Pain vs. Suffering

Pain vs suffering. What’s the difference? Pain is inevitable. Pain can even be helpful. Our nerves provide sensations, so that we may avoid injury. Suffering occurs when we give our pain a personality, a cause and effect, a narrative. If pain is the physical sensation we feel, suffering is the story we tell ourselves about that pain (and what the pain says about us).

I had a really bad skin reaction last fall. It was ridiculously itchy, and it kept getting worse every time I looked at it. No doctors knew what to do, other than offer to inject me with steroids, which I knew wasn’t really going to help. But I was obsessed with this rash. How much worse will it get? What will happen to it? What will happen to me? Then I spoke to a group of college students about meditation. Halfway through the talk, I noticed something: my rash wasn’t itching. At all.  

We are beautiful, perfect, fulfilled beings. At our core.

We are beautiful, perfect, fulfilled beings. At our core.

Here’s the truth: the more attention we pay to our pain, or any other sensation or emotion, the worse it will feel (aka suffering).

Here’s more truth: if our pain is stress-related, that’s a good thing. We can work on stress. We are capable of separating our SELF from our PAIN, so if our illness is stress-related, the pain can improve. There’s hope.

Even more truth: we are not our pain. We are beautiful, perfect, fulfilled beings. At our core.

So, how do we know we are suffering, rather than experiencing pain? Has a doctor, or anyone else, ever suggested that our symptoms are stress-related… and we feel threatened by that? Or personally insulted? Do we feel a bit disappointed when our symptoms have resolved by the time we get to the doctor’s office? When our symptoms start coming on, does our mind start creating stories? “Here we go again… I’m going to be stuck in bed all day again… my whole week is going to be ruined again… I’ll never have a normal life…”

How do we pull ourselves out of the suffering rabbit hole? First, find a meditation practice that works. Meditation rewires how the brain processes pain. I prefer Vedic meditation- it’s easy, works for type-A/ stressed/ skeptical minds, and the benefits start immediately and grow exponentially.

Meditation rewires how the brain processes pain.

Meditation rewires how the brain processes pain.

Not ready for meditation yet? Try this: the next time any symptoms or body sensations start to flare up, actively notice where the mind goes. What stories does it tell? What conclusions does it draw? Then, ask if those stories are true.

Another option: in a calm, quiet place, close the eyes and lightly place attention on the pain. Describe it in as much detail as possible. Note its color, size, shape, location, texture, thickness, movement, and quality. Be as objective as possible, and try to avoid associating any emotions with it. Keep with it for a few minutes. We may just find that the pain has improved.

Allow that to be a good thing.