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The Difference Between Pain and Suffering
by Gangaji
February 15, 2024

Pain is sensation in the body at a particular time, brought on by physical injury or disease or by an emotional shock. Suffering, on the other hand, is spread over time and must be accompanied by some story or narrative about the pain. The story can  have infinite strands and arrangements—who caused the pain, why, when, how, the metaphysics of it—but the particulars of the story only serve as a distraction from, or resistance to, or indulgence of the pain itself.

Most people aren’t willing to give up their investment in mental and emotional suffering. When there is the willingness to stop the suffering, which means to stop the story about the pain, the pain can be experienced just as it is. What has been previously thought of as unbearable can be experienced with an open mind, because the mind is no longer closed around some idea about the experience. The mind is open. It has dropped all definitions. When pain is met with an open mind, then pain, like every phenomenon, reveals truth at its core.

Suffering is the mental, emotional, and physical contraction around pain, and the history, justification, blame, sentimentalizing, and dramatization of the pain. In the willingness to simply and directly experience any kind of pain, just for an instant, you will discover that the essence of pain is actually intelligence, clarity, joy, and peace—the same essence as bliss! The truth of yourself is revealed even in the midst of pain, and pain is revealed to be another vehicle for truth. In following the story of the pain, this vehicle is overlooked, and the potential gift of pain is wasted.

Let me emphasize that wishing to alleviate pain is natural and appropriate. Medications, the embrace of a loved one, communion with nature, the rhapsody of music and art, are all used to alleviate pain. None of these is a problem. The problem is that the choice of meeting the pain, of stopping the resistance to pain, goes unrecognized.

That you have the freedom to stop and intimately face whatever is tormenting you, at any level, is generally unknown. The lack of recognition for such a choice keeps you bound as the victim of some tormentor. The surprise that awaits this choice is the discovery of what is alive and waiting in the heart of everything—spacious consciousness, love, that which heals all, even death.

Who can say what pain will come into your life? Certainly all of us have experienced pain of one kind or another. If you have had the experience of surrendering in the moment that pain arises, of actually opening your mind to pain, whether it is physical, emotional, personal, or worldly, then you have discovered a secret wisdom. In this discovery you are no longer preoccupied with personal pain. What a relief! When the story of personal pain no longer has prominence, then you might become aware of pain you had no idea existed—your neighbor’s pain, your parents’ pain, your children’s pain, the pain of the universe. In opening to a universal level of pain, you are no longer making war with what is painful or hiding from potential future pain. You are living a life open to meet whatever is here. Then pain, as any experience, is to be bowed to as none other than truth itself.

 

Suffering Is Not the Problem

Although it may sound surprising, I do not intend to help anyone get rid of their suffering. Suffering is not the problem. Rather than trying to get rid of suffering, it is more important to inquire into the suffering itself, to investigate the sufferer. Inquiry is the front door.

The inquiring mind is an open mind, willing to deeply explore. In that openness, it can allow the presence of suffering without rejecting it or trying to escape it. This can be just as powerful, just as terrifying, and just as profound as facing your own death. When you inquire into suffering, you meet suffering, and when you meet suffering, it is possible to discover that suffering is not what you thought it was. In a direct meeting between subject and object, sufferer and suffering, both disappear. Both are discovered, in reality, to be non-existent.

I will make an even more precise and outrageous statement. I recommend that you consciously suffer. What is wrong with suffering?

Willingness to suffer fully, even for an instant, without trying to escape or be saved, means that suffering is no longer an obstacle to full surrender into the mystery of existence. Relief from suffering stops being the goal.

I have heard it said that according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, “When you know how to suffer, you do not suffer.” The “how to” of suffering is to suffer all the way. It is to suffer with full consciousness. To consciously suffer is to consciously recognize the impulse to escape and instead face directly whatever is appearing, be it grief, horror, extreme loss, or sadness.

Suffering is a huge temptation that supports your belief that you are not whole, and the recurrence of suffering time and time again becomes the proof that you are not whole.

See if any of your mental, physical, or emotional energy is bound up in resistance to suffering. If you can tell the truth about that without analyzing it, you will recognize in an instant that you have the choice to drop every defense and actually meet the suffering. What is revealed is very good news, but it can only truly be known as good news when you discover it yourself. And it can only truly be discovered when it is discovered for the first time, each time. Otherwise, inquiry becomes just another technique of the mind to avoid suffering.

If you find that self-inquiry becomes just another subtle technique to build a barrier against suffering, then it is important, first of all, to tell the truth about that, and secondly, to broaden your notion of what true self-inquiry is.

When you meet suffering head on, you make the exquisite, paradoxical discovery that suffering holds the very jewel that was sought in the attempt to escape it. It doesn’t matter whether the particular suffering is individual, national, or planetary; that jewel is here now.

Whatever action may or may not follow that meeting is irrelevant. If you are a social activist, a health professional, a hospice worker, a parent, or any other person who helps alleviate suffering, you will be better at your work when you yourself have met fully what your clients and patients are struggling with.

Meeting suffering has to do with the willingness to be absolutely still, to tell the truth regardless of the intensity of the experience. In the core of suffering is revealed the jewel of what is real, what is true, who you are.

 

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