You may have heard the phrase “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” before. We have used the phrase ourselves when teaching, and were recently asked to explain what it meant in a little more depth. So, we thought we would write a little bit about this popular quote and what it means in practice!
The Origin of the Quote
This quote is often attributed to the Buddha incorrectly. A simple Google search of images shows quite a few misattributions to the Buddha. Although this is a teaching that is certainly in-line with the Buddha’s teachings, the origins of this quote are murky. According to Bodhipaksa of Fake Buddha Quotes, the earliest known attribution is in 1983 to Karen Casey.
Some sources also quote Haruki Murakami as the original author, a prominent Japanese author. His book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running included this quote. This book was published in 2007, and is unlikely to be the original use of this thought/quote.
Finally, this is a common saying in the twelve-step community. Because the nature of twelve step is that it’s anonymous, we don’t know when or where this originated in the rooms. However, it has been used in twelve step rooms and stories for at least twenty years.
Wherever this quote came from, we can be fairly certain it didn’t come from the Buddha himself. We have extensive written records of the Buddha’s teachings, and various types of Buddhism have different collections of teachings. However, none of these collections of suttas contain this phrase or anything closely related to it.
Understanding Pain vs. Suffering
The essence of this thought fits with Buddhist teachings pretty well. The idea is that we all experience pain in life, and we can control how we react or respond to it. Pain comes in many forms. We have stronger pains like grief, trauma, and physical pain, but we also experience the everday pains like anxiety, stress, regret, and other discomforts.
If we understand “pain” as something unpleasant, it is a really broad spectrum. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid the unpleasant experiences in life. We can try all we want, but we cannot control everything. In fact, if we try too hard to avoid the unpleasant experiences, we are often creating suffering for ourselves!
Suffering, on the other hand, can be characterized as the reaction or response to experience. We can create suffering when coming into contact with pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral experiences. The teaching of the Second Noble Truth is that there is a cause to our suffering, and part of the cause is our clinging and craving for more pleasant experiences.
When something pleasant arises, we want more of it. It may be something simple like the experience of getting off work at the end of a long day, or something extreme like drug abuse. On the other side of the same coin is aversion, or the tendency to move away from the unpleasant experiences. When we feel something unpleasant, we crave being free from the experience. Whether it’s a toothache, anxiety, or hunger, we avert from these unpleasant experiences and try to “fix” them.
The suffering arises when we react to stimulation. If we’re experiencing something unpleasant, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves and making sure we are safe. However, we can do so out of care and kindness, instead of having a knee-jerk reaction out of aversion. We can respond with metta instead of aversion.
In the Sallatha Sutta, the Buddha describes the experience with the analogy of two arrows:
“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; in the same way, 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.”
Working with Pain and Suffering
When we see suffering, we can respond with compassion. Sometimes, a painful experience arises. We feel grief, have an active mind, or have a difficult conversation. When these moments arise, we can work on responding with compassion and care rather than aversion. One of the benefits of practice is we train the mind to respond to these difficulties in new ways.
When pain arises, we can watch for the “second arrow” we often throw ourselves. We notice ourselves creating suffering, and can begin to take action to respond differently. By cultivating mindfulness, we can begin to see more clearly where the mind comes in to create suffering. We don’t have to beat ourselves up or judge ourselves, but we can respond with compassion and wisdom.
Let’s take the example of experiencing monkey mind, or an overactive mind. When the mind is running like this, we may habitually respond by overthinking, letting the thoughts control our experience, or trying to force the mind to be quiet.
Instead, we can notice that the mind is active, and perhaps unpleasantly so. Instead of trying to cure it or resist reality, we can do a few things. We may benefit from simply noticing what the experience is like. Instead of stabbing ourselves with the second arrow, we can instead simply notice the discomfort of the first arrow. What thoughts are arising? Can you notice them coming AND going? Is the body having an anxious experience along with the mental pattern?
We can also respond with some compassion. By noticing it is unpleasant and caring for this pain, we can train the mind to care rather than avert. Saying to ourselves, “The mind is running, and this is uncomfortable,” is a radical shift and act of compassion. When we do this, we’re training the mind bit by bit to respond with care and not compound the pain.
Below are two meditation you can try for working with pain and suffering. One is a practice in cultivating the heart practices for ourselves, which can be immensely useful in choosing how we respond. The other is a compassion practice we recorded specifically for dealing with anxiety.
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