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Pain Is Inevitable; Suffering Is Optional

Girl staring at the window

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” – Buddhist proverb

One morning when I was trying to leave a meditation group, I became agitated because others were “making me late” for another meditation group. I moved swiftly from blaming others to shame at my imagined late entrance and fear that I wouldn’t find a place to sit. These worries, coupled with anxiety about pain in my back and whether I could sit, led to a meltdown.

I rapidly convinced myself that everyone (yes, everyone) would stare at me and shun me forever (yes, forever). I disconnected from the facts. I forgot that these people were my sangha—my community of Buddhist practitioners—and are committed to compassion for all beings (yes, even for me). They weren’t there to judge me, but to hear our teachers. But who needs facts in the middle of a meltdown? I found myself weeping as I drove, conjuring all kinds of judgment about what a bad person I was for falling apart. “And you call yourself a meditator! Tsk, tsk!” said the voice in my mind.

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As I drove along in misery, I somehow remembered I could drop all of these stories. Suddenly the thought arose, clear as a bell: “I am just crying.” That was the simple truth of the situation, the only thing that was actually happening. My relief was immediate and complete. By the time I arrived, I had settled. I blew my nose and entered the hall as the lamas were beginning their talk. I found a seat easily and was greeted warmly by friends sitting nearby.

As usual, all my suffering was for nothing. If more pain had come my way in that moment, fretting about it wouldn’t help. Fretting only disconnects me from my heart and my strength. If no pain had come my way, then fretting would only waste precious time and energy. As Buddhists say, “If you can do something about it, no need to worry. If you can’t do anything about it, no need to worry.”

Creating Suffering

We all experience pain in our lives. Unfortunately, our attempts to manage pain often turn it into suffering instead of relief. Some common ways of creating suffering include:

  • When we ignore pain, we don’t learn anything and we continually repeat the habits that create suffering.
  • When we turn pain into our default self-narrative, we can overlook the details of our emotions. We might experience depression or anxiety as a solid, unchanging wall, when in reality it is full of gaps and moments of freedom.
  • Rejecting our pain leads to suffering when we make an enemy of our experience. Experience is just experience. Rejecting thoughts, feelings and experience is pointless, and deepens the conflict in our lives.

Noticing Pain

Both physical and emotional pain can be effectively managed by looking directly at what is actually happening, without rejecting, clinging to, ignoring, or elaborating. This perspective allows us to notice the true nature of pain: transitory, mutable, and impermanent. It is not solid and ceaseless, and it has no story—despite our attempts to give it one. It appears and then dissolves over time.

It takes an open mind to perceive our situation clearly and accurately. It takes patience to sit and observe without altering, judging, or making assumptions. Remember that we are never alone: any pain or suffering we feel has also been felt by others. There is no one whose life is free from pain, who does not wish to be free of suffering, and who does not deserve compassion. We are all in this together.

Practice sitting quietly a few minutes each day without letting thoughts or feelings run things. Use this time to wish for all beings—including ourselves and the people we find difficult—to be free from suffering. Practice mindfulness. Learn to recognize the stories we generate that create suffering out of pain, and become willing to drop them on the spot.

When we simply rest our minds on pain without aiming to alter our experience, we might notice that pain changes. This can bring great comfort and reassurance. Pain is no more permanent than anything else. Headaches are not solid and unchanging, and neither is depression or fear. Through this practice we can gain confidence in our ability to work with whatever arises in the moment. We don’t need to cover the world with leather to protect our feet. We can simply wear shoes.

One thing is certain: more pain will come our way in this life. It is inevitable. However, it is possible to choose whether we will turn it into suffering or simply leave pain to arise and dissolve on its own. That is always an option.

© Copyright 2010 by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon. All Rights Reserved.

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  • lea thompson March 31st, 2010 at 2:24 AM #1

    although suffering being completly eliminated may sound a bit too far fetched, even reduction in suffering seems like a great deal because there will be a lot of instances in life where we experience pain or grief and it has its effects until a long time…if there are methods to counter this it is great.

  • S.alford March 31st, 2010 at 12:50 PM #2

    if something wrong has happened,we cannot change it by grieving about it or crying over it…all we can do is to be more careful in the future and look out for situations to be sure that we do not end up losing something more later…this is something that each one of us needs to understand to lead a happier life.

  • Iris April 1st, 2010 at 7:22 AM #3

    if you ignore the pain then you cannot do the things that you need to do to heal

  • Daisy June 10th, 2012 at 8:26 PM #4

    This quote vies for first place in utterly vapid meaninglessness w/”Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    It also indicates complete denial of reality.

  • vanessa September 21st, 2012 at 12:58 PM #5

    Best tattoo I ever put on my body.

  • Stephanie January 12th, 2014 at 7:09 AM #6

    We have to acknowledge grief. We have to cry over things that have caused us pain so that we can move on from it. Ignoring it or pushing it away will only delay the inevitable.

  • NBA January 14th, 2015 at 6:28 AM #7

    Nice Blog, thanks for sharing this kind of information.

  • P Griffin March 3rd, 2015 at 4:35 PM #8

    “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” is actually a quote by Haruki Murakami about running.

  • Ker March 3rd, 2015 at 9:09 PM #9

    Actually, it has been a saying in Buddhist circles for decades. I first heard it in the mid-1980s, long before that book was published. It’s been on the back of my business cards since 2002.

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