Suffering Is Optional
pain is unavoidable, but meditation practice can ease the mental
suffering that often accompanies it.
Susan Smalley and Diana Winston
teach us how.
is a famous adage: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
This anonymous saying sums up what you can learn about pain through
mindfulness. You cannot avoid pain. Even if you are physically healthy
now, at some point you may get sick, you may get hurt, and age and
physical changes will occur. Pain is inevitable. It will come, and there
is nothing you can do to prevent it—yet whether or not you suffer is
another matter. Why is it that one woman can go through childbirth
claiming that it was the most painful experience of her life while
another declares it was the most transcendent? Along with other
conditions, including the ease of delivery, the answer may lie in how to
relate to pain. Clearly, sensory experiences are different, but how we relate to them—big or small—plays a powerful role as well.
we define pain as the pure physical sensation of the body responding to
some negative stimuli, and suffering as our response to pain. From a
mindfulness perspective, it is important to differentiate pain and
suffering because however unavoidable pain is, we certainly have some
leeway when it comes to suffering.
biggest difficulty in working with pain is not the pain itself; it is
how we react to it. With mindfulness, you can learn to see how your
mental reactions to suffering function and how you can avoid being so
caught in them. Here is a practice you can do if you are experiencing
any physical pain.
to get as comfortable as you can in your sitting posture. If the pain
is really bad, you may wish to lie down. Find the most comfortable
position to practice.
take a few breaths and allow yourself to connect with the fact that
your body is sitting (or lying down). Notice your posture and body
shape. Now find a part of your body that is not in pain and bring your
attention to it. Find a part that feels pleasant or neutral, at the very
least. Explore whether your hands, feet, or legs feel relaxed and
pleasant. Let your attention stay at this pleasant area for a few
moments. Now bring your attention to the area of pain. What do you
notice? Is the pain sharp or dull? Burning? Stabbing? Fiery? Clenching?
Is it moving, or does it stay in one place? How deeply does it go into
your body? Get very curious about the changing set of bodily sensations.
thirty seconds or so (you can choose any short amount of time), bring
your attention back to the pleasant or neutral sensations for the next
few minutes. Notice if you have an attitude toward the pain. Do you hate
it, fear it, resent it, blame yourself for it? Can you notice how it is
that you feel or think about the pain? Do you feel any accompanying
body sensation like a clutching feeling in your gut or vibration in your
chest? Notice this reaction, breathe, and let it be there. There is
nothing wrong with a reaction. If you have no reaction or the reaction
stops, feel free to investigate the painful area one more time.
Return your attention to the pleasant area, and once again rest there for a minute or so.
for the last time, return to the painful area. What do you notice?
Breathe. Feel whatever is present on the physical level. Offer yourself a
little bit of kindness in a way that makes sense to you. You can
imagine holding that part of your body with care and compassion, or just
offer this attitude to yourself. Notice what happens.
Return your attention to your whole body, sitting or lying and present. Open your eyes when you are ready.
Adapted from Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan Smalley and Diana Winston (Da Capo Press, 2010).