Originally Posted June 2014 on an earlier version of this blog.
As someone diagnosed with a chronic pain condition, this quote (often attributed to Buddha), is one of those helpful pieces of advice often given by people who really don’t want to listen to how you are feeling, but asked anyway.
It is something both profoundly true and utterly impossible to see when overwhelmed by pain – physical, mental or otherwise.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 18, over 20 years ago. I’ve had my fair share of practice with pain and suffering, chosen or not.
It was this condition that, in many ways, led me to begin exploring more spiritual approaches – something suggested to me at the time by folks with way more life experience than an arrogant 18 year old.
In the early years it didn’t stick too well. I tried to cover up the pain and it would take much suffering to bring me to the point of getting back into basic practices, healthy habits, and healthier ways of thinking. When the pain and suffering decreased I would rush back into my life with abandon – only to end up repeating the process all over again.
Over time I learned, somewhat the hard way, even though for someone with a chronic pain condition “pain is inevitable,” it is also true that “suffering is (mostly) optional.”
Whether chronic pain, a lost relationship, a failed goal, or some other physical or psychic blow, I’ve danced “pain and suffering” shuffle often enough to see many of the ins and outs, where we can get caught up and how to develop habits to overcome the aspects of this that can set up back.
What is suffering?
I used to believe that suffering was best described as the loss of hope. Hope that things would change, that the pain would become less. Then, someone suggested I look up the word.
The OED’s 1st definition of “suffer” is “to undergo or endure… To have (something painful, distressing or injurious) inflicted or imposed upon one.” Other online sources don’t differ significantly.
This is why I used “mostly” above in “suffering is (mostly) optional.” We all have something, sometime, in life that we need to endure. (a topic for another time)
Still, the word’s meaning has a very negative connotation in contemporary use. Someone who “suffers,” in our collective contemporary use of the word, is someone who is miserable at having to endure. A victim who can not move beyond their burden. A quick survey of a few people, and suffering is no longer “enduring,” but closer to “enduring with a prolonged victim mentality in a depressed or agitated state” – especially in the context of the quote.
The first part of the quote, “Pain is inevitable,” actually is equal to “suffering” in the proper use of the word. (Proper usage of words – another topic for another time).
‘Suffering,’ in the context valuable to us then, is probably best defined as “a prolonged sense of grieving or victimization that leads to the multiplication of the pain we are already in.”
Why don’t I want to suffer?
Well, it kind of sucks.
Aside from the reasons you can come up with on your own?
I would also say that culturally it is an unwanted trait. It can lead to poor productivity and strained relationships. Many of our religions and spiritual teachers, most of our philosophers, and pretty much every “self-help” book you can find, focus on creating life without suffering and points us toward some idealized state where all this will be, or can be, removed. In this life or the next (if your up for the gamble).
Most psychologists tell us that grieving is a healthy response to pain and loss. Prolonged grieving, or a prolonged sense of victimization, is usually classified as pathological.
There also is, I feel (particularly living this close to New York), a belief happiness is a sign of success. If I am sad, or miserable, or show suffering in some form, there is something wrong with me. Our advertising certainly points that way.
As human beings we have a range of emotions. Its healthy to be able to express all of them. Its when one or the other becomes so overwhelming we can’t move or can’t socialize that this can be unhealthy.
So do I have to suffer?
Well, this website, and many others, say you should. Though I’m not advocating this.
In the sense of the proper definition of the word, if you mean are there things in life I will have to endure, then yes.
In the sense I have defined above (“prolonged grieving or victimization”), maybe. Probably. But you don’t have to continue to the point where it becomes overwhelming and it doesn’t have to hold you back from living your life.
If your condition is particularly bad, seek professional medical or psychological or spiritual support in whatever tradition feels right for you. All of these things can help, sometimes separately, sometimes in combination.
So what should I do?
Well below are some suggestions…
It can be so much easier to see in others. Recognizing our own suffering, let alone admitting it, is often a genuine challenge, regardless of if this is cultural or biological. I know for myself, I would be face down on the floor in pain, refusing to seek out help, and still believe I could handle it on my own.
Its a fine line between enduring something we can handle (it doesn’t have much impact on our daily life) and something that is overwhelming (it has a major impact on our lives).
With something like a chronic pain condition, where the pain is present constantly (sometimes low, sometimes high) many of us make the choice to endure as best we can, especially over time. The people close to us become sick of hearing our complaints, or excuses for canceling plans. We suck it up and push through or, worse, isolate so we do not have to continue to disappoint people.
I’ve also seen the same behavior in myself, in family and in friends going through breakups, missing a loved one, or after a career failure – holding on too long to something without finding a healthy resolution.
If you are not sure if you are in the midst of unhealthy suffering, ask the people closest to you. Not the ones you see every day, necessarily, but the people who know you best. Ask them, do I seem happy? Would you say I seem like I am suffering?
If you can’t think of someone to ask, there is a good chance you have isolated yourself so no one can see the pain you are in. You are probably suffering. Its a great way to start a deeper conversation, and most people will be happy to tell you what they think of you.
How to start to change it
First, acknowledge it to yourself. You know if you are carrying something that is too heavy for you. If you don’t try talking to some people in your life about what is making you sad, or anxious. Sometimes when we talk aloud we can find truths that we can’t see in our internal dialogue. Its the old 12-step approach – “admit I am ____, and it is making my life unmanageable.”
Second, talk to someone about it. The very nature of suffering, according to both definitions I mention here (the proper one and the colloquial one) is isolation. Whether you endure you burden in silence or with a great deal of complaining telling someone its too much to carry alone is the first move toward not having to carry it alone.
Take suggestions and follow advice. If you are going through something and some one hasn’t been through it before, and come out the other side, you are in a very small minority. Doctors, healers, support groups, friends and family, someone you know at least knows someone who knows someone who has been through something similar. Reach out to them. very few people will say no to someone they can legitimately help. Search on line and find books that may be helpful.
Then, the real trick is following the advice once you get it.
In future posts, and in a forth coming book, I will get more into some of the practices that can be supportive for chronic pain.
For now though, remember:
•How do I take action when I don’t feel motivated?
•Acknowledge the current limit to yourself and those impacted by it.
•Seek out support.
•Be realistic, for today.