Web Analytics

Why suffering is unnecessary


Pain is a relatively objective, physical phenomenon; suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens. Events may create physical pain, but they do not in themselves create open handcuffssuffering. Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is… The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds. ~ Dan Millman


I think suffering might be unnecessary.

I think pain, both physical and emotional, is a natural, unavoidable aspect of being human, but suffering is something we bring on ourselves.

And I wonder what you think.

Let’s look under the hood of pain and suffering and see what we find.


The difference between pain and suffering

You might be reading this post because something has gone wrong in your life and it is causing you discomfort, distress, or even trauma.

It’s painful.

Perhaps emotionally, perhaps physically, or maybe even both, but it hurts.

And we don’t like to be hurt.

It’s hard-wired into our brains to move away from pain rather than toward it.

When we were children and accidentally touched the hot stove, we quickly formulated a rule: I must do everything I can to stay away from hot stoves.

It’s the same with emotional pain. We have a knee-jerk reaction to the hot stove of our negative feelings which is to move away from them as quickly as possible.

We just do not like to feel bad.

However, in this moving away we sometimes set up a condition for ourselves called suffering.

Let’s look at the difference between pain and suffering.

Pain is a natural condition whether it is emotional or physical. We touch the hot stove or go through the breakup of a relationship and it hurts.

Pain is a cue that something is wrong in the body and/or the mind.

We need pain in order to function well in the world.


Suffering is a choice

Suffering is more of a choice than pain.

Suffering is what happens when we have an expectation about how things should turn out or when we put a judgment value on pain.

You’ve probably heard a phrase similar to “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” That’s because, while pain is a natural part of our lives, suffering is something we create around the idea of pain.

American meditation instructor Shinzen Young has developed a formula for suffering:

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

With this simple equation, you can see that resistance to pain only multiplies our suffering. If we give pain a value of 1 and resistance a value of 2, we experience suffering as a value of 2.

But if we resist so much that the value of resistance becomes 10, now our suffering increases to 10 as well.

It makes sense: the more we resist, the more suffering we will experience.

But what if we don’t resist at all? What if our resistance value is equal to zero?

Then our suffering will be zero as well.

The pain is still there, but the added suffering is gone.


Reducing resistance

We are used to resisting. It’s a normal human reaction to the inevitability of pain. But it also increases our suffering.

So what to do?

The first thing that must happen is to become aware that you are resisting.

It’s likely that you are not aware of it nor has anyone pointed it out to you.

Look for clues that you are resisting such as feelings of frustration, resentment, restlessness, and anger.

Note your inner thoughts. You are probably resisting if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t stand this. I hate this. I want this to stop.”

Now figure out a way to go with the painful situation rather than working against it.

When my late partner was in treatment for breast cancer, she let go of being angry at the effects of the chemotherapy.

She never grew to like chemotherapy – liking the pain isn’t required here – but she dropped the negative feelings that went along with it.

And I let go of my anxiety about not being able to ‘fix it’ for her.

The experience was still painful for us – physically for her and emotionally for me – but neither of us felt that we were suffering all of the time. We tried very hard not to add on any negative emotional tones to the pain that came with the experience.

Think of your painful situation as a river you are trying to get across. The current is swift, but not so swift that you can’t wade across to the other side.

Now, one way to reach the other side is to go straight across. This requires you to keep your balance and fight against the flow of the river each time you take a step.

But an approach that works better is to walk diagonally down river toward the far shore. In this way, you are wading with the current.

The flow of the water propels each step forward as you make your way across. You will end up further down the river than you had initially intended, but you will still have made it across.

And with much less effort and struggle than if you had stubbornly chosen the most direct path.


I’m really interested in hearing from you on this subject.

Am I being too simplistic?

What about people in under-developed nations who don’t have enough food, water, clothing, and shelter? We often say they are suffering. Is their experience of suffering necessary or unnecessary?

What about people with chronic pain or terminal illness?

I still hold that in each of these instances, suffering is unnecessary.

What do you say?



  1. Priska says:

    I equate my suffering with how bad I judge something to being.
    Priska recently posted…Blogging Boomers are Blooming.My Profile

  2. This is quite fascinating Bobbi – with some complex questions you ask at the end. I have to agree that it makes much more sense to lean into the pain, let it be, and drop the stories which can equate to suffering.

    This is a whole new approach for me, I’ve spent my life avoiding pain at all costs and it’s only occurred to me in recent years that blocking out all that pain also blocks out some of the ecstatic joy that can be a part of life. So now I’m working toward an attitude of allowing myself to risk pain, to be vulnerable, and drop all the negative stories about it.

    I’m not sure if I can make that call though for people who deal with a level of pain that I can’t even imagine. War refugees, victims of unspeakable violence – I don’t feel qualified to say if their suffering is necessary or unnecessary. Also, I don’t know if all of them experience it as ‘suffering’, or merely profound pain.

    Very thought-provoking post!
    Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce recently posted…You Are EnoughMy Profile

  3. Deirdre says:

    I am a practical person. So I would like to know what practical stuff I have to do to wade right through pain. E.g. when I get overwhelmed with bitter suspicious thoughts that drive me crazy, what do I do to stop? How can I stop these thoughts so they don’t go back? What must I do with painful memories? I read the other day that the quickest way through pain is to go right through it. But how? What must I physically do?

    • Bobbi says:

      That’s interesting, Deirdre. It sounds like you don’t have any space for suffering because you just plow right into the pain when necessary. And I think that’s what you need to do with your thoughts and memories, too. Don’t resist the pain but don’t buy into it, either. Just notice that it’s there and try to have no judgment about it. As you just notice it, you’ll get a different perspective on your pain which may help to lessen it. A really great book for you to read is Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin. It’s a short little book that talks exactly about how to deal with painful thoughts and feelings.

  4. carda says:

    i agree with deirdre. i too am a very practical person and want to just “get on with it”. these days when i have a very strong reaction to something someone has said or done i realize it is my own emotions causing me pain. i must say that once i started to take responsibility for my own life i started feeling more powerful.

  5. Kudos to those of you who can separate your pain from your reaction to the pain. I’m not sure I could remove myself to that degree. I find that I have a high threshhold for physical pain, but emotional pain seems to knock the wind out of me every time.
    Maybe I should spend less time in introspection. Good post, Bobbi.

    • Bobbi says:

      Becky, I think it’s really hard to completely separate ourselves from the emotional pain. I guess, for me, this idea that resistance only adds to it and/or also introduces suffering helps me to take a more neutral stance toward pain.

  6. Nope,you are not being too simplistic,Bobbi. You are grasping the nitty-gritty of human experience here on earth. To discriminate between pain and suffering is very subtle ,but makes a huge difference in the quality of our lives. I love the Young equation : S=Pxr. If r=0,then S=0. Wonderful! We can make it !
    Thx ,Bobbi. Love & blessings

    • Bobbi says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Bernardo! I appreciate you pointing out that the pain/suffering split is very nuanced. As such, I think we don’t have to criticize ourselves when we find it hard not to get into the suffering part.

  7. Excellent post, Bobbi!
    Deirdre might want to check out “How to Stop Ruminating” (http://www.tinagilbertson.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/rumination/) for some words on dealing with incessant thoughts.
    I also wanted to mention another subtle form of resistance, which is compulsive positive thinking. In itself, looking on the bright side is a wonderful thing to do. But as a tool for managing emotional pain I find it just makes people feel worse over time.
    Thank you for your characteristically articulate treatment of this important subject. I always enjoy your posts.

    • Bobbi says:

      Thanks for your insights, Tina! I like your post on rumination and hope Deirdre takes a look at it.

      I think positive thinking can be problematic but only if the intention is to resist or deny one’s true experience. Otherwise, finding meaning and positive purpose even in the midst of pain can be quite healing.

  8. Doug Toft says:

    Bobbi, I think this is your best post ever, which is saying a lot.

    The distinction between pain and suffering goes back to the Buddha and it is the thing that keeps me sane.

    Suffering CAN be totally transcended—forever a radical message.

    I’ve been on several retreats with Shinzen, and he makes this distinction in a more intellectual way. You brought it down to Earth. Many blessings to you.

  9. Deirdre says:

    Tina, i read your post on How to Stop Ruminating, and yes I can name it. It is “fear”. Fear of losing my life partner to someone who came into our relationship. Fear of murdering that person. I dream’t the other day that I did. Fear that people will judge me and treat me unfairly. I am gay, I am a South African, I live in a homophobic society. Violent crime is an everyday thing. We cage ourselves up. Look over our shoulders all the time. It’s just a matter of time before you become a statistic. Fear that I will take my own life, when things just get out of hand.

  10. I am 100% with you on this one Bobbi! And second Doug’s comments.

    I have been reading “The War of Art” and “Do the Work” this last week and I was clear on how resistance will stop you from taking action. I never thought about how resistance would keep you stuck in the suffering, it totally makes sense.
    Lori Lynn Smith recently posted…Are New Year’s Resolutions worth setting?My Profile

  11. Thanks again for such insight, Bobbi. Years ago, during the most emotionally painful time in my life, I suffered. I think you’re right about resisting without realizing it. Even though I outwardly went along with the situation, it was the unmet expectations that threw me down. But once I refocused my attention and engergy, and angled across the river, as you put it, I was on the road to recovering from the pain.

    Cheers and hugs to you!
    Annis Cassells recently posted…Wishing You the BestMy Profile

  12. Oh, one more thing: I remember my therapist advising myself to notice when the pain washed over me and to tell myself, “It’s just pain.” That helped me to get through it, too.
    Annis Cassells recently posted…Wishing You the BestMy Profile

  13. Dave Rowley says:

    Hi Bobbi,

    I got so much from this post.

    I’ve been thinking about resistance a lot lately, and one of the things that is helping me is to recognize the resistance as coming from a helpful impulse–trying to protect me from pain–but that impulse has become distorted and no longer useful.

    When I notice resistance coming up–either as a physical tightening, or in the form of thoughts, I try to listen to it and acknowledge it, even thank it, but try not to be swayed by it.

    I love, love , love! your metaphor of walking diagonally across the river, it’s a really helpful image because it acknowledges the resistance in a way that works with it, without letting it take over. I’m writing that one down for future reference.

    One unhelpful thing I hear about resistance is the idea of squashing it, or defeating it somehow. My experience of resistance is that it comes from a part of me, and I have no desire to go around squashing or suppressing aspects of myself. I’d rather work with them in a more compassionate way.
    Dave Rowley recently posted…the idea catcherMy Profile

  14. Lee J Tyler says:

    I wrote a long comment without posting it a few days ago. I keep thinking of your image of not resisting the water; applied to certain resistance (mine to recover from physical assault) it is a wonderful image. When I tried to apply it to pain and disease, I lost my way. I’ve been told I put a good face on it-pain-or have in the past. I thought I understood it. It is something that cannot be understood unless you’ve reached the next level in an ever growing devilish arsenal. I don’t know how to walk with it and not fight against it. I wish I had more inspirational thoughts. There is a point where pain overcome even the most resistant spirit and no one truly understands that until they are there. There being a place you cannot see on the other side of a stream. But I agree with Dave; your imagery has stayed with me and buoyed my spirit, so to speak. Thank you for that.
    Lee J Tyler recently posted…The State of the Website AddressMy Profile

  15. Amit Amin says:

    An interesting idea. Rather than saying it’s too simplistic, I’d rather say your communication of it is too short – I just don’t understand.

    Suffering/Resistance is impetus for change. If I had come to accept, say, my chronic migraines, my day to day suffering would have dropped significantly, but I may not have ever come across the eventual solution, in which case my overall pain would have been much higher.

    Perhaps you mean reducing resistance in the face of unchangeable circumstance? Then I agree. Otherwise, I remain confused.
    Amit Amin recently posted…The Science of Accomplishment – 30 Motivational Skills To Get Your New Year’s Resolution DoneMy Profile

  16. Gary Korisko says:

    I get it, Bobbi. Completely.

    Pain hurts. It’s inconvenient. And most people resist it because of those facts. But it is not agony or suffering.

    I agree with and often write about embracing pain and discomfort myself. Suffering unnecessarily is often a choice…and I say that because I’ve been guilty of putting myself in that position in the past.

    But pain…is a wonderful teacher 🙂
    Gary Korisko recently posted…Comment on 5 Steps To Reclaim Your Momentum After The Holidays by Amit AminMy Profile

  17. I don’t think it’s too simplistic – I just wish someone would have told me this 30 years ago. Just like strength training a muscle – the more you resist your pain it becomes stronger. Sometimes we need to Lamaze our way through pain – breathe deep and focus on something else. When we laser focus our attention of the pain long after the event, we are choosing our suffering.

    Love the river analogy – it is the same method I use to climb tall hills.
    Jane Robinson recently posted…Beware the Snake Oil HuckstersMy Profile

  18. Kaylee says:

    My comment sorta goes along with Amit’s… I was recently put in a really rough spot, one that I wasn’t sure how it would work out, and affects me for the next few years. It should’ve been devastating… But I didn’t really suffer, because I didn’t resist. I accepted the situation for what it was.

    There were times that I broke down and cried, but it wasn’t a day-in day-out kinda suffering. And even though I accepted the situation, I was still able to move forward and find a solution.

    So..I don’t think acceptance is apathy, not looking for solutions…It’s just not fighting what is. I found that without creating that additional suffering, I was much more clear-headed and able to find a good solution.

    Anywho…That was way too long. Sorry Bobbi. 🙂
    Kaylee recently posted…Would You Criticize This Baby?My Profile

  19. Ciara Conlon says:

    I never thought of it like this before but it makes a lot of sense Bobbi, resisting anything is usually a bad idea. Learning to let go and go with the flow is the biggest lesson of all.
    Ciara Conlon recently posted…7 Tips to Motivate You to Set Goals for 2013My Profile

  20. Karen says:

    Great Blog Bobbi.

    Sitting in our pain without judgement and then letting it go, is hard to do but it seems the answer to all healing.



  21. Ralph says:

    I used to dwell on things waaaay to long. I would prolong the event that initiated the suffering and I would relive it over and over.

    I have learned to take my mind out of the equation. I now change the meaning of the event instead of trying to figure it out. Much easier to move forward once I began doing that.

    Nice blog you’ve got here.
    Ralph recently posted…The Essence of Courage and 6 Ways to Build ItMy Profile

  22. farouk says:

    sounds like a good idea, its the first time i hear about that concept , the more we resist the more we suffer, makes a lot of sense
    farouk recently posted…can generosity make you happier? (The psychology of giving)My Profile

  23. Bobbi, I just saw Deirdre’s 2nd comment (#16) and wanted to say to her, if you’re still listening, please find someone nearby you can talk to about what you’re going through. It sounds like a lot — maybe too much — for one person to deal with alone. Please do seek help, whether from a counselor or a friend or a support group or, if necessary, even an online chat room. Something that lets you know for sure you’re not alone. Warm wishes and best of luck, Deirdre.

  24. wholesale Vikings jerseys With Paypal

  25. Tablets Blog says:

    Suffering From Pain Or Discomfort

    […] ance is impetus for change. If I had come to accept, say, my chronic migraines, […]

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.