Suffering Is Optional

Physical pain is unavoidable, but meditation practice can ease the mental suffering that often accompanies it. Susan Smalley and Diana Winston teach us how.

Photo ©

There is a famous adage: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” This anonymous saying sums up what you can learn about pain through mindfulness. You cannot avoid pain. Even if you are physically healthy now, at some point you may get sick, you may get hurt, and age and physical changes will occur. Pain is inevitable. It will come, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it—yet whether or not you suffer is another matter. Why is it that one woman can go through childbirth claiming that it was the most painful experience of her life while another declares it was the most transcendent? Along with other conditions, including the ease of delivery, the answer may lie in how to relate to pain. Clearly, sensory experiences are different, but how we relate to them—big or small—plays a powerful role as well.

Suppose we define pain as the pure physical sensation of the body responding to some negative stimuli, and suffering as our response to pain. From a mindfulness perspective, it is important to differentiate pain and suffering because however unavoidable pain is, we certainly have some leeway when it comes to suffering.

The biggest difficulty in working with pain is not the pain itself; it is how we react to it. With mindfulness, you can learn to see how your mental reactions to suffering function and how you can avoid being so caught in them. Here is a practice you can do if you are experiencing any physical pain.

The Practice

Try to get as comfortable as you can in your sitting posture. If the pain is really bad, you may wish to lie down. Find the most comfortable position to practice.

First take a few breaths and allow yourself to connect with the fact that your body is sitting (or lying down). Notice your posture and body shape. Now find a part of your body that is not in pain and bring your attention to it. Find a part that feels pleasant or neutral, at the very least. Explore whether your hands, feet, or legs feel relaxed and pleasant. Let your attention stay at this pleasant area for a few moments. Now bring your attention to the area of pain. What do you notice? Is the pain sharp or dull? Burning? Stabbing? Fiery? Clenching? Is it moving, or does it stay in one place? How deeply does it go into your body? Get very curious about the changing set of bodily sensations.

After thirty seconds or so (you can choose any short amount of time), bring your attention back to the pleasant or neutral sensations for the next few minutes. Notice if you have an attitude toward the pain. Do you hate it, fear it, resent it, blame yourself for it? Can you notice how it is that you feel or think about the pain? Do you feel any accompanying body sensation like a clutching feeling in your gut or vibration in your chest? Notice this reaction, breathe, and let it be there. There is nothing wrong with a reaction. If you have no reaction or the reaction stops, feel free to investigate the painful area one more time.

Return your attention to the pleasant area, and once again rest there for a minute or so.

Now, for the last time, return to the painful area. What do you notice? Breathe. Feel whatever is present on the physical level. Offer yourself a little bit of kindness in a way that makes sense to you. You can imagine holding that part of your body with care and compassion, or just offer this attitude to yourself. Notice what happens.

Return your attention to your whole body, sitting or lying and present. Open your eyes when you are ready.

Adapted from Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, by Susan Smalley and Diana Winston(Da Capo Press, 2010).