In May of 2019 I wrote an article for ThriveGlobal, an online publication founded by Arianna Huffington in 2016 to support people who were struggling with stress and burnout. The title of the article is “Pain Versus Suffering” and I pointed out that while physical and emotional pain is inevitable, suffering is caused by the story we tell ourselves about the painful events in our lives.
I suggest that you read this article before continuing; then resume here as an addendum to the 2019 piece.
While I have known that I create my own suffering by the narrative I run in my head about some incident, I find reminders very helpful. I had many years to practice my suffering so it is easy to fall back on old habits. Like the long-sober alcoholic who still finds attending A.A. meetings or working out at the gym, I find regular reminders that I create my own suffering very helpful in living a life of equanimity.
First, allow me to clarify what I mean by suffering.
Suffering is a state of mind that holds something shouldn’t have happened or be happening. It originates in ego and asserts that it knows what should be and what shouldn’t. It can range from mild irritation to incredible upset. It is a made up story or a narrative usually based on some long-cherished belief about emotional or physical pain we have experienced.
Examples can include agitation over a certain political figure, the outcome of an election, the behavior of a co-worker or spouse, a comment made by a friend, or any other activity outside of yourself that bothers you. This suffering can also include large, seemingly significant events like global warming, racism, air and water pollution, the current pandemic, and genocide.
Suffering can also be based on physical pain – again it is a story we tell ourselves. For example, we cut our finger while chopping vegetables for a salad. It hurts for a day or two but the narrative might be “Boy, am I clumsy and stupid for cutting my finger” or “It was my husband’s fault for interrupting me while making dinner;” the narrative could go on for a lifetime and gets rekindled every time we injure ourselves.
Pain is usually impermanent. Loss of a loved one, failing to get a job we wanted, getting bruised from an accident, the cut finger – all heal in time. But you can use these painful events to create a lifetime of suffering for yourself.
I find these distinctions helpful given my propensity to forget this and return to suffering. Pain is an experience; suffering is a head trip. Suffering is based on a belief that we are all separate. Suffering (the mental) can magnify and extend the pain, whether the pain is emotional or physical; we will heal more slowly if we indulge in the narrative.
The biggest factor in my having a relatively suffering-free life is regular reminders of this truth which bolster my resolve. One of my favorite teachers in this regard is Chris Davis who’s work I featured in my Mini Keynote newsletter editorial in May – “Nondualism as a Re-Framing Perspective.” I attend his virtual calls for my monthly work-out.