“The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for!” – Thich Nhat Hanh
This weekend my son wanted to be like his sister and asked me “Can I have a pony?” Which is his shorthand for a ponytail, but before I’d even touched his hair to make a teeny-tiny ponytail, he said, “I’m going to say ‘Ow’”!
That little snippet of interaction so clearly illustrated the idea of pain versus suffering. I was fascinated by this idea when I first read about it in Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation. In the book, she discusses her work as an animal scientist from her unique perspective as an autistic person. Her fascinating work brings together so many different perspectives.
Dr. Grandin talks about all the tests and observations they’ve done to study whether animals experience pain. Because animals, especially prey animals, mask pain so that they don’t stand out in the flock, in the case of sheep, it’s sometimes hard to observe whether they are in pain.
But then she moves on to talk about suffering. Looking at humans who have chronic pain, she cites studies that show that chronic pain patients have a great deal of pre-frontal lobe activity which suggests something other than pain which is a lower-down brain function. In cases where a patient with intense pain had a leucotomy, which disconnected the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain, the patient still had pain but didn’t care about it.
Pain and suffering are two different things. Whereas I can address pain with a bandaid, ice or other treatment, taking on suffering for me is a spiritual practice. It is best treated by bringing light and breath to it and then having faith that it will not only move on through but also usually inform some enlightenment. As the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says in the quote for this post, “The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for!”
The most prominent of this for me was my divorce a dozen years ago. After my marriage fell apart, it was so easy to stay stuck in the storyline of my husband’s infidelities that I mucked around for a couple of years without owning my part of the story and acknowledging that I wanted out. Until I found meditation and faith as a tool to empty those pockets of stale dead air, I suffered from lack of perspective and inability to listen to the larger chorus of the Universe inviting me out of the pain and onward.
When I started to make the pony for my son, he said, “Ow” and decided he didn’t really want it. I guess he know it wasn’t worth suffering for.
(featured photo from Pexels)