Pain Interpretation—Separating Pain from Suffering
All of us feel pain at some point in our lives.
Most of us experience moderate pain, and some of us have to endure chronic, intense pain for extended periods. Pain is there for a reason—to warn us of harm, to let us know that something is wrong, or to stop us from doing further damage. It’s generally not pleasant, and is sometimes difficult or impossible to endure. But pain and suffering are not the same thing. Pain is a signal, and suffering is our reaction to it. In some cases, it’s possible to control or reinterpret that reaction and decrease or cease our suffering. It’s certainly easier said than done, and it may not work for everyone or in every circumstance, but it’s worth exploring.
The knee-jerk reaction to pain
With everyday pain, we barely give our reaction a second thought. We touch something sharp and we pull away. We touch something hot and we pull away. It’s a spontaneous, unconscious reaction. When we have an injury, we’ll give our pain more thought. We might take painkillers. We’re still not thinking deeply about it; it’s just unpleasant and we want it to stop. When pain becomes intense and/or chronic, that’s when we start to think more deeply and more intentionally. We review all of our pain management options and make choices consistent with our long-term health and lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches. No one wants pain, but getting to know pain better—giving ourselves the space to reflect on the sensation and the nature of the pain signal and how it affects us physically, psychologically, and emotionally—can help us with how we interpret it. As Vidyamala asks in Wildmind Meditation, “How do we transform this knee-jerk reactive momentum and create instead a sense of space and the possibility of choice in each moment, no matter what our circumstances?” (She is actually talking about pain here, but this reflection works in a variety of contexts!). Ideally, we can choose to not interpret our pain as suffering.
Why pain can be good
Pain, and our initial reaction to it, is one of the physiological tools that keep us alive. Our psychological response to pain, that it hurts and is something to be avoided, is present so that when we experience pain, we move away from the cause as quickly as possible. Generally, the conditions that cause pain are bad—they may be harmful, dangerous, or life-threatening. I have had chronic pain in my neck for several years due to cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the neck’s nerve passageways, or neural foramen. It has been a real, well, pain in my neck. It has forced me to change the way I do many things and to adopt certain exercises to increase the size of my foramen. I have had to stop riding upright bicycles, for example. But it has also communicated to me that the nerves coming from my neck into my shoulders and arms were being compromised and could lead to further problems. It saved me from dysfunction or paralysis in those areas. The lifestyle changes I have adopted—yoga, recumbent biking—have made me healthier and have mitigated the effects of my stenosis. Avoiding further damage and developing new activities have all been positive impacts of my pain. Ultimately, pain is in our lives for a reason. We might reexamine our relationship to pain and explore how we might reinterpret it and incorporate it into our lives.
Some pain, and its associated sensations, can be good. As a long-time whiskey fan, I’ll say the initial feeling of the whiskey entering the mouth and going down the throat is certainly pain. The first time I experienced it, it was not pleasant; it would be accurate to say it caused suffering. But now, “several” whiskeys later, there isn’t the slightest interpretation of that pain as suffering—in fact, quite the opposite. There are many examples of this: spicy food, deep massage, a long run, and intense sex. There are a couple of reasons why we interpret some sources of pain as pleasure or as leading to pleasure. One is the pleasurable sensations associated with some sources of pain. These can be inexorably linked with the pain to such an extent that our brains reinterpret that pain as a precursor to intense pleasure. We can reinterpret pain—even those sources of pain that are not also associated with pleasure.
Separating pain from suffering
If there is suffering associated with the pain you’re feeling, the goal is to detach the two. Again, this idea falls squarely into the “easier said than done” category, and in some cases, when pain is chronic or intense, or even with everyday pain, it can be difficult. But if there is the possibility of achieving this separation, it will have been well worth the effort. As I said earlier, pain is a signal—a communication that something is not as it should be. Suffering is a reaction to that signal. The key is to become non-judgmentally aware of the pain.
Suffering in reaction to pain is often associated with other emotions or conditions, such as fear, anxiety, depression, or fatigue. Fear and anxiety are often quite prevalent. Think of an everyday source of pain, such as that associated with dental work. Many of us build the idea of the pain up in our minds, so that when we’re at the dentist’s, our experience of the pain can be way worse than the actual thing. If, while we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, we can relax our muscles, calm our minds, and observe our pain signals with detachment, we may find that our own constructed context for the pain is worse than what we’re actually feeling. This can allow us to minimize or remove the suffering associated with that pain. If we have chronic pain, it can often lead to depression associated with not being able to do some of the activities that we have always been able to do, or to fatigue associated with constant suffering. These feelings are often associated with an attachment to a way of life that we had before our chronic pain. If we can consider a different set of activities, or an adjustment to our lifestyle—if we can remove our attachment to the life we had led before our pain—we can decrease the suffering associated with those feelings.
These approaches are based in mindfulness practices. Here is a resource for various ways we can bring mindfulness to bear on coping with pain.
We may not be able to stop our pain, but our suffering is up to us.