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Processing Pain

The Buddha said the root of all suffering is attachment. I think of that as relating to acceptance (more on that later). Christians sometimes explain suffering as something God gives or allows us as an opportunity for growth.

A beginning premise is that most suffering is self created. This is contrary to what we typically believe, which is that something outside of ourselves is making us suffer. This can be very hard to believe if we are in the midst of personal suffering. Who could argue that a chronic injury, or the death of, or separation from, a loved one isn’t indescribably painful?

And yet, we may all know or have heard about people who have experienced incredible pain, yet seem to have an amazing attitude, and are still cheerful and moving forward positively. So it’s helpful to differentiate between pain, and suffering. Pain is generally defined as unpleasant and distressful physical, mental or emotional sensations. Suffering is defined as the experience of feeling and enduring pain.

The key difference is that pain is a sensation. Suffering is how we experience this sensation. This may seem like the same thing on the surface, but it’s actually the key to taking back our power over suffering.

Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust and later wrote about his experiences, said (my paraphrasing): There is a space between an action, and our reaction to it. And in that space we can choose our response, and reclaim our growth and freedom.

So our experience of pain can change in response to our thoughts, judgements and beliefs about it. For example,  judgements like, “This is horrible! I’m never going to get over this!” and beliefs like, “This is something that I should feel horrible about for a very long time.” It can be something you feel some responsibility for, and therefore use it to punish yourself.

A formula for it is this:

¹Pain x acceptance (not approval…just recognizing it is what it is) = limited or no suffering.
Pain x resistance (limited or no acceptance) = suffering

Or a societal belief, like an expected mourning period. In reality, everyone heals at a different rate, based on many factors. Becoming aware of the beliefs and judgements that are shaping our experience of suffering is the first step toward deciding if it’s really what we want.

Another factor is our degree of acceptance. In the stages of grief, acceptance is the final step in the healing process. While it’s not clear cut and we can move back and forth among stages, in the end, it’s the stage where we can finally begin to see beyond the pain and move forward.

A formula for it is this:

Pain is real and unavoidable in life, and needs to be acknowledged, honored, and supported with compassion. Suffering we have (with awareness and hard work) some control and power over, and therefore an opportunity for growth, transformation, and a return to some level of happiness.

¹Pain x acceptance (not approval…just recognizing it is what it is) = limited or no suffering. 

Pain x resistance (limited or no acceptance) = suffering

Pain is real and unavoidable in life, and needs to be acknowledged, honored, and supported with compassion. Suffering we have (with awareness and hard work) some control and power over, and therefore an opportunity for growth, transformation, and a return to some level of happiness.

What thoughts or experiences would you add?

¹ Taylor, Jane. “The Difference Between Pain and Suffering.” Habits for Wellbeing, habitsforwellbeing.com/the-differences-between-pain-and-sufferingAccessed 15 April 2020.

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