Pain vs. Suffering

Have you ever seen a toddler fall down?

A few things can happen.
1) The kid can bounce right back up and continue on their wobbly way.
2) The kid can become aware of the pain in the body part that they bumped and start crying.
3) The kid can fall and then look around to read people’s reaction. If they see concerned faces, they start wailing. If they see no signs of alarm from the adults, they pop-up and play.

In number 2, the kid feels pain and reacts to it.
In number 3, the child is in the process of learning a story about injury, obstacles, failure, & nurturing. He looks to the world to know how to react and learns a story of suffering.

I have seen parents pick up a stunned toddler who just SMACKED his head and greet the child with smiles and applause. The kid, trying to figure out what story to attach to the sensations, was confused but did not cry.

I can remember being a kid and being so caught up in the act of suffering that I forgot why I started crying. My pain was the momentary embarrassment of being scolded by my parents. My suffering was the elaborate story of unfair parenting and being misunderstood. The pain was momentary. The suffering indefinite.


People often use the terms “pain” and suffering” interchangeably. But there is a significant difference. Pain is the inevitable physical hurt caused by a situation. Suffering is the story we attach to it.

Pain is the aching & itching from a full leg cast. Suffering is the thought that we can’t play all summer.

Pain is the feeling of loss when our loved one is no longer next to us. Suffering is the story of how we will never get to watch a Dodger game together again.

Pain is the sensation on burned skin. Suffering is the thought, “I can’t believe I was so stupid to grab that hot pan.”

Pain is something experienced in the Now. Suffering is brought from the future or past into our Now.

One you have control over, the other you do not. Pain is something that must be managed, endured, and healed. A broken leg, the loss of loved one, a burnt hand. You cannot “positive-think” your way around the pain of those situations. But you can become aware of when you let your mind slip out of the pain and into suffering.
Am I dwelling on a story that makes me feel bad? Am I feeling guilty, stupid, hopeless, as I imagine the consequences or cause of this scenario? If so, pull back and analyze your thoughts. How much of this is inevitable pain, and how much is optional suffering?

It is never the circumstances that cause suffering – it is our thoughts about them. As Shakespeare says in Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

And what generally causes suffering is the thought that “things should be different than the are.”
I should not have a broken leg. Grandma should not be gone. I should not have a burnt hand.

Think about any frustration or suffering in your life. Can you see how your feelings are not caused by any physical situation, but by your thoughts that things should NOT be that way?

Byron Katie’s teaches that we must learn to love reality and question the thoughts that cause suffering.

“If you fight with reality,” she says, “You will loose. But only 100% of the time.”

You don’t suffer because you lost your job. You suffer because you wish you still had it.
We are trained through our socialization intricate stories of what is fair and what is unfair. What we should not stand for and what is cause for righteous indignation. What we deserve and what we don’t.

People will fight for years in courtrooms and cut off family ties because they feel so strongly that things should be different. Things are unfair. “I shouldn’t have to.”

There is a line in “A Course In Miracles” that says, “Would you rather be right? Or would you rather be happy?” How quickly this question can snap us out of rut of suffering.

Often times we drive ourselves crazy wishing things were different. Believing that things should not be as they are. But reality simply IS. And wishing things were different is the very definition of suffering.

On the contrary, seeing the perfection in the now is a surefire recipe for Joy and gratitude. How dramatic a shift that can be in one’s life without changing a single thing.

This is not to say that you don’t take action and work to affect the future. If it begins to rain, it would make sense to grab an umbrella. Loving reality doesn’t mean sitting in the rain and letting yourself get soaked. It just means you don’t curse the lousy weather. Weather cannot be “lousy.” It simply is. Our only choice is to accept it or suffer.

I have begin answering the benign question, “How’s it going?” with an enthusiastic, “Perfect!”
Often checkout clerks will light up and be surprised by my response. “Fine” or “good” is the accepted response. But “Perfect?”

My reply is usually something like, “What is the alternative? This moment is as it is. I can acknowledge that nothing in this moment is ‘wrong,’ or I can suffer wishing it was different.”

I couple corollaries to remember:

1) Accepting reality does not mean do nothing to change a situation. It means that you accept the reality of the Now and take your next step from a peaceful place. Grab an umbrella, take a painkiller, call an old friend, update your resume, pick up litter, or do nothing and be still. Be free from your story of suffering and act from a place of clarity.

2) All thoughts are not bad. You don’t need to question ALL thoughts. Only the ones that cause you suffering. Thoughts can be the source of Joy, contentment, and satisfaction. Focus on the thoughts that bring you pleasure, question the thoughts that make you suffer. Simple.

Whatever your Now looks like, practice seeing its perfection. Because, remember, what is the alternative?

-John Halcyon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *