Pain and suffering: the distinction

Several people whom I follow on Twitter linked to this post, Does it hurt? Yes. Is that a problem? No.

Read it if you’ve ever wondered about the difference between pain and suffering. They’re not the same.

The title kind of gives it away, but it’s well worth reading anyway. Pain is inevitable because you have a nervous system. Pain is a form of communication. It lets us know to stop doing whatever caused it (if it is in our control — some pain is not), to seek safety, care, rest, healing.

Suffering comes from pain plus resistance. It’s the resistance to pain that causes suffering. If we could just surrender to pain, just let it wash through our awareness without judgment, it would leave more quickly.

But we judge and resist pain. “I don’t like pain.” “I hate pain.” “I fear pain.” “I shouldn’t feel this pain.”

Last year when I was just a couple of months into my practice of meditating for 30 minutes every day, my body hurt every time I sat. I kept expecting it to go away. My suffering was due to my belief that a sitting practice shouldn’t hurt.

When I checked in with my teacher, Peg Syverson, she said that pain is part of sitting. Every meditator faces this issue sooner or later.

Once I understood that pain was part of my body’s adaptation to the posture and that I might always experience some pain each time I sat, an odd thing happened. Or perhaps a natural and normal thing happened.

My body stopped hurting when I sat. The pain and the suffering both just left.

Interestingly, I’ve heard others’ stories about that: that the older you are, the more quickly your body adapts to sitting and the sooner you can sit without pain.

I suspect that in some cases, the opposite may be true. Habituation has a lot to do with it. Any new, prolonged activity that uses muscles differently than how you usually use them results in discomfort or pain.

Now it may be easier to do this with minor pain than major, but next time you feel some pain, get curious about it. Breathe slowly and deeply to relax, and feel it. Exactly where is it? Does it have a sharp boundary, or is it diffuse? What is the quality of the pain: is it dull, piercing, throbbing, steady, deep, shallow? How long does it last?

You may not feel joy, but you can rejoice in the fact that you can feel pain.

It means you’re alive.

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