A Clean Mind

Blogging about a less stressful way to live…

Pain vs Suffering

This is a big one, folks – if you want peace, anyway. And it’s not very complicated. Let me first give credit to the folks over at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). That’s where I found these particular terms, pain and suffering, for what is described below. I think they work very well. Regardless of the terms used, though, understanding the concept underneath them is always what we’re after. And like much of what I talk about here at A Clean Mind, this concept is nothing new, but ACT is where I first saw it stated in this particular way. Let’s get started…

Pain is what happens. Suffering is the story that we layer on top of what happens. Drop the story, learn how to feel, and then handle the situation as best you can. Done. Continue living. Now for a bit more detail…

Pain is a normal, built-in part of life on earth. There’s no escaping it, so it’s pointless to resist it. It’s simply a fact that “good” things and “bad” things are always around the corner. That’s how it works here. People get sick, people die, our cars break down, relationships break down, people are unkind (to say the least), there are natural disasters, we drip barbeque sauce on our white shirt, etc. This is what we mean by “pain.” These things might not be fun, but they happen and that’s not avoidable. If you base your peace on avoiding pain, then you’re screwed.

What is avoidable, though, is suffering. All it takes is practice. Suffering is the story, the commentary by the voice in the head. “I can’t believe this happened. This always happens. It happened at the worst time. Just my luck. She shouldn’t have done that. He should act differently. Damn him. I’m a failure. This sucks.” These are all examples of suffering. What’s the problem with suffering? It makes the pain worse. Two for the price of one – nice! The pain is already unpleasant, so why do this to ourselves and make it worse? Because it’s a habit, that’s all. It’s really no big deal once you start to notice it and catch it. When you bust yourself doing this, just stop. Breathe. Feel. Let go. What am I reacting to? What needs to be done? Then just do it. Why? Because that’s the best you can do.

The reason why this is a tricky habit to break is that it all happens so fast. First, something we don’t like happens. Then in only a split second, we’ve begun telling ourselves a story that makes our normal body reaction (i.e. anger, sadness, fear, resentment) worse than it already was. We feel extra bad now, so the voice in the head comments on that. Which makes us feel even worse. Which makes the voice in the head get louder and angrier. Which makes us feel worse. See the pattern? It’s a classic feedback loop. And it happens really, really fast.

Much of the work that I do with clients is about slowing things down and looking at this process under a magnifying glass. As soon as we catch ourselves in the middle of it, we stop and wake up. We bust ourselves as mentioned above. With practice, we bust it earlier and earlier, until there comes a time when we catch it right away and nip it in the bud. No more useless commentary. Something “bad” happens, and we immediately remind ourselves that that’s what happens sometimes. Sometimes a lot. There’s nothing wrong with it. This doesn’t mean that’s what we wanted to happen, but since it has happened, I’m just going to handle it as best I can. Freaking out makes thing worse, so I’m done freaking out. I’m tired of it. There’s already enough pain in life, so let’s eliminate the suffering. Why? Because we can. All it takes is practice…

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All anybody really wants is peace. The good news is that peace can be learned. I’m serious. This should be taught in middle school, but it’s not. So I’m teaching it now.

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