I used to think suffering was caused by painful conditions and circumstances in my life. I didn’t realize that, in fact, there is a distinct difference between pain and suffering. After all, the two words are often used together as an indivisible unit — pain-and-suffering — as if we cannot experience pain without suffering. But it turns out we can. And it turns out this distinction is important because often we have no choice whether or not we experience pain, but we do have choice whether or not we suffer.
Definition of Suffering
Suffering is the inner experience of resisting or denying “what is.”
There are two major roads to suffering. The first is when we believe that what is happening (or what we perceive is happening) should not be happening. The second is when we believe something that contradicts Truth at a more essential level, at the level of Reality Itself. Pain, on the other hand, is simply an unpleasant sensory or emotional sensation. I love how Grace Bell expresses the difference between pain and suffering in her blog, Not Minding the Pain. She says, “It hurts, but I’m not upset about it.”
Whether our perception of what is happening is accurate or not, suffering comes when we believe the thought, “It shouldn’t be like this.” If my husband leaves dirty dishes in the sink when I explicitly asked him to wash them, and if I believe he should have washed them, I’ll have an inner experience I might call “annoyance” or “agitation.” I’m suffering because what I believe should be happening is not happening. Notice that if I didn’t believe he should have washed the dishes, I wouldn’t be suffering. My suffering has nothing to do with whether or not he did the dishes, but it has everything to do with if I believe he should have or not. Similarly, I might have an emotion arising within me (like anger), and, due to past conditioning, I believe the (probably unconscious) thought, “Anger is bad. I shouldn’t be feeling anger.” The result is an automatic repression of the emotion. The inner experience we have when repressing emotion in this way will be some form of suffering.
We also suffer when we believe something that conflicts with Truth on a more essential level. A simple but profound example is when we believe we are fundamentally flawed or “not good enough” at an intrinsic level. With a little inner reflection, we easily notice the suffering we experience when we believe this profoundly debilitating thought and how it affects our lives in far-reaching ways. When we believe a thought that conflicts with Reality Itself in this way, we will suffer at every level of our being, including physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
If you have been around the block in the self-help world, you’ve probably heard the all-too familiar, “What you resist, persists!” While this may be true, what is resistance exactly? Resistance, in my view, is equivalent to suffering. It is the inner experience we have when we are in internal conflict with “what is.” We could be resisting something happening outside of us (e.g., “I don’t like that my hubby didn’t do the dishes.”) or something happening within us (e.g., “I feel angry, and I shouldn’t feel angry.”)
On our Healing journey, we begin to see that much of what we resist are natural flows of energy within us. For instance, emotion is simply a flow of energy that moves through us like a wave when it is allowed to flow naturally. However, we often learn when we are young that some emotions are wrong or bad to feel, and so we resist (repress) them. It is when that natural flow of energy hits the wall of resistance within us that we have the inner experience called suffering. Often, this experience is what we might label as something like “anxiety” or “fear” or “panic,” depending upon the intensity of the natural energy trying to move through. (This experience can take many forms, not just anxiety.) Believe it or not, we can also resist energies like “joy,” or “passion,” or “excitement,” because somehow we learned those were wrong to feel when we were young. In this case, we have the same inner experience of suffering (in the form of anxiety or whatever other form it may take) when that energy hits the wall of resistance within us. Again, suffering/resistance occurs when we believe that what is happening should not be happening. If I resist or repress a certain emotion but the reality is the energy of that emotion is present, then I am suffering.
The Cycle of Suffering
Now I’d like to highlight an aspect of suffering not often acknowledged. I said in the beginning of this post that we have choice in whether or not we suffer. From what I shared above, it may seem the choice would be to simply stop resisting “what is.” Indeed, an entire self-help industry has been built upon this premise. But here is something that is often overlooked or denied: If we are suffering, we want it to stop. That might seem obvious, but this is actually one of the most important breakthroughs I have ever had. Let me put it another way: Intrinsic in the nature of suffering is the desire for it to stop. We have no choice in the matter. If we are suffering, we cannot talk ourselves out of wanting it to go away. No amount of contriving and affirming will make that desire disappear. And when we try to make this desire go away — try to stop resisting — we are simply adding yet another layer of resistance (resisting our resistance), thus compounding the issue further. The desire for suffering to stop and the suffering itself are forever linked together. I call this the “cycle of suffering” because being caught in this cycle feels like being caught in a gigantic feedback loop with the same information being regurgitated over and over. And what happens when we have a desire for the suffering to stop? We will try to find ways to make it end. We will search, seek, analyze, plan, experiment, cajole, beg, plead, and try just about anything to make it go away, “heal” it, or “transmute” it. Unfortunately, all of that searching is a part of the suffering itself. It cannot lead to anything other than suffering, even if the conditions we blame the suffering on shift and morph into other forms. This is the “self-help” trap I’ve been caught in most of my life. At least it has kept me busy!
So… What’s Next Then?
When I had this realization, I immediately understood that the only way out of this cycle is to shift our attention to “something else” within us that is not suffering. This can be the hardest thing in the world to do for many reasons. Suffering is extremely compelling. It is addictive. And it is often literally who we think we are. Furthermore, we are convinced that we have to somehow directly address the suffering itself to make it go away. But the truth is, resisting our resistance (suffering) only keeps us in the cycle.
Our choice is not in whether or not we are resisting “what is.” If we are suffering, we are already doing that. Our choice is in where we place our attention next. Just because we are caught in the cycle of suffering doesn’t mean there is nothing else to who we are. Many of us do not realize there is anything else to us. Our entire lives have become almost entirely about trying to control and avoid what we don’t want (suffering).
The process of Healing begins by noticing there is more to who we are than the cycle of suffering we are caught in, that there is “something else” to us. We can begin to turn our attention toward this broader aspect of ourselves and, grounded in this Resource, form a new relationship with our suffering. When we do this, our suffering will be transmuted. At its core, this is a process of deep self acceptance.
Would you like to read more about the process of Healing? Check out the section on my webpage entitled, What Is Healing?