Pain versus Suffering: Dealing with the Hard Stuff
I recently heard psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach say something that I thought was profound. She referenced a simple formula that was a great insight and reminder for me:
pain x resistance = suffering
Something Painful Happens
Think about any kind of internal painful experience: maybe a feeling of loneliness, sadness, or fear; or a self-critical thought like “you are worthless” or “you always screw things up”; or a painful memory of a time you were hurt, failed, embarrassed yourself, etc. This pain wells up and takes over.
Now think about what happens next: in some way you probably resist, avoid or try to escape the pain. Perhaps you avoid situations where the pain might come up, or you numb the pain with alcohol, food, or bingeing on television programs.. Or maybe you resist by distracting yourself from the pain or trying to ignore it. Or perhaps at the first hint of the pain, you find yourself dreading its return and become more and more upset because of it. As humans, we have a million ways of resisting the painful things in our lives, and we all do it.
Whatever path you choose, the resistance to the initial painful experience often makes the pain more intense, more difficult, and more overwhelming. Even attempts at numbing really don’t help because the pain usually comes back with a vengeance when you aren’t numb. This suffering is in addition to the actual pain that you experienced in the first place. So, for example, a feeling of worthlessness can trigger avoiding behaviors where you stop socializing with others because you want to avoid feeling more worthless, but you end up feeling loneliness and sadness as well. Or the slightest feeling of anxiety can trigger fears of a full blown panic attack in your mind, which makes the anxious feelings even more overwhelming. On a more subtle level, a lousy day at work can lead to emotional overeating as a way to comfort and numb yourself, but this leads to feelings of shame about your weight and a sense of worthlessness.
In all these examples, something painful is resisted and it leads to more suffering. And, in the bigger picture, all the struggle, avoiding, and numbing often mean that you experience less of the things that make your life rich and meaningful. Maybe you avoid activities that you truly value in your life, or you blow up at your partner or child instead of dealing with the pain. Or you numb with alcohol or food and now are suffering from the health effects of this behavior.
Lessen the Resistance to Pain
Ultimately, whether if is through therapy, a mindfulness and meditation practice, reaching out to a friend, writing in a journal, or whatever path you choose, coming into contact with the pain, making space for it, is what will change the relationship to the pain and allow you to address it. I did not say that pain will go away. In fact, pain is a condition of being alive. The key is what you do with it. It is our attempts to control it, bemoan it, numb it or run from it that make it more intense.
The next time something painful comes up, whether it is a memory, thought, feeling, urge, etc.: take a long slow breath. Try to explore how the pain manifests in your body. Write it down, express it to someone you love, put it into a creative outlet. Most importantly, be present to it in some small way. And see if you notice a difference in how the pain affects you. Do you notice a lessening of suffering? Do you notice yourself being in more contact with your life as you want to live it?