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 suffering. 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.
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.
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?