Pain differs from suffering in that pain is a solitary experience, whereas suffering involves attaching meaning to an event. There is a profound difference between acknowledging a situation for exactly what it is and giving an event significance in order to support a fabricated story.
Being present to fully experience a situation for what it is allows us to exercise choice and to take decisive action. However, when an event takes on a greater meaning in our mind, our choices for action are greatly minimized because the end result has already been established by the story we have been replaying. A story that allows us to suffer must be pervasive, personal, and permanent. This story now serves as a cause or explanation to all problematic circumstances.
A situation becomes pervasive when it becomes inescapable. The circumstance is always present, all of the time and it affects every aspect of your life. Feeling that you can’t get away from a situation makes you feel powerless.
When a situation is made personal, we allow the event to serve as a reflection of who we are. Our beliefs about ourselves become shaped by events and we find reasons to take on the meaning of a situation.
When we make a condition permanent, we turn it into something that is unchangeable. Words like “always” or “never” help to make a predicament permanent. When we believe a situation is permanent we have already decided on the outcome.
I was affected by a serious brain infection that caused me to be hospitalized for over a year. I was paralyzed from the neck down and it took me five years to relearn how to walk. There were times during my recovery when I was “suffering”, when the stories I was telling myself or being told by others felt pervasive, personal and permanent. But getting beyond the suffering allowed me to find the strength and inspiration to persevere.
The first few weeks of the onset of my illness, I was unable to get out of my hospital bed. I felt like a prisoner – locked in an unmoveable body, and in continuous intense pain. My situation felt inescapable and permeating. But this story, this sentence, soon changed. Every evening my three year old niece would come to the hospital to visit with me. I soon realized that I felt energized and wasn’t even aware of the pain during these visits. The situation was not completely pervasive and the moments that I did escape from my predicament gave me hope.
I became very angry when I first realized the severity of my condition and the extensiveness of the damage that had been caused to my body. I was angry because I was looking for a reason to explain why this horrendous thing had happened to me. Had this horrible infection attacked my brain because I was a horrible person? When my anger subsided, I recognized the simple fact that an infection had developed in my brain – period! This condition would not have the power to define who I was and what I was capable of.
After a few months of rehabilitation, I was warned that my lower limb paralysis could be permanent. Daily rehabilitative therapy was painful and exhausting, and the thought of all my effort being in vain was disheartening. I chose not to accept that my paralysis was permanent and continued to push my body to regain its abilities. Had I accepted that my condition was unchangeable, I may still be in a wheelchair!
If you don’t like how your story ends, start creating a different one.
“A problem cannot cause suffering. It is our thinking and attachment to it that causes suffering.” – Buddha