Pain and Suffering
In my work, I see many individuals who have suffering. All of us, at one time or another, experience physical pain or emotional distress. These sensations come about from a variety of reasons—loss, disappointment, frustration, rejection, conflict, fear, illness, or accident. Generally, these negative experiences are fleeting. But then sometimes they can last a long time.
Certainly misfortune can be a cause of pain. Our bodies can (and ultimately will) betray us. They are made out of physical stuff that can break down and stop working. Indeed the march of time is often enough to bring about all kinds of aches and pains--but so can injury or major illness.
With a little reflection, we can see that our life is a changing skyscape of positive and negative sensations and emotional states, much like the weather in Washington! Wait five minutes, and the temperature will drop or rise! Wait another five minutes and it will start to rain! Wait longer (sometimes a REALLY long time), and guess what, the sun will shine!
But suffering is different. Suffering to a large degree is our emotional reaction to these sensations. It comes about from wishing that we weren’t experiencing pain or distress! Of course, who wants to have pain? No one! But how do we react to this sensation?
If I wake up and my shoulders hurt like they sometimes do (I have arthritis in my shoulders), I may have the thought “Oh darn, why do my shoulder’s hurt! This is awful! I hate this arthritis! I wish I felt good”. When I linger on those thoughts, this comparison of what I am experiencing with what I wish I were feeling, I start to feel even worse! Pretty soon, in addition to the pain in my shoulder, I am starting to feel pretty miserable too.
Pain is a sensation. Suffering is wishing that I didn’t have pain. Of course, it is completely natural to desire comfort. And it is completely reasonable to have moments of suffering—but I can also let go of that suffering or at least reduce it, while I may not be able to do much about my shoulder pain.
I can choose to feel miserable about today’s rainy, cloudy, day too. But I also know that it does rain a fair amount in the Northwest. I can simply accept the weather (or my mental or physical state) in a more neutral way. It doesn’t mean that I like it, but I don’t have to suffer over it. That is actually a choice. I think most of us confuse the experience of suffering with the sensation of pain, discomfort, or distress. They are different.
So how can we approach pain and distress more neutrally?
- When you are feeling pain or distress, simply “label” or “describe what you are feeling first. “ Ah, I see I am having foot pain this morning”, “Hmm, I am feeling anxious today”, “Oh, my back is painful this afternoon”. This helps you approach your sensation in a more neutral way.
- Ask-“Is there anything I can do to make myself more comfortable?” That is a good question. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t.
- Do I have to feel bad about this? Or can I simply accept this sensation in a more neutral way. Accepting an experience in a more neutral way is not the same as liking it! It is simply accepting something as it is, without excessive comparing and contrasting your experience with what you wish you were feeling.
We don’t have control over very much in our lives. The one constant is change. But we do actually have control over how we evaluate and approach our changing circumstances. We can control how we view our experience, and this enables us to avoid suffering—something we all aspire too.
What helps you have a more neutral attitude towards your negative experiences?