to peaceful, giving, unification and much more. People used the word to construct an idea that was completely relative to their beliefs and desires.
Many people, as well as dictionaries, equate suffering with pain. As in, my dog suffers with pain. It is easier for the mind to relate to this instead of saying, “My dog is paining.” Because we have conditioned ourselves to equate pain and suffering to be the same, we forget that just looking at the phrase suggests that suffering is separate from pain. And, it is.
Pain is another concept. When we have a low back that hurts each time we get out of bed, we say, “I have back pain.” Pain from this perspective is physical and this is readily acceptable. When we say that we are having emotional pain, this is different. Emotional discomfort might be considered painful, but it is actually best described as suffering. Essentially, the best way to separate the two conceptual ideas is to say that pain is physical and suffering is mental. This gets us about as close to understanding the difference between the two as possible.
Let’s look at some examples. Your senior dog struggles a bit to get up in the morning and for a while, walks around with obvious stiffness. He is likely in pain. Or, he is paining. You, however, wake up in the morning with the same paining, but you might attach a mental story to the paining. You might say to yourself or to someone else, “I am really painful this morning and that will likely mean that I won’t be able to go canoeing with my friend. I have been looking forward to today for a long time. This is what always happens when I make plans to do something fun.” Now, you have created suffering. Pain and suffering comes together when there is physical pain and a story attached to the pain that causes mental suffering. This is what the Buddha meant when he said, “All life is suffering.” He meant that we create a story in our minds about our lives that most of the time creates persistent suffering. This is also why he said that suffering is optional. You can choose whether you want to create a story about your pain.
People, unlike our pets, have a developed forebrain that enables us to be aware of what we are doing. Basically, we are watching our actions and we are continually evaluating that action. That little voice in your head that seems to never stop is constantly criticizing everything that happens in your life. Unfortunately, the voice is focused on what it believes should or should not be happening in the moment. So, when you get up in the morning and your back is paining, it is that little ego-voice that jumps in and tells you should not be in pain and the the pain is going to ruin your day. The ego-voice is the source of your suffering. It has nothing to do directly with the pain.
My friend Byron Katie is famous for saying, “Obviously, it should be happening because it is happening.” The suffering occurs when the ego-mind convinces us that life should be doing something differently than it is.
Out pets do not have a developed forebrain, nor a little, nagging voice in their heads. It is apparently pretty quiet up there. This is how they can stay in the moment. They do not spend time listening to the ego-voice, convincing them that they did something wrong in the past and what they will need to do to keep it from happening in the future. What a blessing for them. They actually get to experience life in each moment. Paining might arise in the moment and there is a non-personal experience of the pain. No story, just paining. The next moment may have paining or not. There is no judgement, criticism. Just total acceptance of the brilliance of the moment.
I remember a while back when a gentleman came into my office with his sick dog. His old dog had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he came to me in hopes that a different approach might help. As he sat on the couch in my office, his old dog curled up next to me at my desk.
He proceeded to tell me that he was working with his regular vet, two specialist, including an oncologist and another alternative veterinarian. Wow, he obviously had a great team of professionals helping him out. But, I couldn’t understand why he came to see me. I asked him if I could have a couple of minutes of quiet time so that I might turn inside and see what happened. After a few minutes, it came to me that he was here for himself and not so much for his dog. He was doing a great deal of suffering because he was resisting what life was presenting him. He had created a story in his mind that his dog should not be dealing with cancer and that his dog’s cancer was causing a lot of suffering for his dog.
The fact was that his dog should have cancer because it did. Remember, all life is suffering. His dog had accepted this and even though occasional pain and discomfort arose in the moment, there was no mental story attached and no suffering. The only suffering was coming from the dog’s caretaker.
I tried to explain to him what was going on and I suddenly got a message from his dog. His dog said, “Tell Dad that he needs to wag his tail more. I am fine.” The minute I said this to the fellow, something in him allowed the moment to present itself, he connected with his dog at a deeper level (without the suffering) and he became enormously content. They joined together in the moment, allowing the cancer and found joy. They left without me ever examining his dog. He knew and I knew that the healing was in the understanding of suffering and the joy that can be found in the perfect present moment.