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  • Resilient Practice

The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears”

- Michel de Montaigne

Suffering: the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship – Oxford Languages

Pain: highly unpleasant physical sensation caused by illness or injury - Oxford Languages

What is the difference between pain and suffering?

We have spoken about suffering in several of our previous articles.

According to Buddhist philosophy, most suffering has its roots in attachment. When we perceive that we are at risk of losing something to which we are attached, we experience fear. This might include physical possessions, relationships, reputation, happiness, status, and knowledge. These are the things that we collect throughout our lives to give us the illusion of safety. As Eckhart Tolle teaches us, to fear the loss of something we must project ourselves mentally out of the present moment and into a future where our treasured thing is gone, and we are in peril as a result. He goes on to say that if we bring ourselves into the present moment, we have not lost anything at all. Projection into the future is a product of thinking and imagination and is not representative of reality.

Suffering takes place as a result of the stories that we tell ourselves when we give meaning to events that have happened. These are thoughts. They are our internal narrative. They are driven by our core beliefs and they are not synonymous truth.

Pain is an unpleasant physical sensation. In spite of the above definition, we can broaden the description to include the unpleasant sensations that are caused by emotion. These are body experiences which are not caused by physical illness or injury but by changes in body chemistry which have come about as a response to either an external event or, again, our internal narrative.

Examples of events which might result in a painful emotional response include grief, injustice, financial hardship, betrayal, heartbreak, failure and serious medical diagnoses. It is important to remember that no one and nothing can make us feel a certain way. These are examples of external events that are likely to evoke unpleasant emotions within us because we are directly faced with the reality that we have lost or are certain to lose something that has been a mainstay of safety for us, and which will result in the need for us to make major adjustments in our lives to restore balance.

There is a subtle difference between the pain that we experience during adverse situations and the suffering that is caused but any distorted thinking that accompanies the event which is not aligned with truth.

For example: A patient arrives at the Doctors complaining of hip pain. He is a sufferer of arthritis in many of his joints, but this pain has become difficult to tolerate. He struggles to climb the steps at the practice and to sit and stand from sitting in the waiting room. Upon checking in, he appears low in mood. After a short wait, he is called in to see the GP. When asked about the problem, he becomes tearful. He talks about his hip pain and expresses his fear of being unable to care for his wife. He explains that he is worried that he will need a joint replacement and that this is a sign that he his aging rapidly and that he will never be pain free again. He says that he cannot imagine ever being able to go on holiday again and that he is miserable in his retirement.

In the above example there is physical pain. There are also unpleasant emotions, but since there has been no diagnosis, it is caused by the patient’s internal narrative. He is projecting his thoughts into the future and imagining the worst scenario. In doing this, he is giving himself a dose of those body chemicals associated with his projections being true now. There is no evidence for any of his fears coming to fruition. His hip pain might be caused by a transient problem for which there could be an easy solution. Despite this - he is suffering.

Pain is pain. As a physical symptom it can be managed medically with drugs, acupuncture and physical therapy. We can also seek help from complimentary therapies such as CBT, psychotherapy, nutritional therapy, reflexology, aromatherapy, homeopathy, and energy medicine.

Adverse situations can be processed in a heathy way with the right support.

When we are in pain, whether emotionally or physically, we can seek to manage it. We can also look towards minimizing our suffering by making a clear distinction between what has happened and the meaning that we are giving to it, and the stories that we are telling ourselves.

Try this:

The next time that you are in pain press pause.

Step into the shoes of your Observer Self. If you have read our previous articles, you will know that this is the part of you that can witness your thoughts, feelings and behaviour without judgement or analysis and without doing the thinking, feeling, or doing. It helps you to appreciate that you are not your thoughts. It allows you to observe emotion without becoming consumed by it. It helps you to notice your automatic behaviours as a choice.

You can observe your pain. The unpleasant physical symptoms caused by illness, injury, or emotional trauma. This practice allows you to become separate from those sensations and to understand that they are messages from the body and deserve to be heard and acknowledged.

Give yourself time to fully acknowledge and express your pain.

Be kind.

Breathe deeply and slowly.

Say ‘thank you’ to your body. It is never working against you.

Now ask yourself what stories you are telling yourself about your pain.

For example: everyone leaves me, I will never find love again, no one is trustworthy, I am not worthy of happiness, I will never be healthy again, my body is damaged, I will never get out of debt, I will never be pain free, I will never be happy again.

Ask yourself whether there is truth in your narrative.

Make the distinction between your pain and your suffering.

What is the truth?

And what do you need?

Make a plan to manage or process your pain.

Seek help from appropriate sources.

Talk to someone who has earned the right to hear you.

Have clear and honest conversations with loved ones who share your situation.

Below are some suggestions of place where you can find support should your problems feel unsurmountable:

For more insights and a host of tools and techniques for exploring the Self and improving your

human experience see our book:

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