Suffering is “the state of undergoing pain or distress”
Did you see that? It’s an important difference. Suffering is a state of mind. It’s something that we create. The story we spin around our pain to make sense of it, to assimilate it into our lives is suffering. The anger I have about the fact I’m in pain and my husband is not is suffering. The idea that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m cursed because God gave me these physical issues is suffering. Sitting on my couch ignoring the blessings I do have in my life because I’m feeling pain would be suffering. We don’t have a great deal of choice over whether or not we experience pain, but we have a lot of control over whether or not we suffer. Pain is the prison we’re in. But, just because we’re in prison, doesn’t mean we have to be a prisoner.
I’ve practiced yoga for years. It helps me in many different ways including but not limited to being less of a jerk in my day to day life and being able to do a split. In my yoga class I was introduced to physical feelings as simple sensations. They aren’t good. They’re aren’t bad. They just are. You may assign them the categories of good and bad because you experience them as comfortable or uncomfortable, but the sensations themselves have no moral value as good or evil. It’s merely information. My body is sending me info right now that it’s enraged about something. I think it’s the fact I was in a yellow bathroom earlier or that I ran out of toothpaste this morning. Whatever. My body isn’t trying to make me unhappy. It’s merely telling me that there is something wrong with it. In yoga, we’re taught to sit with our sensations, to not let them control us. Sometimes, a yoga pose is uncomfortable. The body doesn’t always want to be stretched, but it’s good for it. So, when you’re having a sensation that you experience as unpleasant you breathe through it. You don’t cling to it. You don’t indulge it by weaving tales around it, like how your hamstrings are tight because you ride your bike too much and never stretch and somehow that makes you a bad person. You don’t do that. You sit with it. You breathe through it. And, you let it go. You don’t suffer with it. You don’t let it control you.
That sounds too simple doesn’t it? You’re thinking that it’s easy to say that and really hard to do it. You’re right. Being human is tough. I’m a mom and they say being a mom is the hardest job on the planet. Sorry, but being human is the hardest job on the planet. Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. And, you never get any grades so you don’t know how you’re doing. Yes, this is a tough concept. But, I did try it out. About a year ago I had a gallbladder attack. I also am prone to gallbladder stones and other issues. My body is like a magic back of wonders. At about 3 in the morning I had an attack. Now, if you’ve never had a gallbladder attack before you aren’t familiar with how much fun it is. I’ll tell you! It’s like someone is stabbing you in the back and side while you’re having a heart attack. It’s painful is a fair thing for me to say. While I was curled up in a little ball on my bathroom floor I decided to give the sensation/pain/suffering thing a try. I tried to focus on my breathing. I kept telling myself that my pain was just a sensation. Then, I focused on the sensation itself. I paid attention to where it was in my body. It wasn’t a static thing. It changed as time passed. It wasn’t a monolithic experience. It was like being on beach when the tide comes in. There were many different intensities, like the varying hues on a paint chip. Sometimes, it was burning. Other times it was a stabbing pain. There was also a dull ache. After a time it began to ebb until it wasn’t there at all. I laid on the floor for a while after it was gone, feeling the contrast between the cool tile on my cheek and the warm fuzzy bathroom rug beneath my legs. The pain was gone. I was just as I had been.
After that attack something was different. It was me. Usually after I had an attack like that I was traumatized. The aftereffects would cling to me like a spider web does when you walk through it. I’d be terrified for the following week that it would happen again. Every twinge I had would make me think it was coming on again. It was all I could talk about to anyone. The day after that one I was fine. I went on with my day. I lived my life. I didn’t let the memory of the pain haunt me, make me suffer. Even in the moments I was in pain on that bathroom floor, I wouldn’t say I suffered. I felt differently, like I was above it, separate from it. Even though I couldn’t control it or diminish it, I was still and strong within the center of it. I’ve been using this technique ever since.
What do you do when you’re in pain? I have some suggestions. First, focus on your breath. It’s the one steady thing that’s always with you. It’s also one of the only things about your body that you can control. Conscious breathing activates the parasympathic nervous system in your body. This is the neurological system that allows your body to relax and counteracts your body’s stress (fight or flight) response. Don’t fight the feeling of pain. It’s just a sensation in your body. Don’t give it more power than it’s already taking. The more you fight it the more power you give it. Don’t spin stories around it. Remember, suffering is a state of mind. It’s caused by wishing something different than what is. Don’t wish you weren’t in pain. Don’t think about all the things you could be doing. Don’t remember the time when you didn’t feel this way. Accept it. It’s your experience in the now. Wishing for something different will only cause you psychological pain on top of the pain you’re already feeling. This sounds strange, but be curious about it. As I did, explore the sensation. See how it changes over time and how it’s not this massive thing, but a million different feelings. What does this do? It distracts you and it takes additional power away from the pain as you become curious about it rather than hateful towards it.
Even in this moment of darkness you are okay. You will be okay. I’m okay. Because, the bottom line is, that you and I are not our pain. We are not our illness. We may experience pain, but we are not the pain. We may feel like we are in prison, but we aren’t prisoners. We are free. We are always free no matter the circumstances of the moment.