There is a Buddhist explanation of the difference between pain and suffering that really taps into the truth of something my nana always told me. Nana — who lived and thrived until she was 99 — loved to say that life was 1% what happens to us and 99% how we respond to it. That is to say, our minds play a tremendous role in the quality of our experiences. Say you get struck by an arrow. You will surely feel pain. The physical pain caused by the arrow is, according to the Buddhists, your primary experience. There is physical sensation, it hurts, and there’s not much you can do to avoid it.
Then, there is a second “arrow” that hurts at least as much as (and probably more than ) the original arrow. This arrow is our mental reaction to the first (actual) arrow: we spend time angry about getting struck, wondering who could have had the audacity to shoot the arrow, wondering why the arrow struck us and not someone else, wondering how long the pain will last, and so on and so forth. All of this mental processing is what causes suffering. The physical pain from the arrow is inevitable. But the mental pain from the story we get lost in about the arrow is optional, and depends wholly on us and our mindset.
How can we accept the original pain without compounding it with optional suffering? In a word, acceptance. And the practice of mindfulness is key.
Mindfulness is a kind of awareness. It is when we observe what actually is without judgment or resistance. In the example of the arrow, we acknowledge that we were struck. We also acknowledge the unpleasant physical sensation. And then we sit with all of that awareness and let it simply be. Our inner narrator may well try to distract us with questions about who, how, and why me. If we give in to this dialogue, though, we simply compound our pain with suffering. The answer lies in accepting how things are, even as we work to make them better (e.g., seek out medical help to alleviate the pain).
What can we do to mentally prepare for the arrows that will certainly come our way in life? Cultivate a practice of mindful acceptance. Resist less, accept more, even as we work to elevate ourselves and the world around us.
I’ll be deep-diving into mindfulness practice in my upcoming online course, Launch Your Intentional Life. Click here to learn more or sign up.