Last week, John Briere was in town giving a lecture on Mindfulness & Trauma. He was quite entertaining, insightful, and very well-versed in the pain of trauma. I appreciated his transparency in talking about his own trauma – just enough for us to know he’d walked the talk for many miles but not so much that he became a caricature of “heal thyself.”
At one point he challenged the now-trite phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” I won’t go into all of his argument on whether suffering is truly optional. Suffice to say he made irrefutable points backed with solid data. It did however remind me that I prefer to say, “Pain is inevitable; suffering offers options.” I shared this with Briere at one of the breaks and we discussed the paradox of pain – that without pain we may not know our true suffering; without suffering we cannot know our true nature. And that perhaps, our practice of sitting with that suffering burns way the multiple layers of assumptions and false logic we are heir to.
There were also parts of his talk that affected me deeply and so I sat with it over the days that followed. I noticed that the suffering I felt gave me options large and small. I had the option to tuck back into my autopilot ways of facing pain. I had the option to turn towards it tentatively, ever ready to duck back under the covers of my favourite delusion, numbness. I had the option to face it head on, engage it fully, and burn away the protective shell of stories in one firestorm. I had the option to dance with it.
What was not an option however was the knowledge of being in pain. We often hear that pain is the body/mind’s way of saying it needs something, that it is trying to adapt to a shift in demands and resources. I wonder now if suffering is the body/mind’s way of saying we need to look closer to what is going on, to locate what is awry, and meet it with compassion.
Over the last year I have wondered from time to time why the Buddha felt compelled to state the First Noble Truth. I mean, isn’t it obvious to everyone that life brings suffering?
I currently think that the Buddha had three things in mind (this is not based on ANY research or sutra):
First, most of us are in denial about the reality of suffering. We deny through alcohol, sports, food, drugs, rage and many other techniques that lead us away from direct experience of suffering.
Second, even those of us who have some real taste of suffering expect it to go away, provided we practice hard/long/well enough. After all, isn’t that the promise of Buddhism? But the Buddha said: all beings have it. So maybe something else is going on.
Third, I don’t believe that when the Buddha used the word “dukkha,” he was referring only to psychological and/or subjective experience of suffering. In our behaviors, we can create vast suffering even though our psychological and subjective experience is that everything is going swimmingly. Hard to believe, I know, but we can be clueless (see point one).
I’ve never felt comfortable about the distinction between pain and suffering, unless of course one is referring solely to physical pain, the type that arises when we touch a hot burner on the stove. Much pain cannot be traced directly to a physical encounter with the world. The heart simply hurts. The hurt can be a physical sensation with no physical cause. And, of course, it is also be suffering. Is suffering.
There’s probably a book, sutra, or canon on this topic, eh?
Hey Barry! Wonderful set of thoughts to deepen our understanding.
I read the 1st NT as “Don’t look away” or “Bear witness to what is truly your life.” As for Buddhism’s promise… (I believe you meant that rhetorically!) That is our deepest delusion and likely the cause of most of our suffering as Buddhists. We have expectations of something that made no promises other than to take the blinders off.
There’s so much new neurological research coming out now on the nature of pain and the subjectivity of how we experience it that I lean towards the idea of pain being different from how I meet it. My heart can hurt (and gosh it does some days) and that is tough. And then I meet it in ways that escalates it, complicates it, creates ripples to which I may be blind, or just plain drives it underground. So, to be picky, I think it’s not so much a pain/suffering dichotomy but my relational process of pain.
You start writing the first chapter and I’ll catch up shortly!