It's common to think of pain and suffering as one and the same. However, understanding the distinction between the two can ultimately help us to reduce our own suffering by accepting our pain, rather than fighting against it.
Healing Pain and Ending Suffering
The key to healing is focusing on solutions.
Robert Puff Ph.D. Meditation for Modern Life
Pain is a very real event that can cause immense struggle and hurt, such as losing a job, getting sued, etc.
Unlike pain, suffering is the story in one's head about what happened.
Reducing pain starts with examining one's thoughts, asking only helpful questions, and identifying what needs to be changed.
“Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?” I bet you’ve asked yourself this question more than once in your life. In fact, you may be going through something in your life right now that is making you wonder why suffering itself exists. Challenging life experiences are not uncommon, however, they can be very debilitating.
When experiencing challenges and difficult times, our brain can create some very unnerving thoughts. You may ask yourself or the universe, “Is this ever going to end?” or “Do I want to live with this for the rest of my life? If this is my reality, do I even want to live anymore?” What heavy pain we must feel when thinking this way.
The difference between pain and suffering
I want to offer a different way we can address suffering. Let’s examine another more constructive approach to take our pain and heal from it. With this approach, we can resolve our pain and affect how long it has a hold over us. To do so, we first must notice exactly what the difference is between pain and suffering.
Pain is an actual event that has happened to us. Pain is a very real event that can cause immense struggle and hurt. Specifically, pain may come from losing a job, somebody suing us, or possibly physical ailments, like cancer.
Suffering is the story in our heads about what happened. Essentially, that inner voice that asks all of the unhelpful questions that make you feel even worse is the root of suffering.
Managing pain and suffering
Let’s take an example of a life event that has caused both pain and suffering. After working an early morning job for some time, and not being a morning person, you eventually get fired. This causes pain, possibly to your ego for being rejected. It may also cause pain because you are no longer able to provide. Suffering, in this case, begins when you start asking, “Will I ever be able to find another job? What does this mean? Did I mess up? Why am I such a failure?” This type of reflection is not helpful.
I challenge you, if you are in this headspace, to ask yourself something. “Do I want to add to my pain?” When thoughts surrounded by suffering come swarming in, do you truly want to let them take control? You have already lost your job; there are many more constructive questions you can be thinking of instead. When in a state of suffering, we only add to our pain. We already have to deal with being out of work; is it truly helpful to add to the problem by asking questions that in no way help the situation? What if we were to focus on the situation differently? Since we are dealing with already being out of work, let’s instead approach the issue with tangible steps we can take. Begin thinking clearly about what we need to do to pick a job that is better suited for us. In this situation, we could ask, “What did I learn from this?” Answers would mostly likely include searching for jobs that don’t begin early in the morning. As a human, there is nothing wrong with functioning differently. In this case, tangibly decide to apply for jobs that start at 9 a.m. or later. Next, identify why the pain caused is an issue and what needs to be changed to resolve and heal the pain. Following this example, having a job provided income for bills, rent, and maybe a sense of purpose. Now is a good time to ask, “If I have bills coming up and rent to pay, how should I go about tackling that?” Let’s brainstorm some options by asking, “Could I apply for unemployment or find a temporary job?” or “Are there any family or friends who I could reach out to for a loan?”
Notice the difference between the two types of questions we ask ourselves here. When anxiety is activated in our brain, we may be asking unhelpful and even destructive questions like, “Why did they fire us? They are so unfair!” Ruminating on things that are not helpful and asking if we deserve what happened to us isn’t constructive and only feeds our pity party. To be very honest, this is how life works. Simply put, there is no reason why these things happen; they just do. Focus on solutions to the problem rather than adding to the pain that is already there.
The pain of losing the job is enough. It is not helpful to follow the path of suffering and ask questions that in no way heal. We have pain; how do we reduce this pain right now? Look at our mental thoughts and try to compare them to physical pain. If you had a bruised hand, you wouldn’t take a hammer to it and continue to beat it. The same goes for psychological pain. Allow yourself to feel that hurt, acknowledge its existence, brainstorm solutions, and give yourself the grace to heal.
When you focus on solutions the pain will heal. However, if you stay stuck in mental suffering, it will fester. You may be thinking right now, “I will never get better. I will never be happy again.” Human existence tells us otherwise. This is not true; you will get better if you want to. History tells us that humans experience pain and heal from it, constantly.
The trick to healing is focusing on solutions that will make it better. You may think otherwise but I can tell you with confidence taking an active role in trying to get better will help you get better. Fighting life makes us suffer. There are endless examples of what pain looks like in this world. Denying its existence is futile but accepting the truth of its inevitability and choosing an active role in healing is key.
The takeaway I hope you realize is it’s not about what happened; it’s about what we do with what happened. Look at Hellen Keller. She couldn’t see or hear and she became one of the greatest spokespersons in history. Life does not need to go a certain way for us to be happy. Rather, our power comes into play when we handle situations that we are not happy about. Sometimes, the solution to our pain is pure acceptance.
No matter what happens or what life gives us, there are always solutions. Be aware of your thoughts. What is the solution to my pain? What am I going to do about it? Don’t stay stuck. You deserve a beautiful life.