“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I really didn’t get it the first time I heard that quote. I equated the two – pain and suffering. How can you have pain without suffering? Pain hurts and hurting is suffering. How can suffering be optional?
I’m starting to get it now. Pain and suffering are two different things. Deepak Chopra explains it,
“Many people confuse pain with suffering. We have to realize, first of all, that pain is not the same as suffering. Left to itself, the body discharges pain spontaneously, letting go of it the moment that the underlying cause is healed. Suffering is pain that we hold on to.”
I recently had the opportunity to experience the difference first hand. My older sister was staying with us during a visit from England. One day she woke up very ill. She had a high fever and could barely get out of bed. After talking to a nurse it was decided that we needed to take her to the hospital by ambulance. I spent the whole day in the emergency room with her. Waiting for tests; waiting to see the doctor; waiting for more tests. A day in the emergency room is probably not anyone’s first choice of how to spend their day. However, I resigned myself to the reality that this was where I needed to be and the day passed without much suffering on my part. My sister was prescribed medication for an infection and we left with her feeling much better.
Good for me. I accepted a less than perfect reality and didn’t cause myself suffering by fighting against what was. Buddhist teachings say that suffering is caused by wanting reality to be something other than it is. Bryon Katie describes it well in her book Loving What Is,
“The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is … If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. You can try and try, and in the end the cat will look up at you and say, “Meow.”
Fast forward three days. My sister had gone to stay with our aunt in Scarborough. She was starting to feel unwell again and had broken out in a nasty rash. By the time I had picked her up and taken her back to the emergency room I had been sitting in the car for about four hours. I was hungry and not in the mood to sit for several more hours in the emergency room.
I was in the exact same situation, the same emergency room, but with a different mindset. The first time I was resigned to my situation, made the best of it, and did not suffer. I accepted what was. The second time I felt miserable the whole time we were there. I was fighting my situation, I didn’t want to be there, and I suffered. I forgot that suffering was optional. I wanted my reality to be different than it was and despite my suffering that darned cat wouldn’t bark.
(Note: My sister was diagnosed as allergic to the original medication and prescribed a new one. She enjoyed the rest of her visit and is now back home in England.)