Two weeks ago I was walking my dog Kloe down the street near the house we rent in the mountains every August. Gawking around and enjoying the beautiful day, my left foot slid on some gravel and twisted violently to the left. @#$&! To compensate, I jerked to the right and slammed my right knee into the pavement scraping away the skin. Double *&%#$! I sat there for a minute on the side of the road assessing the damage. Gradually I managed to get myself standing and hobble home.
It hurt—both the ankle and my knee. But what hurt more than anything were the thoughts flooding my mind at the same time. How could this happen? Thom, Kloe and I had spent the previous week scampering up the side of steep and slippery mountainsides without a bit of trouble. During the week before we had clocked in at probably 15-20 miles of mountain terrain. Health-wise I felt as good as I had in the last ten years and both of us were getting in shape for our upcoming trip to Southern Mexico in September. How could something so stupid and unnecessary happen? Right from the beginning I allowed the pain in my foot and knee to spread to my mind—that’s where it became suffering.
Okay, I get it. Stuff happens to all of us sooner or later. The longer we have been alive the more stuff we’ve experienced. But it is always so much easier to say and believe when it is happening to someone else. Try as we might, we may avoid some pain, but never all. Pain is the physical or emotional experience itself that causes distress—suffering is the story we tell ourselves about the pain.
I’ve written before about pain and tragedy on the big scale and how Buddhism offers many helpful ways to overcome that larger experience. (If interested, you can find that post HERE.) But when pain hits us personally, it’s very easy to take it in a personal way and that is a big part of the problem. As 1st Century B.C. author Pubillius Syrus reminds us, “The pain of the mind is worse than the pain of the body.”
Another way of looking at it comes from a story about two arrows in the Sallatha Sutta:
“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & 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;”
Later, the Sallatha Sutta continues with:
“In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental…”
I know, and so do most of you, that when we focus our thinking on our pain, our hurts, our worries, our difficulties and our challenges, we usually end up making them worse. The Law of Attraction repeatedly says that what we focus on expands and grows. Dozens of religions teach that what we dwell upon or think about becomes our life experience. But when we are in personal pain, when our mind is tied up in knots, the tendency is to zero into that calamity and stay there. This exactly resembles being shot by two arrows.
But don’t misunderstand me, in all the reading and studying I’ve done in my lifetime I’ve never seen anyone write, teach or say you should deny it when experiencing pain. Anyone who is going through pain, and yeah, been-there-done-that more than once, is never helped by pretending its not happening. No one likes pain, and sometimes it is all we can do just to manage it to the best of our abilities.
But what we can avoid is suffering. Remember, suffering isn’t isn’t the same as actual pain. Suffering is the story we tell about the experience of pain. And while it is never easy to change (or let go of) the story in your mind about what you are going though, it is possible. Here are five ways I managed to stop the suffering from my recent painful experience.
- First and foremost we have to wake up and remember that all the stuff we tell ourselves about why it happened, how it happened, and what it means for the future is just a story. In my case it doesn’t matter what happened two seconds before I sprained my ankle. It also doesn’t give me permission to imagine a future that will be anything else than happy and good as a result. Anytime we begin blaming, complaining or worrying we are stuck in a story of suffering.
- Let go of thinking that any of us can avoid painful stuff happening. I know this is a lot more difficult the younger you are—but I’m convinced the sooner a person can come to terms with change, uncertainty and the messiness of life, the better. This is not to say that we can’t set intentions and positively influence our futures. But what it is saying is that ultimately Life is a bigger mystery than most of us will ever comprehend. Being able to experience pain, while refusing to accept suffering is a huge step toward becoming SMART.
- Never forget that you are NOT the pain you are experiencing. A big part of the suffering story we often tell ourselves is that pain is everything we are and we can’t see the end in sight. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is good to take steps to alleviate the pain as much as possible, never forget that it is only a tiny portion of our journey—and not who we are at our core.
- Remember that suffering is your choice. Believe me, I’m not saying that I choose to experience pain or that it is somehow my fault. In fact, any time we blame anyone (our self included!) we are just telling stories in an attempt to justify it, alleviate the guilt, or get sympathy from others. So although the pain is real, we can always choose to drop the suffering and just deal with the pain. Want to know if you are sliding into suffering? Just figure out the story you’ve been telling yourself and let-it-go.
- Have someone close to you remind you of this choice. Over the weekend Thom and I had dinner with some friends at a local restaurant. Without thinking I started into my story about my fall, how it slowed me down, and how it could ruin our upcoming trip. Luckily Thom didn’t kick me under the table, but he did speak up and point out that I was making amazing progress, that our bodies are amazing in the way we can heal from most injuries, and that in spite of it all, things are always working out for us. Having someone close to you who keeps you from sliding into a pity-party is always beneficial. For more on this issue, check out my post about FOMO!
The unvarnished truth is that two weeks ago I fell and sprained my ankle. Yes it hurt like hell, but every day since it has been gradually healing and feeling better. Each and every one of us will go through big and little events like this our entire lives. Fortunately, these are just aspects of our lives, not who we are. Pain does not define us unless we let it. Ultimately it is SMART to be a “well-instructed disciple” and always remember that even though pain may be inevitable, suffering is always a choice.