Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional


For many of us who have developed an interest in meditation, it is likely that we stumbled upon it in an attempt to end some form of pain or suffering in our lives – that may even be what has brought you to this very article. Whether we experience some form of chronic physical pain, or mental pain brought on from an anxious or depressed mind – we are drawn to meditation as a way of controlling and eradicating this pain and suffering. A sobering fact that becomes clear to those of us that have followed the path of meditation is that pain is inevitable. If we are to experience any pleasure in life, then pain must come as part of the package deal. We cannot simply numb ourselves to every feeling, or we would lose the good as well. The next astounding discovery we can make on this path of meditation is that despite the durability of pain, we do not have to experience suffering. So on that intriguing note, let’s dive into today’s article.

Pain Vs Suffering

Firstly, let’s define what we mean by pain and suffering. 

When something happens to us that is objectively painful – for example, a broken leg, then our brain will register that pain and send a signal through our central nervous system to alert us that something has gone wrong. Our brains have also evolved to convert that alert signal into a physical sensation. This means that when we break our leg, not only do we know on a biological level that something has gone wrong, but we also begin to panic and problem solve on a psychological level. Without this response, we wouldn’t know if we were leaning against a boiling hot radiator, or had just cut our finger when preparing dinner. This is all part of a perfectly normal safety system in the brain that has kept the human race alive for hundreds of thousands of years.

On the other hand, when we discuss suffering we are referring to our mind’s interpretation of pain, and more precisely – our minds believe that the pain we are feeling should not be there. Rather than being an inevitable part of life, like pain and pleasure, suffering is what we put onto our painful moments based on our own mental state. If pain is waking up to another rainy morning, then suffering is the thoughts in our head like, “this weather is so terrible, I can’t be happy when it rains,” or, “why does it always rain when I have plans? This is so unfair.” It’s fair to say that most of us feel a bit more energetic when the sun is shining, but when it rains no amount of negative thought or complaining will change the fact that it’s raining. So by resisting the natural phenomenon of rainfall, you are only increasing your suffering of a situation that is fixed.

If you have ever experienced a really painful emotion, like loss or a really terrible anxiety attack you might be finding it very difficult to buy into this notion that suffering is optional. At no point in your painful experience did you think to yourself, “you know what, I think I’ll make this intentionally worse for myself.”

And that’s true! Not many people suffer because they have made a conscious decision. Suffering is something that is built into the way our brains see the world. Instinctively we prepare ourselves for dangerous or negative scenarios, so when we experience pain our mind is more likely to tell us everything will get worse, or that we have somehow created this suffering ourselves. 

Pain x Resistance = Suffering

There is a famous equation first stated by Shinzen Young that is used in mindfulness to describe the way suffering occurs: 

PAIN X RESISTANCE = SUFFERING

When we discuss resistance, we are referring to the misguided belief that unchangeable features of life can be changed, or when we look at a painful situation and tell ourselves that it isn’t fair, or that it shouldn’t be happening. When the reality is that there is no way of changing this feature and that there is really nothing that can be done to alter it. Therefore, when we feel pain and try to resist the reality that it is a natural and normal part of life, we will suffer. 

If we look at the example of the broken leg, it is almost impossible to expect a person with a broken leg to not feel upset – not only about the objective pain, but also because they may have to miss out on certain activities, and will have to live a more restricted life due to their injury. However, we know that if this person were to lie in bed every day until their leg healed, telling themselves that it isn’t fair that they are in this situation, then they would end up feeling worse than if they accepted that their leg was broken and there was nothing they could do to change this fact. And this brings us onto the discussion of how exactly we can stop suffering. 

The antidote for suffering is acceptance. If you can accept pain for what it is, an inevitable part of life, and practise this acceptance in the place of resistance then your suffering will lessen. We can stop directing all of our energy towards trying to change the unchangeable or lament the unfairness of a situation that was always going to happen. By freeing up our energy, we can stop focusing on the pain, and live a more content and peaceful life beyond it. The pain will still be there, but our perception of it will have changed.

How to use meditation to stop suffering

Meditation is a method for practising this skill of acceptance. If you have ever tried meditation then you will be well aware of the fact that it is often quite difficult to remain focussed and there are constantly interrupting thoughts, and distractions. What we can do when we encounter distractions while we meditate is acknowledge the distractions and then gently move our focus back to the breath, or whatever anchor we are using to ground our practice. This technique teaches us the nature of acceptance. The distractions we encounter in meditation can be frustrating, and if we let them they might even make us feel as though we are failing at our practice, but if we show acceptance of them and continue to move on each time without judgement then we will not have to suffer due to them. 

This concept may be hard to accept, especially if you are currently experiencing some form of pain and suffering. But be assured, there is a way to lessen your suffering. As well as the simple practice of acknowledging distractions while you meditate, there are some other steps you can try to help differentiate between pain and suffering;

  1. Identify where the suffering is being felt, is it an emotion, a mental image or mental chatter?
  2. Is the primary pain localised to one point, or is there a knock-on effect in you mind and body? 
  3. Notice the impermanence of pain by referring back to other times you have felt pain but have come out the other side. 
  4. Try to view your suffering as your interpretation that pain shouldn’t be present and let this judgment go.
  5. And finally, notice if you need to repeat this practice again, or if you are ready to accept you pain as inevitable and your suffering as just an avoidable side-effect.

These steps will help you to differentiate between your pain and the suffering that is being piled on top. They will also help you to view pain as something you can cope with. When our negative thoughts create suffering, our pain can become almost overwhelming. The amalgamation of pain and suffering can create a false image of pain in our minds, but when we break the two up into their separate components it becomes much easier to accept and cope with pain.

At MindOwl, we believe in the power of your mind to unwrite unhelpful habits and rules in order to move towards real and lasting happiness. There’s no need to continue wasting energy on resisting pain when it will not make the pain go away. And again, the idea of pain as inevitable is not an attractive one; however, pain must be accepted so we can suffer less. When we realise that it is in fact, suffering that is creating so much of our mental distress, this does become more appealing. So next time you meditate, try to practise acceptance of all the distractions that float in and out of your mind. Then you can expand this technique, as well as the steps listed above to break apart pain and suffering so you can see them for what they truly are; an inevitable fact of life and an unwelcomed addition that you have the power to silence. 

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Filipe Bastos

About the author

Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy). I've spent the last seven years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology. I've found that besides the known benefits meditation can bring to our lives, such as reduced stress and anxiety, improved quality of sleep, decreased blood pressure; the greatest benefit of meditation is the possibility to feel at peace, despite the external circumstances of our lives.

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