Tuesday, February 03, 2009

on pain and suffering

I've been reading more of Pema Chodron lately, and I was intrigued by her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering. I guess I had always used the terms semi-synonymously, but in her definitions, pain is our immediate response to an unhappy event. If someone drops a hammer on our toe, we feel pain. If someone calls us an ugly name, we feel pain. But what is interesting about pain is that it feel fresh, new, immediate.

Many of us spend a lot of energy trying to retreat from pain in various ways. We withdraw into emotional and behavioral coccoons in a lot of unhealthy ways, out of an effort to feel some sort of comfort, and in so doing we create what she calls suffering. So if someone is so afraid of rejection that they keep to themselves all the time and feel lonely -- that loneliness would be a form of suffering. You get the idea. But what is interesting about suffering is that it always feels familiar. Like we've had that feeling before, or sometimes like it's always been there with us.

I was thinking about this today because I was contemplating getting older, and feeling this sense of loss about it. Lost opportunity, perhaps. But then I realized that the feeling itself was the same thing that I felt even back when I was younger. It hadn't changed, it had merely attached itself to this issue of aging. The feeling was part of my particular brand of suffering, I just hadn't realized it.

The solution, of course, is to lead a life where we are more fearless, more willing to experience pain rather than retreating into "comfort" and it's consequent suffering. I like that idea.

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