Dark Night of the Soul · Dharma Diary

The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

Everyone knows that pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. It’s not always easy to remember, but recently I had a surprising breakthrough just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse – which may be the point. Six years ago my health collapsed and I began collecting auto-immune disorders as a hobby. It’s basically inflammation and it gets everywhere – and I mean, everywhere.

So I’m trying to be all stoic about it and getting on with my life. Most of the time that works fine. I can acknowledge the pain and not make an issue of it. I thought I was doing a pretty good job learning not to suffer over my suffering, and then I had another flare up. I can see the funny side of it when my joints seize up because I’ve been sitting for too long. Staggering about the living room like an old biddy grumbling about my knees is quite amusing.

But when my eyes turned blood red and my face erupted with oozing lesions of eczema and I woke every night clawing at my throat until I bled, it wasn’t funny anymore. Still, I had gold bogies – that’s cool, right?

(The eczema made it all the way up my nose, in case you’re wondering 😦 )

The inflammation got into my brain too – and that’s where the fun really started. I looked like an extra from The Walking Dead and felt worse. There were days when I literally couldn’t get off the sofa. I had a ton of writing to do and the flat needed a clean, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even think.

And then something happened that I didn’t believe was possible. I went all the way through the most profound depression and came out the other side.

Fear the Walking Dead
Me on a good day

Pain v Suffering

Suffering is an emotional experience, whereas pain is just a fact. Suffering arises because of your attitude towards the facts of life. It’s the story you tell yourself about the pain you’re feeling – whether that pain is physical, emotional, or psychological. To stop the suffering all you have to do is stop taking it personally – stop telling the story.

I discovered this by accident, many years ago. It was a freezing winter day and I was trying to cross the busy street outside my house. I stepped off the kerb onto a patch of ice, slipped and fell on my arse. A ball of pain shot up my spine and exploded in my head. I couldn’t think – the pain was so powerful and intense that it pushed every thought, and me, out.

There was just PAIN.

There was no story about the pain. I wasn’t thinking, “Ouch!” or even worrying about how stupid I looked having fallen (that came later!). Two girls helped me up (without laughing) and I thanked them, still without any thought. The pain had taken over. Only gradually did my normal thought patterns start up again. Later on the pain subsided a bit and that’s when I started to complain.

It’s the same with headaches. If it’s just a slight ache you do the drama queen routine of pressing a hand to your head and moaning, “Oh, my head, I’m dying, I’ve got meningitis, I’ve got a brain tumour…” The pain isn’t really that bad, you’re just milking it for sympathy. But when you have a stonking headache – a proper migraine – you can’t move or open your eyes and you feel sick. The migraine takes over. You don’t have the energy to make up a story about the pain. It just hurts.

When I got my tattoo it was similar. I knew it was going to hurt, so I braced for the pain. The needle started to pierce my skin like a jackhammer, so fast it felt like the tattooist was dragging a razorblade through my skin. The pain built and hit me in waves, filling my head. There was no way to get away from it; I volunteered for this, I couldn’t complain. So I accepted the pain and let it be.

The pain doesn’t go away when you do this. It still hurts, but it’s okay that it hurts. As Lawrence of Arabia says, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”

This isn’t about being a sadomasochist, like Larry. It’s not about enjoying the pain. That would be a different story.

It’s about not trying to control something you can’t control. Suffering comes from resistance, from trying to get away from the pain. It feels personal because it hurts. You feel victimised, as if the pain is attacking you. But physical pain is just an agitated nerve ending – it’s completely impersonal. Here’s a short extract from Addled where Zoe Popper is dealing with the pain of a nasty toothache:

“A ticklish fizzing buzzed in my jaw. A wasp caught in a thimble. I breathed into it and the pain increased. I fought with myself not to take it personally. Don’t label it, don’t think about it, just let it be. I breathed hard, hyperventilating; the pain scorched, flames enveloping my head. I ran through everything I could think of: the pain is empty, the pain doesn’t inherently exist, it’s all happening in awareness – flinging words and hope at the fire, as if that would put it out. Tears leapt from my eyes to escape the blaze.

As it had begun, it ended, simmering down to a flicker, and I marvelled at the intensity of the pain. It pushed every other thought from my mind; there was no space left, not even for me. At the end, there had been nothing but the inferno; it consumed everything in its wake. The pain was miraculous, unfathomable, glorious.

When the next wave hit I was ready for it. I held at my centre, in awareness, and the pain became fascinating. I watched its progress, rising and falling. I was one with the pain. Awareness didn’t make the pain stop, it still hurt like hell, but it was okay. I could handle it. Awareness dissolved the suffering.”

When you surrender to whatever is happening and stop trying to escape, a space opens up around it. It’s like the pain is held in a kind of spaciousness. This is your true nature, which is awareness – emptiness.

The same principle applies to emotional and psychological pain. If you can experience the pain without telling a story about it, without labelling it or judging it as bad, or even good, you can reach the centre.

Double Helix

At the heart of every emotion and every thought there’s an open space. It’s a bit like the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. At the centre of you is a black hole, a void, an empty space of pure awareness or consciousness. Out of this emptiness, or nothingness, arises the whole of existence.

Out of nothing comes you, in every moment.

Embracing your suffering and pain, without judgement or thought, can reveal this truth.

My joints hurt and that’s OK (sort of)

Sometimes physical pain is connected to an emotional pain, so to heal the physical pain you first have to heal on an emotional level. That’s what I’m trying to do now with the inflammation in my body. The story that underpins my various maladies is one that has haunted me since I can remember – the feeling of being unworthy of life.

Most of the time this story isn’t a problem. My spiritual practice keeps it under control and I’m slowly dissolving the delusion. However, when the pain flares up it triggers the story, which then feeds back into the pain. It’s a vicious cycle that only gets worse over time. But maybe that’s the point.

I’m sitting at the centre of an emotional tornado that reveals, with every twist and turn, exactly how I cause my own suffering. The self-improvement work I’ve done has made me feel worse – all it did was reinforce the underlying story of not being good enough.

My illness is challenging me to let go and accept life as it is, without any guarantee that I’ll heal or feel better. That’s pretty tough, but it’s had some surprising effects. I’ve found joy in unexpected places.

This post is already too long, so I’ll reveal all next time in: What I learnt about joy on the sofa

More from my Dharma Diary

Images: White Hole


12 thoughts on “The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

  1. Suffering is an emotional experience, whereas pain is just a fact. Suffering arises because of your attitude towards the facts of life. It’s the story you tell yourself about the pain you’re feeling – whether that pain is physical, emotional, or psychological. To stop the suffering all you have to do is stop taking it personally – stop telling the story.

    ~ If you replace “suffering” with “happiness/joy/contentment” and “pain” with “balance/calm” and modify a few words, it works. For instance: Joy is an emotional experience, whereas calm is just a fact. Joy arises because of your attitude towards the facts of life. It’s the story you tell yourself about the calm you’re feeling — whether that calm is physical, emotional or psychological. To start the joy, all you have to do is to start taking it personally – start telling the story.

    Sometimes physical pain is connected to an emotional pain, so to heal the physical pain you first have to heal on an emotional level. That’s what I’m trying to do now with the inflammation in my body. The story that underpins my various maladies is one that has haunted me since I can remember – the feeling of being unworthy of life.

    ~ This part just punched me in the ribs so hard.

    I like being alone because I don’t like conflict…being with another person just increases the probability of conflict (especially trivial conflict). But the price I pay for avoiding conflict is a profound, simultaneous suffocation and alienation that I am only just now able to admit to myself in this moment…. I’ve been lonely for so long I forgot about it. My coping arsenal is clearly very well-stocked on an intellectual/conscious mind level, but the suffering disguises itself as neck and shoulder pain. Some part of me knows what I need to do…I just need to wait until the message reaches the right state of awareness.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is one well-known magic cure-all that seems to be beneficial for these things, Just don’t expect to get anything done.

    I’m am nervously sitting here, feeling perfectly all right at the moment, quite sure that at my age, the fun is soon to begin and I will quite often remember this post and the comments. I had an operation recently and I must admit I was less good at dealing with it than I had hoped. Note to self, do a lot more more sitting you lazy oaf.

    I had no idea what was going on at the time but I had the good fortune, I later realised, to experience immense pain occasionally as a teenager, sometimes enough to make me pass out, and discovered that pain is a judgement, that acceptance of it, observation rather than horrified reaction, was the key to survival. I consider myself lucky to have been in such pain at this age, just old enough, but also young enough, to benefit from it.

    Thanks for such a good article, Jessica, and likewise for the comment, Cabrogal. I’m sorry to hear about all these troubles. Life and death, eh. It’s hard work. .

    I’m not sure what skin problems are being discussed here but I was amazed by how effective my local Chines herbalist was with a bad case of rosascea (sp) for which nobody else could do anything. Irrelevant I expect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. I’m sure there’s some sort of crazy Chinese herbal stuff that would sort me out, and maybe energy healing or somesuch. I think most of it is emotional and/or psychological combined with underlying genetic predisposition to gut dysbiosis exacerbated by toxic overload from the environment. A mess, in other words. But that’s life 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been sitting on an unfinished post for about a month about my current bout of iritis. I’ve got the HLA-B27 antigen – along with several other autoimmune issues – so I’m big on inflammatory diseases (and yes, my HLA-B27 related psoriasis also gets into my nose and makes for some colourful excretions).

    Here’s an extract from the draft about how the pain of iritis can be amplified by the suffering of perceptions of it.

    How much does iritis hurt?

    During my first serious episode the GP asked me to rate my pain from one to ten. Normally I would have replied with a cynical remark about ridiculously subjective diagnostic questions, but this time I had no hesitation awarding my excruciating eyeballs a perfect score. I was wrong though. Iritis doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it did. The problem wasn’t so much the pain as how I perceived it.

    Eyes are very close to ‘where you live’ so it’s easy to amplify how uncomfortable they are by imagining the damage being done. When I learned to stop reacting to the pain with thoughts like “My eyes! Oh God! My eyes!” I realised it wasn’t as bad as second degree burns, the back pain that comes with ankylosing spondylitis (I never get tired of those words) or when the dentist delightedly discovers a new cavity with that pointy probe of his. It still makes the top ten in my agony hit parade but, as Monty Python’s Black Knight said, I’ve had worse.

    OTOH, I’m currently indulging myself with the painless yet excruciating suffering of a broken heart.

    I caught a stray rabbit on Sunday, a beautiful little lop doe who is ridiculously affectionate even by bunny standards. When I knelt down she would climb into my lap and bury her face in my belly and if I left the room for more than a few minutes she’d be so excited when I returned she’d do little dances around me. Unfortunately there’s no way I could keep her and the doe who already lives here – Luna – missed no opportunities reminding me of that. Female rabbits can be fiercely territorial.

    So today I surrendered my brand new beloved to the RSPCA and as I write this she is doubtless all alone in a tiny cage after several months of freedom alone on the streets of Newcastle followed by a day of constant attention and affection.

    Ouch, ouch, ouch.
    I think I prefer the iritis pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So sorry about your collection of auto-immune problems – they do seem to hunt in packs, don’t they?!

      Very sad to hear about your new rabbit friend too. I hope the RSPCA manage to find a loving home for her soon. The heart always hurts the most 😢


  4. So sorry to hear about your chronic health problems. It must be much harder when you’re still young to suffer such chronic medical issues. Are there no helpful medical interventions?

    I’m an old lady and resigned to the disabilities I have, but I do take minimal medication to help me feel better and more able to function. However, I have had bad physical reactions to medications in th past and had to wean myself off of some. Here’s a link to an old blog post about that. http://solowomenathomeandabroad.blogspot.com/2015/07/recovering-and-reconnecting.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joanne. Pharmaceuticals are a real problem – interesting blog post about your allergic reactions to them. Unfortunately, the stuff they prescribe for auto-immune problems like mine tend to make the illness worse because they do nothing to help the underlying cause. My mum has many of the same problems so I’ve seen how unhelpful her doctor has been over the years. The main ‘solution’ they offer is to suppress the immune system – which isn’t a great idea.

      Thankfully there are natural alternatives, which I’m in the process of exploring. Mainly, I have to be careful about what I eat – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means I can’t indulge in things that are bad for me!

      Liked by 1 person

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