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Pain vs Suffering


To understand how pain becomes suffering, there is a deep truth about the nature of suffering that needs to be understood first.

Most people equate suffering with pain, but suffering is actually a function of two variables: sorry for the algebraic terminology, if you can please bear with me as I use some mathematical metaphors, all will make sense shortly!

Let’s look at a typical four-sided shape, a square or a rectangle – its area is a function of two variables, namely, its height and length. If you double the length, you double the area, although the height stays the same. If you reduce the height to zero, the area becomes zero no matter how long the original square or rectangle may have been.

It’s the same with suffering with this also being a function of two variables, i.e. pain and the degree to which the pain is being resisted. What do I mean by resistance? Resistance takes place both in the body and in the mind and can be either conscious or unconscious. Conscious resistance in the mind takes the form of judgement, fearful projections, wishful thinking etc with thoughts such as: “Oh, I hate this pain. I can’t stand it any longer! When is it ever going to stop?” Conscious resistance in the body takes the form of tension and holding – you have a pain in your leg, so you may be tightening your jaw, tensing or holding your breath, perhaps clenching your entire body in an attempt to not let the pain spread and circulate. Ironically, we find the unsuccessful attempts with this latter approach giving rise to referred pain being generated elsewhere in the body.

As for the unconscious resistance, the clue is in the wording: by definition, you’re not going to know about it! We have no control over this as it takes place in the deep pre-conscious level of neural processing, moment by moment. However, by learning how to observe our pain carefully, it allows the unconscious mind to gradually unlearn its habit of resistance. This is why the practice of mindfulness often involves intently, but gently, pouring our awareness on the actual pain, rather than continuing to fight it.

Going back to the algebra, the formula, “suffering = pain x resistance” contains both good and bad news. The good news is that, in theory, and therefore with enough practice, no-one need suffer ever again, because resistance can be made very small – so small that it can eventually be reduced to zero. When the resistance factor reaches zero, suffering is zeroed out, no matter how big the pain factor may be!

The bad news, however, is that in many cases, people’s resistance grows when the pain persists. Even though the pain level may stay the same, over time we humans perceive it as being so awful that it becomes unbearable because our resistance to it has become so great.

This mathematical model is such a superbly clever analogy, that it accurately explains why even the tiniest, subliminal pain can cause immense suffering if we strongly resist it.

The suffering that underlies many forms of compulsive behaviour, such as substance abuse, is often caused by this type of subtle, subliminal pain being subject to a huge level of subconscious resistance. When working with pain, I always say to my clients: subtle is significant, acceptance is not indifference and we can cope with the pain without suffering!

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