Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

Buddha Mindfulness Practice

I’ve been reading Rick Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain, a fascinating and very readable presentation of the neuroscience behind mindfulness practices.

Recently these practices, including relaxation and mindfulness meditation, have received support as viable treatments and, unlike medications, there are very few side effects. I have been finding myself recommending mindfulness meditation to clients suffering from anxiety, depression and impulse control disorders. It is a nice way to develop resilience and self-efficacy while enhancing health through decreased tension. There is even a smartphone app called Mindfulness Meditation that can walk you through several basic meditation routines. While not a panacea, mindfulness practice can be very helpful.

One quotation that I have found especially helpful in re-framing problems that we all struggle with is: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

What I like about this quote is that it highlights the role the sufferer has in the creation of his or her misery. Pain cannot be avoided. It is an essential though unpleasant aspect of being alive. We can, however, choose to accept this reality instead of engaging in the grandiose fantasy that pain can be avoided or negated. We often find that the pain, once regarded as intolerable, is actually manageable once we let go of the delusion that it can be avoided.

So much of what my patients come to treatment for relief from is the by-product of frantically trying to avoid discomfort. Alcohol, drugs, sex or compulsive shopping all promise relief from, or at least avoidance of pain but in the end they only create suffering.

Using mindfulness techniques can help us “sit with” and tolerate all of our feelings, painful or otherwise, and to function with resilience. Our culture of immediate gratification and pursuit of the latest and greatest makes this hard but we can choose to exercise mindfulness just like any other muscle. When we do, we live more intentional and satisfying lives.

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