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Jeff Skolnick, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeff Skolnick M.D., P.h.D.

On the Benefits of Suffering

Deep Spiritual Lessons that Can be Hard to Hear

Everybody suffers

I just launched the SatoriWest LifeClub. Like nothing else around, it’s an online membership site that takes members on a journey to their highest selves. Based on Buddhist principles and practices reinterpreted as brain science, wellness and social psychology, we recently started off a new group of “HomeTeam” members. They just hit their second month of membership, which focuses on “the human condition”—in other words, the stress, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, anxiety, grief, frustration and suffering in general that comes just be being born with a human mind.

The LifeClub video which explained the “human condition” did a pretty good job of explaining what it is, why it is necessary to be aware of it and what is to be done about it. Here’s a recap. The emotional struggles of being human arise because our brains have the capability for self-awareness. Knowing-that-you-know awareness gives you the ability to be dissatisfied with your lot in life. It permits you to fantasize about an unattainable better life. And the piece de resistance of self-awareness, it tells you that you are going to die—a death sentence that looms larger the older you get. This speaks to why Buddha called this out in his First Noble Truth: Life is suffering (until you Awaken that is—the goal of LifeClub membership).

We are practiced like masters at distracting ourselves from our human condition, pushing it out of awareness and generally faking our feelings in public so no one can see them. The series of meditative-like brain skills we teach, called Inshifting, helps people use their negative emotions like fuel for their inner journey. The skill is to use the energy of your never-ending negative emotions and transfer it to the highest parts of your brain. In that way, your self-awareness can be used to help you experience how incomprehensibly rare and miraculous your existence is—each moment. That recognition forms the insight of Enlightenment, the realization of Awakening, the euphoria of Nirvana and the highest natural high and wellbeing you are capable of.

So that takes you through this second month’s video. However, the HomeTeam meeting generated a few important questions that took this topic to a deeper level. I’d like to share that understanding with you.

Here are some of the questions that generated my response:

  1. I’m a basically happy person. I’m not sure, does this human condition thing apply to me?
  2. Why would I want to dive into the roughest feelings I carry around? I’m happier when I distract myself. Hello?
  3. I thought that when you experience spiritual Awakening, you are happy and done with problems and negative feelings.
  4. What happens if I do nothing and just go on with life the way I’ve been going? I’m coping.

My answers can be summed up as these:

1. Yes, the human condition does not leave anyone alone—rich or poor, privileged or deprived, great upbringing or crappy childhood, we all suffer our minds. It is just that we are so masterful at denial or distraction. In the US at least, we run from weekend to weekend, vacation to vacation, drink to drink, shopping trip to shopping trip trying to find that perfect relief. Or we keep super busy or deal with or create urgencies that we have to deal with every second. In fact, a lot of stress happens just because we are running from deeper unhappiness. Does it affect you? Yeah, it does. Me too. Sorry.

2. What’s wrong with distraction? It doesn’t solve the problem. It just postpones it while it gets worse. Ask any alcoholic in recovery. Of course, I’m not saying not to go on vacations or enjoy your life when you can. I am saying that there is some basic work of self-development (brain development) that has to happen for you to really be happy and at peace.

3. I believe it is a misconception of Awakening that your problems go away. That you never experience negative emotions. I can see from reading all that I have read about the subject why people would get that impression. However, a closer reading of meditation masters and through my personal meditation of the last 33 years has told me a different story.

The trick is to transcend your mind, your ego, your problems. Transcendence has a lot to do with dwarfing them or seeing them in a different light or with a different perspective. Perspective is key. It is similar to see an annoying toddler as “just a little child” or an annoying co-worker as “a troubled soul.” Perspective requires that you activate your higher brain so that you can get perspective. Perspective gives empathy for yourself and others. It tells you—when you are drowning in the dread of getting older—how lucky you were to be born in the first place. It gives you gratitude and appreciation. It tells you, “this too shall pass.”

Powerful perspective, Enlightened perspective—a product of higher brain activation trumping the lower brain or mind—brings euphoria and inner peace even when your mind generates fear and sadness, etc.

4. You are going to be hit with tragedy, trauma, old age, sickness, loss and death one way or another. Are you ready for that? Inshifting your brain so that it permanently changes how it processes life prepares you for the hardships life has in store for you. Perspective—which comes from developing your brain—can mean the difference between being taken down by trauma and being made stronger by it. Between feeling angry, scared and cynical at hardship and gaining a deeper and more meaningful experience of life as a result of it.

Ask people who have survived a life-threatening illness. Many of them will tell you “it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It shook them out of the habitual drive to run away from their human condition. It brought them squarely and directly into their human condition out of which came a profound appreciation of each moment—with perspective and vitality. It brought them closer to an Awakening. It gave their lives the meaning that had been lacking before. It gave them the perspective that had been elusive before.

So, what are we doing in this second month of LifeClub membership? We are asking you to learn how to creatively experience negative feelings so that you are fortified when life crises arise. We are asking you to allow yourself to accept the natural crisis that comes with just being human. It is an opportunity to gently go deeper into the darker side of yourself so that you wake up to the meaning of your life. To true and lasting happiness and enduring peace. Learn more about the LifeClub at

About the Author
Jeff Skolnick, M.D., Ph.D.

Jeff Skolnick, M.D., Ph.D., is a psychiatrist. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Washington.