The difference between pain and suffering

The difference between pain and suffering
Buddha said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. What does this mean in concrete terms? A simple example. Suppose you hit your foot. That hurts. Then you start yelling in your head to yourself: “Better watch out, you are so stupid”. Those thoughts cause suffering. The pain in this example only lasts a moment. You rub your foot and with a little luck, the discomfort is quickly gone. However, the thoughts with the negative self-evaluation can last much longer: suddenly other examples come to mind where you “were so stupid”. Your mood is ruined. You have fallen into the trap of the negative evaluative mind.

Why optional?

You have the choice not to go along with the cycle of negative thoughts about yourself. How do you do that? I can give you a few tips that come from a method called ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

  • Notice what’s going on in your head and then say to yourself, oh yes, there we have the “what-are-you-stupid story” again, or whatever story is playing in your head. Almost everyone knows the ‘I’m-not-good-enough’ story.
  • Which also works: give your mind a funny pet name that keeps reminding yourself not to take your own thoughts so seriously.
  • You can also write down your thoughts or say them out loud, preferably in a comical cartoon voice. As soon as you take thoughts out of your head and look or listen to them, you create distance and that gives space.

I call my mind Miep and when she rages again I think “Aha, Miep is coming round the corner again”, “Yeah, she’s ranting again” or “Thank you Miep!”.

These examples may seem too simple for words. “That can’t work,” Miep said to me. I decided to start practicing with this and other ACT experiments and yes, it really works.

ACT has now been recognized as proven effective and helps to distance yourself and perceive the whole process in your head without going along with it. That gives a lot of peace because your thoughts no longer have a negative impact on your emotions and because you don’t believe them, they don’t become beliefs. You can then spend your time and energy on what really matters to you.

The difference between pain and suffering


A characteristic of coaching using ACT is that you quickly gain insight into your own thinking patterns by means of simple exercises and experiments. Sometimes it is a bit of a shock when you become aware of what is going on in your own head. What used to be a kind of mental background program that always ran unnoticed, you now consciously observe. This fear only lasts for a while because through this conscious perception you can choose how you want to deal with it and then it becomes a different story.

Having the willingness to feel the pain of life will prevent you from falling into the trap of creating suffering. By no longer accepting the negative comments of your brain as the truth, you can start to see them through as the loose thought blanks that the mind constantly fires. As a result, you will experience more and more peace and relaxation, even an inner freedom.

So, coming back to Buddha’s statement, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”…which option will you choose?



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