Last Updated: November 1st, 2018
The Buddha’s First Noble Truth teaches that all life contains suffering, or dukkha. We understand this in a very profound way simply by living our lives. We suffer when we don’t get what we want, or want things to be different. Pain in the body is the most immediate form of suffering. But is pain really the same as suffering? What if we could explore, and perhaps change our relationship to pain, and move beyond suffering? Thich Nhat Hanh says that sickness is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. So though pain is unavoidable, we choose whether or not to suffer based on our decision to accept sickness and physical pain as part of life. It all depends on our outlook.
Several years ago, I became intimately acquainted with the pain in my body. It started out gradually, almost imperceptibly: a sore wrist, an aching hip, stiff fingers. I attributed it to the cold winter weather and my having become hyper vigilant of what was happening inside my body. After all, I was practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation, and therefore focusing on awareness. Perhaps I’d always felt this way and simply had never paid enough attention.
My symptoms gradually progressed and I became stiff upon getting out of bed in the morning. My arms were sore and I attributed that to too much time spent working at a computer, perhaps the early signs of carpal tunnel. Fast forward a few months and I was in pain all the time, in every part of my body. Because the changes were gradual, I didn’t begin to investigate until the pain became unbearable. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine how I didn’t begin to investigate sooner, but after many months and many tests, I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition. The diagnosis was that there was nothing I could do. I just had to live with it. But on the bright side, said my rheumatologist, there was no actual damage being done to the body. It was just pain, and I had to learn to manage it. He asked me:“What makes it better? What makes it worse?” A very good starting point.
Learn to manage your pain. Simple enough. But what if there’s nothing that will make it go away? What if what makes it better and what makes it worse works only some of the time? What to do?
You change your relationship to the pain by opening up to it and paying attention to it. You “put out the welcome mat.” Not because you’re masochistic, but because the pain is there. So you need to understand the nature of the experience and the possibilities for, as the doctors might put it, “learning to live with it,'”or, as the Buddhists might put it, “liberation from the suffering.” If you distinguish between pain and suffering, change is possible.”—Jon Kabat-Zinn, At Home in Our Bodies
If you find yourself in a situation, like I did, from which there’s no escape, you’ll discover that constantly fighting with it, wishing it was different, will not accomplish anything—it certainly won’t make the pain go away, and it won’t make you feel better.
It was hard to imagine that I could be content while being in constant pain because all I felt was anger and self-pity. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t fair and I spent a lot of time wishing things were different. I wasn’t able to improve the situation, which made me feel more depressed.
This is where mindfulness can play an important role, as I found out through my experience. When we practice mindfulness meditation, we practice staying present and in touch with what’s happening inside our bodies at any given moment. We do not pass judgement on the experience. We do not try to change it, to make it other than what it is. We simply observe. In Buddhist terms, we practice mere recognition, observe the body with a knowing that whatever arises must also pass—the pain itself, but also our thoughts about the pain, and our experience.We could ask ourselves the question: Is pain also the same as suffering? Perhaps we do suffer more when we begin to think about how much we want the pain to stop. In my case, it was important to change the stories I was telling myself about the pain. For starters, is it really fair to say that it is my pain? Am I taking ownership of it and struggling with it even more, or can I approach it as a sensation to be observed, like any other sensation taking place in the body? If I didn’t bring it about on purpose—and I didn’t—and if there’s nothing that I can do to make it go away, then why would I use language that implies ownership and call it mine? It isn’t “mine” at all. It is simply pain. It is something that is present, something I can live with, by taking a step back and consciously choosing to be an observer, as opposed to an active participant. It was important for me to make this shift and to realize the difference in how I referred to it. By not taking ownership of it, I eliminated the feeling of failure associated with not being able to make it “go away.”
Our mind always tries to change the situation. It chimes in with ideas about how life would be “better” without the pain and about how it is “worse” with the pain. Our mind is what tells us that we are suffering. We feel a futility, a sense of helplessness when we can’t make the pain go away and reach a more desirable state of no-pain. We feel like victims of some great injustice and that feeling is certainly good material for labelling the experience as one of suffering, as if the experience of the physical sensation wasn’t enough.
On the other hand, if we simply observe, and stay present in that space, we can move beyond ideas of better or worse, pleasant and unpleasant, success and failure. We breathe. We recognize pain as just another sensation in the body. We take care of the body, of the sensation, and with each breath, we practice relaxing into that space without wishing it was different, which only serves to add another layer to the pain. We can use pain as an opportunity to bring attention to the body, to find out what the body really needs in that moment, to send love to the body, and to tell ourselves that we do not need things to be different, to be other than they are, in order to not suffer. Suffering can be separate from pain, and by using the breath as a link between the body and the mind, and changing the way we think about pain, we can begin to see the difference and learn to coexist with it.