Pain and Suffering

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Pain is nature’s way of getting our attention — and it works!

Suffering is not caused by pain but by resisting painPost at Guru’s Feet

In our usual way of speaking, ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ mean the same thing. In understandings like the quote above, suffering is a kind of secondary pain.

My understanding is that it is rather like squeezing our eyes shut when we get soap in them. Our reaction makes the pain worse.

My immediate reaction to the understanding in the quote is along the lines of: I’d rather like to do without either. But whether it is possible, or even desirable, to live without pain is doubtful.

The Usefulness of Pain

Pain is nature’s way of getting our attention — and it works! That knife blade going deeper in will cause us damage. That person may be violent. That food smells bad. These aren’t pleasant experiences — but we’d be worse off without them.

There are rare people who do not feel pain. They usually end up with quite severe injuries because they did not feel something bad as painful — such as treading on a nail. Pain seems to be part of preserving our health. Sometimes people’s health is being undermined, and they don’t feel pain, such as with cancer, for example — in that case, it would be better if they could feel the very first cancerous cell as somewhat painful.

When is Pain not ‘Real’?

Here is an exercise from Alexander Lowen’s system of bodywork called Bioenergetics [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Stand on your toes and move your hips up and down. You will usually find that you knees soon get tired. When you feel your knees getting tired, scream. You will usually find that the pain goes away and you can go up and down a little more.

Was that pain in our knees we felt ‘real’? It was directly experienced — and yet it wasn’t alleviated by any direct intervention such as sitting down and giving our knees a rest.

Another example… I’m somewhat scared of heights. I don’t like lookouts in the mountains. I like to stand a couple of yards or metres back from the edge, even when there is a fence. There is no real danger, but I still experience vertigo. This happens quite spontaneously: I can walk around a corner on a bush trail and find myself near a fenced cliff, and I feel vertigo immediately.

It seems that our pain signal can sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes this is due to our senses being tricked. I’m never likely to see the Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger. I know he isn’t really there hanging over an abyss, but I react as if he is. Likewise, if I’m driving at night I may mistake a piece of paper blowing across the road for an animal and respond as if it were an animal.

Our pain signal may also get it wrong due to past experience. In the opening scene of Apocalypse Now, the hero is thrown into panic by the sound of helicopters — a response he had learned on active duty in Vietnam. [The director’s cut of Apocalypse Now is the single best movie I have ever seen — but I wouldn’t recommend seeing it when you’re feeling fragile. I was still seeing scenes from it in my head three days later.] We may feel that someone is dangerous because they remind us of someone who was dangerous to us in our past. Once we get to know them we may be quite puzzled by our initial reaction. Parents supervise their children because children aren’t born knowing what is dangerous and what isn’t (yes, those blue lights in the gas oven are pretty, but…).

Pain, Suffering and Our Reactions

Our pain reaction does feel like a reaction — it happens before we think or reflect on what we are experiencing. It feels direct and immediate. But the years we spend in childhood learning about danger and pain — and the fact that our reaction can be triggered due to past experiences — mean that the distinction between pain and suffering can be a slippery one.

In emergency situations, there is a kind of natural pain blocking reaction, called shock. I remember a childhood friend running away from a dog and the dog’s teeth colliding with the back of his head. He had run home (a good hundred yards or so) and shown the cut to his mother before he started feeling any pain.

Those engaged in dangerous or very physically rigorous activities learn to respond differently to pain. Part of most martial arts is learning to deal with pain, and elite athletes sometimes do this too: I remember Ian Thorpe, an Australian swimmer, talking about needing to get out of the pool to vomit because he put himself through such pain in his training. (I find the encouragement of this kind of thing ethically dubious.)

The positive side to being able to retrain our reaction to pain is not reacting by clenching. In this way we can learn to not make the pain worse. We can learn to not squeeze our eyes shut when we get soap in them. We can learn to listen to our reaction and consider whether we are in danger.

We can also learn that some of our pain is not ‘real’. Chris Edgar, discussing fear, advises that we ask ourselves: am I really in danger right now? Usually we’re not, so asking this question can help us to relax.

It seems to me that we can learn gradually to reduce our suffering. It seems to me that we can also learn to listen to our pain so that we have an indication of what is wrong or dangerous to us.

I would like to hear your experiences with pain and suffering. Disagreements with what I have said are most welcome. Perhaps you have had the experience of changing your pain reaction, or perhaps you have learned to listen more closely to it. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

Like my previous couple of articles, this post is inspired Caroline Brazier’s The Buddhist Psychology: Liberate Your Mind, Embrace Life [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], which I recommend highly.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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