The bearable lightness of pain without suffering


Having lived with late-stage chronic Lyme disease for 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of pain. Pain can be useful and productive, such as the pain we feel when we touch a hot stove, it says “Quick! Move your hand!”, or the pain women experience during childbirth, which midwives call “pain with a purpose”. Chronic pain is different. Chronic pain isn’t there to warn us of danger or bring about something we want. Chronic pain seems to have no real purpose at all, except to make us miserable!

It’s similar with chronic depression and anxiety. When we encounter stresses in our lives such as a death in the family, going through a divorce, or losing a job, we can expect to experience sadness and worry as part of the journey towards acceptance. But when these feelings become constant states, they no longer serve us.

Buddhism teaches that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. What does that mean? To say “pain is inevitable” is to sum up the human condition. We’re born, we grow older, we experience illness and disease, and at some point we die. This can be a painful process, as there are bound to be plenty of hot stoves (or equivalent) along the way. But the teaching goes on to say “suffering is optional”. If pain is an inevitable part of the human condition, what is suffering, and why is it optional?

Here’s what I think: suffering is wishing things were different than they are. Suffering is dwelling on thoughts such as “I wish I wasn’t in pain. If I didn’t have this pain, my life would be perfect”. Suffering is also the stories we tell ourselves about our pain. For example, we may believe that we somehow deserve our pain, and that we’re being punished. Or perhaps the story goes something like, “I used to be able to do X and I can’t anymore. Now I’m worthless”. Or perhaps, “I’ve been in pain for X number of years. No one understands what I’m going through.” These stories create our suffering. If we could drop the stories and experience the pain as it is, we might find life a lot friendlier.

Personally, when I first made a distinction between my pain and my suffering, I experienced a pivotal moment in my journey with Lyme disease. This distinction drastically changed the course of my relationship with my illness and for the first time made my situation feel workable. It’s a practice, and I’m not perfect at it, but it goes something like this:

If, for example, my back hurts, I do my best to sit (or lie) with the pain without adding to it. I might get curious about the pain – the intensity, the quality – but only insofar as it exists in that particular moment. I do my best to avoid dwelling on past pains or predicting future pains, and if I catch myself panicking about how this pain is sure to sabotage all my future plans and ambitions, I take a deep breath and reconnect with the pain I’m actually experiencing in the present moment. In contrast with the imagined future, the present moment is always workable. There are tools in the present moment that I don’t have access to in the imagined future, tools such as my breath, the warm sun on my skin, the cup of fragrant tea at my side, the sound of my family making dinner. I reconnect with these tools, with this workable pain, and suddenly my burden is so much lighter, suddenly there’s only pain unadorned by suffering. In that moment, I’ve opted-out.

Image © 2014 Erin Bidlake

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