Pain and Suffering

Recently, at work I have been helping clients to see the difference between pain and suffering with the following formula.

Pain x Resistance = Suffering

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This idea can be so helpful that I am even going to frame it and put it on my wall. I first came across this idea in a Dharma talk by American mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young, and it relates to the Buddhist parable of the second arrow. In this parable pain is characterised as being struck by an arrow, and this is seen as unavoidable. Can you think of a single day that has passed you by without the experience of some physical or emotional pain? Pain is common, and useful, and people who are medically unable to experience pain often struggle to live without this important system functioning. Pain is unavoidable. We can do something about suffering.

Suffering is characterised as being shot by the first arrow and then proceeding to stab yourself with a second arrow in response. So what does this look like? If I stub my toe I often experience a stab of rage comprising a tight, hot bundle of thoughts and emotions. I might call myself stupid, or clumsy, or start lamenting the fact that my toe could be broken or at least very sore for some time, and this is all hung against a wallpaper of anger. So being shot by the first arrow is the pain of a stubbed toe, and stabbing myself with the second arrow is all of the angry rumination that follows, and this can make the physical pain seem worse.

Another thing I remember Shinzen saying is that he reckons you have about 2 seconds to engage in mindful awareness from the beginning of a painful experience, in order to avoid the second arrow. I practice this myself, when I have the presence of mind, and the difference is enormous. There is still the intense pain of a stubbed toe, and I stay with that. I can even notice some of the ruminations and the anger, but I am not invested in them so they do not persist. I feel the relief as the pain begins to subside. I am open to being comforted by someone if they are nearby. There is much less suffering.

This is the difference between resisting pain, and not. So let’s have a closer look at what resistance is. There are two principle types of resistance: clinging and aversion. Clinging is resistance to loss. In my example this is the loss of my healthy, pain free toe, and my fragile sense of being someone who is not stupid or clumsy. Aversion is the action of pushing away things we do not want. In my example this is angrily trying to shut out the pain. In a more serious example one might experience aversion as shame around some perceived flaw we have, energetically pushing it away and avoiding it. We may cling on to parts of our past that no longer truly exist, like the loss of a loved one.

I am sure that you will be able to start picking up on the ways in which you resist the unavoidable pain that comes with life. These are usually well established habits of mind that you have ingrained over the years. They may be influenced by your culture, or by your family and friends. The most important thing is to notice them when they happen, because this gives you greater opportunity to reduce them or even let go completely. If we put some numbers into the equation we might get a better idea of how this works.

Pain 10 x Resistance 10 = Suffering 100

This can serve as a kind of baseline.

Pain 1 x Resistance 100 = Suffering 100

Even a small amount of pain can be accompanied by enormous suffering. Think crying over spilt milk.

Pain 100 x Resistance 1 = Suffering 100

Pain can be so deeply unpleasant and intense that suffering is almost impossible to avoid, but imagine if the Resistance was still 10!

Pain 10 x Resistance 5 = Suffering 50

Back to the baseline of pain. Halving the resistance has halved the suffering.

Pain 10 x Resistance 1 = Suffering 10

Now there is a reduction to one tenth the suffering.

Pain 10 x Resistance 0.5 = Suffering 5

And now one twentieth!

Pain 10 x Resistance 0 = Suffering 0

And now no suffering at all, just pain.

Pain 1,000,000 x Resistance 0 = Suffering 0

And this last one is a lofty goal indeed. I am sure that we each have some mental idea of what one million pain looks like, and I am sure that there is equal doubt that anyone can take it without suffering: I don’t know.

Hopefully this article has given you a useful model to view your pain and suffering through, and some useful pointers on how you might start to identify how you are resisting pain, and how this can lead to a reduction in how much time you spend suffering each day. As a final word I will say that the process of identifying our resistance is not usually comfortable, and takes plenty of practice to get good at. Learning to be with your pain can also be enormously difficult, and being with intense emotional pain and trauma can require skilled professional support.

This is best approached with a curious, compassionate, non-judgemental mindset that acknowledges the inevitable mistakes that will get made along the way to reaping the happy benefits.

Photo by Natalie on

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