In life, pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional.”
The origin of this teaching is unknown, but it’s attributed to a number of people, including American meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and others. Wherever it comes from, it offers a profound and empowering truth. It is not possible to live on Earth without experiencing pain—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Of course we try to avoid pain, and when we can’t avoid it, we try to minimize or eliminate it as much as possible, and that makes sense. But no matter how hard we try or how successful we are, there is no way to avoid all pain in life. That’s how the universe is. We’re just stuck with it.
But that stuckness turns out to be the doorway to a freer life. We don’t feel free when we insist (consciously or unconsciously) that we shouldn’t have to endure this or that situation that causes us to feel pain, frustration, anger, grief, anxiety, self-consciousness, fear, shame, or whatever. When we believe that “if only this situation were different, I’d be okay,” we are locked in a cycle of suffering. That’s because there is absolutely no way to avoid all pain. Even if we’re right that if this particular situation were different we’d be free of this particular disturbance, it is a guarantee that another disturbance will come. But maybe so what? Because after all, if we can change one situation to make it better, why can’t we do that whenever new upsetting situations show up? Well, that is one strategy. But that strategy binds us to a never-ending quest to make things better, and not only does that quest take tremendous energy and ultimately fail, but it keeps us in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with life as each new unsatisfactory situation arises. I have wailed at the injustices of life too many times to count, and I have always felt certain that I’m right. Often others have agreed with me, and then I knew I was right. But where did being right get me? All it ever got me was the satisfaction of believing that I was right and that whatever I was faced with was wrong, and sometimes it also got me some camaraderie in my rightness. I can enjoy that satisfaction for a time, but before too long I’m always back at the dissatisfaction of living in a world that just refuses to operate the way I want it to and know it should operate.
But what’s the alternative? That’s the promise of meditation, yoga, and other similar practices. Through these, we train ourselves to accept the pains in life that we can’t avoid, and when we can accept them, we stop suffering from them. We do feel them, and we can certainly respond to them in appropriate ways, but they don’t weigh us down, they don’t color our lives, they don’t occupy psychic or emotional space that we could instead devote to more constructive, productive, and rewarding endeavors. Acceptance is the key—after all, if pain is truly unavoidable, what’s the point of fussing about it, even as unpleasant as it is? But accepting things that feel unacceptable is one of the most difficult and scary things for most of us to do. I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago—about how a partially-filled cup of coffee threw me into a spiral of rage and despair—and about how when I was able to come out of my head and into my breath, I was able to accept all the injustices I had weathered that day and the day before, and my suffering dissipated. To be clear (and both honest and realistic): I wasn’t happy—why should I have been?—but I was no longer suffering. And the rush of relief from that suffering carried me for days, and since it’s well over a year since it happened and I’ve just written a long piece about it, I suppose it’s still carrying me. Turns out it feels better to be free than to be right.