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Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional

17/03/2014

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself. ~Haruki Murakami (2008) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a memoir by Haruki Murakami in which he writes about his interest and participation in long-distance running. (Murakami is currently my all-time favourite author.) He began running when he was 33, in 1982. In recent years he has covered an average of six miles a day, six days a week and has competed in more than 20 marathons. In 1996 he completed an ultramarathon of 62 miles. Lately he’s developed a fondness for triathlons, and although he’s fighting a losing battle these days against his own previous (that is, younger) race times, he has no intention of quitting. To give up running would be like giving up writing, which would be like giving up living.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. This message is congruent with the Lord Buddha’s teachings. The Sallatha Sutta points to the distinction between “feelings of pain” and the secondary suffering that arises from our response to that pain. Here’s the relevant part of the Sutta:

… when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental… Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

Thus pain is what the world does to you, suffering is what you do to yourself.

And a woman spoke, saying “Tell us of Pain.” And he said, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses understanding. ~Kahlil Gibran

Feelings are natural responses to our life circumstances and we need not try to “fix” or “change” them. Acceptance of reality as it is involves accepting our feelings and thoughts without trying to change them or “work through” them. Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will. Don’t overvalue feelings or see them as the centrepiece of daily life. If we feel depressed, we accept our feelings of depression. If we feel anxious, we accept our feelings of anxiety. Rather than direct our attention and energy to our feeling state, we instead direct our efforts toward living our life well. We set goals and take steps to accomplish what is important even as we co-exist with unpleasant feelings from time to time.

How a person feels is important as a sensation and as an indicator for the present moment, but is uncontrollable: we don’t create feelings, feelings happen to us. Since feelings do not cause our behaviour, we can coexist with unpleasant feelings while still taking purposeful living action (accepting our emotions as they are and doing what needs to be done).

We are responsible for what we do no matter how we feel at the time. Feelings don’t control our behaviour. Blaming our feelings for our behaviour simply excuses unkind or irresponsible habits. Discarding such excuses, we create more space for healthy living habits. Three rules apply: accept your feelings, know your purpose(s), and do what needs to be done. This approach, of course, overturns aspects of conventionally accepted wisdom. Feelings fade in time unless they are re-stimulated. That which you pay attention to grows. Psychological suffering is generally associated with a heightened degree of self-focused attention. Thus, when you wish to shift your attention, lead with the body, not the mind.

Implicit in this is an independence of thought and action, something a little alien to the Western ideal to “follow our whims and moods.” We can no more control our thoughts than we can control the weather, as both are phenomena of most amazingly complex natural systems. And if we have no hope of controlling our emotions, we can hardly be held responsible any more than we can be held responsible for feeling hot or cold. We do, however, have complete dominion over our behaviour, and that is a sacred responsibility.

However this reality requires living with awareness and meditation practice to un-condition a lifetime of fiction and lies. There is an assumption behind Western therapeutic methods that it is necessary to change or modify our feeling state before we can take action. We assume that we must “overcome” fear to dive into a pool, or develop confidence so we can make a public presentation. But in actuality, it is not necessary to change our feelings in order to take action. In fact, it is our efforts to change our feelings that often makes us feel even worse. Feelings must be recognized and accepted as they are. Rather than suppress, repress, transform, fix or work through feelings it is wisest to simply feel what we are feeling. For example shy people should simply “sweat”. This approach, of course, overturns aspects of conventionally accepted wisdom. Thus concentrate on living a spiritual life and meditating.

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