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.