First, my definitions:
Pain – a physical or emotional condition that we perceive as ‘hurting’.
Suffering – a mental state, that often, but not always, accompanies pain.
I have tended to see the two as synonymous, but now I find they can be, and often are, separate.
Pain is a physical or emotional stimulus that is not pleasant. I hurt.
Suffering is much worse. Suffering is the thoughts: this is terrible. I can’t bear this. This is going to go on forever. This is wrong, this shouldn’t be happening. I want this to stop happening. I want to get out of this place I’m in, what’s happening to me.
Until recently, I’d say there’d been more emotional pain than physical in my life (and not buckets of either). I’ve always had more respect for physical pain. I suppose I’d always had some awareness that much of my emotional pain was predominantly composed of what I have defined here as ‘suffering’ – bemoaning my unfortunate state, reinforcing the emotion, spiralling it down and increasing it. But I’d seen physical pain as ‘real’. Something outside of me, that descends from elsewhere, beyond my control, except via painkillers.
My increasing familiarity with physical pain over the past 18 months had not, so far, led me to any too different conclusions. Apart from that noticing that even quite severe pain seemed to dissipate if I could reach a deeply meditative state.
My problem here, though, was first of all, reaching the deeply meditative state from the panicky suffering I incorporated into the ‘pain’ state, and then, maintaining this benefit after the meditation – although even temporary pain relief is a glorious welcome thing.
Just in the last few days, related to my meditations on the psychological effects of flies (see below: Meditation with Flies and Living with Flies), it has occurred to me that perhaps quite a large proportion of even my physical pain is ‘suffering’. Over the past few days, I have had increasing pain in my hips and lower back. To the point of experiencing difficulty walking, getting up, sitting down, and with little chance at all of picking something up from the floor. I was perceiving this as ‘constant pain’, at a reasonably high level. At hospitals, they ask you to rate pain on a scale of ten, with ten being the worst you’ve ever experienced, and 0 (surprisingly) being none.
I’d rate it at about a 6.
But when I thought of it in the way of the flies – it’s really only the present moments when I’m moving or sitting or standing for too long that there is actual pain. Lying down is not painful as long as I don’t inadvertently move my left hip too suddenly and strongly. Sitting down, there is only a dull ache – about a 3. Even when walking, the pain varies from about 4 or 5 on a flat surface, to sudden, rapid bursts of 7 or 8, moving on a slope or steps. And in those 7 or 8 moments – which are still fairly few – there is nothing but the pain and my response to it. The rest is the worry about the way I’m moving, how much it will hurt when I get to the steps, the way to go with the least slopes, whether I’d be better lying down (to see if it gets better), or to keep on going as much as I can (in case it gets worse, every day, whether I lie down or not.)
Also I’ve noticed my mind doing the ‘permanent and pervasive’ thing, rather than the ‘things change’ thing. When I have pain, I feel like this pain will be there forever and affect everything. That adds to my mind’s suffering. When I have no pain, thankfully (I think), I also feel like this is likely to continue and to affect everything. The reason I say ‘thankfully (I think)’ is because I suppose theoretically the ideal is to maintain ‘things change’ equally equably whether the cause is one that I perceive as suffering or as joy. But I’m not up to that yet.
I am trying to remember that things change when the suffering mind kicks in. I am trying to keep focussed on the moments (still most of them) where the pain is low or manageable. And when the pain is high, there is only the present to think about.
In the main. When the pain is high for a sustained time, rather than for a moment or two, the suffering mind does kick in with panic, fear, despair.
But I’m practising.
I hope to get as little practice as possible.