Pain and Suffering

I’ve had a positive response to some references to Buddhism I’ve made on Twitter, so I’ve decided that as an occasional thing, I’ll talk about my understanding of basic Buddhist concepts.

Writing stuff like this is actually a non-Buddhist thing to do—a constant theme in Buddhism is that putting things into words tends to blind you to your actual experiences. However, Buddhist teachers grudgingly admit that words can help you get started. The usual metaphor is that talking is a raft that gets you across the first river. After that, your journey continues, but you should leave the raft behind. Trying to carry it with you would just slow you down.

So let’s start with pain and suffering. Why? Because that’s what the Buddha focused on—ending his own suffering, and helping other people end theirs.

The key insight is simple: pain and suffering are two different things.

We can have pain without suffering. My favorite example is the pain I often feel during and after a good physical workout. It may hurt, but it doesn’t bother me. As they say, it’s “good pain”. It’s pain that I chose to take on; I know it will go away, and I realize it’s a side effect of becoming stronger and healthier.

Other examples: standard nicks and bruises. Usually, I just ignore them. I’ve seen kids get obsessed about microscopic cuts that I probably wouldn’t even notice. Adults have other things to think about…and yes, maybe we’re also more skilled at repression, which is not necessarily a good thing. But most grownups don’t get upset by little wounds. We accept them and pay attention to other things.

So pain doesn’t necessarily lead to suffering. The converse is also true: suffering isn’t always due to pain.

We’ve all experienced suffering when nothing is really wrong. The first example I can think of is when I’m driving and someone else on the road cuts me off or does something that scares me. It’s often a momentary thing, come and gone in a split-second without anything actually happening…but I can brood on such incidents for hours, dwelling on what-ifs and all the angry things I want to say to that idiot.

I suffer. I fixate. I can’t get it out of my head. But literally nothing happened. Nothing went wrong except that I got upset. It’s one thing if I make some decision like, “The next time I’m in that situation, I’ll slow down and watch for trouble,” (or whatever else makes sense for safety). Learning from a situation is what the Buddha would call “skillful”. But tying yourself in knots is unskillful: a source of unproductive suffering.

Boredom is another example of suffering without pain. Boredom is suffering when nothing is really wrong. So is yearning for ice cream or some other treat, even though you aren’t really hungry and you have plenty of food on hand. So is envy of someone else when really, you’re doing okay. You’re bothered by the comparison, not by your actual life.

Et cetera, et cetera. You can have pain without suffering. You can suffer without pain.

Even when you suffer in response to pain, they can still be disproportionate. A tiny pain can cause huge suffering; I prove that every time I have a mosquito bite.

So if suffering isn’t directly caused by pain, where does suffering come from? The Buddha said, “Watch and see.” We’ll talk about that the next time I feel like pontificating.