Pain versus Suffering

I know a fellow who had an abscess that made him moan, and groan, and carry on in a pitiful manner. At the dentist he was told in no uncertain terms to stop complaining. The dentist had seen more than one person with a far worse abscess, with half of their face swollen up into an angry red welt, who hardly complained at all. (Technically, the pain of an abscess is caused by pressure being put on the nerve, which then sends out a pain signal to warn of the infection). Years later, this same person was able to fall asleep in a dental chair while undergoing a root canal job. Don’t get me wrong. I can imagine pain so severe that all I’d do is cry and scream. But just last week, I read a news story about a Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in a protest. He did no complaining while he burned. Not that I am saying that we should all burn ourselves. But isn’t it interesting, the different ways we all respond to pain?

What exactly is pain and what is its relationship to suffering? The other day I heard an advertizement/plea by a cancer research charity. The spokeswoman was speaking about someone who had a severe form of cancer. What she said was, “He suffered the…cancer.”

Odd how English allows one to say things in different ways. Notice that pain is a noun and suffer is a verb. And yet we confuse the two and let them stand in for each other. We say, she suffered a broken arm, rather than, she felt the pain of a broken arm.

In this online dictionary, here, ‘suffer’ is defined as covering everything from pain to loss, from distress to punishment. It also means to appear at a disadvantage. Did the cancer research spokeswoman mean he was a a disadvantage because of the cancer? He undoubtedly was at a disadvantage. But ‘disadvantage’ does not carry the emotional freight of the word ‘suffering’.

The roots of the word ‘suffer’ comes from Latin: “Latin sufferre : … to carry.” She suffered the pain: she carried the pain. At what point did the word start to mean to feel pain?

I like to think that the two concepts should remain separate. Pain is a mental/physical object, and suffering is our reaction to it. I want to define ‘suffering’ as ‘carrying the idea of the pain beyond usefulness’.

The zen story about the two monks going on a journey together: They come across a woman who is having a hard time crossing a swollen stream. One monk picks her up and carries her across. Some while later, the second monk upbraids the first because they have taken vows to avoid women. The first monk replies, “I carried her across the stream. You are still carrying her.”

Buddha said that suffering exists, that it is caused by the attachment to desires. In respect to pain, is it not our desire to be completely free of it? And yet, the reality is that pain happens. You can’t avoid it. But what is pain? If you stick your hand into a candle flame, you get pain. This pain serves a function. It is a signal telling you to take your hand out of the fire. Sometimes, of course, pain can be so persistent there is no way to pull the figurative hand out of the flame. Is the result necessarily suffering?

Buddha said that suffering is caused by attachment. As pain is not caused by attachment, it would be inconsistent for Buddha to say that pain is suffering. Suffering is caused by attachment. Suffering is caused by carrying the import of the event in one’s mind. The second monk in the story above was in no pain, but he was suffering all during his journey because he could not let the event alone. He kept rolling it around in his mind. He kept worrying about the significance of it, about the right and wrong of it. Was he envious that the first monk got to carry the woman and he didn’t? Or, how come the first monk transgressed and didn’t get punished? Or,…. Endless strings of monkey mind.

What is the significance of pain? It is a mere signal. How can it have significance beyond being simply a signal that something is going wrong, and we should do something about it if we can? What if we can’t do anything? Are we attached to the idea that we should be so powerful that we always had the ability to cure each instance of pain, whether it be our own or another’s? Each one of us, in suffering, gives the pain signal, the phenomena of it, extra import. It is when we do this, when we think that life is not fair to cause us so much pain, that we suffer. Pain is unavoidable. Suffering, in the sense with which I am applying it, is (however unconsciously) self-afflicted.

I do a pretty good job of pretending that this sciatica I have shooting down my leg in electric bolts is merely pain. My struggle is in trying not to think that the universe is being unfair to me in giving me this pain. My struggle is to not complain to myself or others. When the pain becomes distracting, I take codeine. I would probably do well if I did more yoga.

What would a life of pain be like if we could see pain merely as pain, as just a sensation, with no significance beyond its message? What would our lives be like if we gave up our attachment to the strange notion that we should live a life that is pain free, that we should live forever, that we should be strong enough to cure all the world’s ills?


The Wee Wren

I just posted, on my blog Omniferous Pen, here, a piece I wrote about my interaction with a wee little bird. It’s not exactly about zen but you may be interested.

Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Buddhism

1 – I have been thinking that the Occupy (name here) movement is futile in at least one sense: a whole lot of people are asking the very people who have taken all the money to give some of it back. Why would they do that? The 1% have spent a lot of energy setting up a system that make them and only them filthy rich. Take Egypt, a military commander (the top guy in the 1%) acted as dictator for decades. The Arab spring seemed to throw the dictator over at the demand of the people in the streets. But now a faceless military is dictating things. What changed?

2 – The banks, big biz, and the government, or at least the right wing parts of them, have yelled up and down that government should be run like businesses: lean and mean. They are right in a way. Government could be run like a business. But not the kind usually meant by the right wing. Let me explain: have you ever wondered why the biz/bank class want to limit the size of government? It’s because government can provide services at a very competitive rate. Governments compete with businesses. Like SAM of walmart fame is supposed to have said, destroy the competition.

Government is ideally a co-operative where the members (the citizens) pay a fee (based on a sliding schedule – taxes) and receive services in return. Because the co-op has so many members (the total population), economies of scale should make the government supply services better and cheaper than any smaller business – excepting of course that there is a lot of corruption in government, and except for the fact that we keep voting in people who would rather the co-operative business of government fails.

3 – Another thing. Why does it always take so long for rotten things to change? It’s because things work for lots of people and they don’t want to give up the things that work for them, even if they can see that it is not working for the majority. I suspect that even when the system is not working for one, many think that if they only do this or that they can be filthy rich too. And then when things also get really bad for them (or you, or me) we finally protest. But are we protesting so we can get on the gravy train, or so that everyone gets an equal share? Regardless, at some point the power structure hires lots of people who like playing with guns, and they tend to use these types as a military buffer between themselves and the people. We hope that guns in the streets of America will not happen.

4 – But why all this on a Zen blog? Think of the world as one big sanga, one big place where everyone helped everyone who was suffering, where compassion for others was the norm, where anyone who is suffering was listened to, when anyone who was in pain or ill or hungry had their pain assuaged. Can a Government be a sanga? Only if the people who were elected were well-trained in compassion and practised it on an everyday basis. Government based on the four noble truths and the eightfold path? Or, embody the love of Christianity (while forgetting all that mean-spirited hateful advice from Leviticus).

5 – Which brings me to my last point. I feel very positive about all the liberation movements that are happening now around the world – for one very good reason. People in the Occupied encampments are spontaneously setting up self-help resources, and resources to help others. People are being compassionate. And if they, and we, can keep it up, then there is no reason to think that compassion as the basis for government will fail.

Conclusion – There is only one problem. The government/ banks are not going to set up a compassionate government. They are trying to perpetrate the same system that made them filthy rich and bankrupted everyone else. But why play their game? Step aside. Ignore them. Take your money out of the too big to fail banks and put it into people oriented credit unions and other small local financial institutions. Or make up a completely new system and work it.

Oh yes. I asked what has changed? People are starting to realize that they can make things work for them. That they are not powerless.

I’ve been getting a few comments questioning me about suffering and pain, and so that is what my next post will be about.

Talk Talk Talk

I’ve been away from writing about my experiences with zen and Buddhism for a year now. I’ve been letting things settle-in a little more. What I mean is that instead of thinking about zen, I’ve been watching it/myself. My zen crony, Peter, long ago gave me a zen gift: when things are hard, he said, just watch them. Nothing to do.

It was probably my early training through the Catholic church that ingrained into my mind the imperative to emulate Jesus Christ and save the world. Hard task. Impossible! And to this day I do not want to end up hanging on a cross. So if I had to save the world, then I had to find another method that wouldn’t be so fatal. Given that I grew up in a household where it was very hard to get an word in edgewise, I became a talker. Talk talk talk. As each one of us has hardwired in our brains the belief that we are the centre of the universe, and therefore perfect, it logically made sense that I was supposed to correct the world by talking.

The world refused to be corrected.

But then I had the wonderful revelation that my miniscule brain was too small to figure out what was wrong with the world, and far too small to know what do about it. Moreover, because of my miniature importance in respect to the size of the universe, I could not be held responsible for anything I might think was wrong. Suffering exists, yes. But I could not be responsible for all the suffering – unless I was directly causing it. And I wasn’t big enough to cause it all. What a relief. Things became much simpler for me. When someone presented with their suffering, I was no longer required (by myself) to tell them what to do or how to do it, nor (and this was the biggy), nor to solve their suffering even if they said it was my fault (I might talk about this another time: who is to blame for your suffering?). This one revelation improved my relationships with everyone I know. I stopped talking so much. I stopped telling people what to do (or at least I hope I have). And I started listening. Just being there. Being available. And this, kiddies is, all anyone can do. Luckily, it is the best thing to do. Yes, you can wash the leper’s feet. And that would be a great comfort to the unfortunate. But you can only help ease inevitable pain. You cannot stop that individual’s suffering. Only the person can stop their own suffering. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is self-inflicted.

But all was not yet rosy in my hen house. Witnessing other peoples suffering caused me to become exhausted. In other words, I was causing myself the suffering of exhaustion.

But that is what a sanga is for: To help rub off ones corners. In the sanga of my marriage, my partner said that my problem was probably that I still had the impulse to save the world: and with me that was always the impulse to give unwanted and ignorant instructions. At least, I thought, I am checking that impulse. Then, last week, I talked to my other zen crony, Sandra. She gave me a few good tricks to help me when I am falling into the trap of exhausting myself: Breath into your centre. Disappear your ego. Then, a day later, by talking with Peter, I firmed up a few ways to go about not exhausting myself. When I finally embody them, maybe I will be able to talk about them. Or maybe I will just sit and watch. Anyway, I’m now not falling into the trap of letting myself be exhausted by myself.

I only hope that I’m not transferring my need to talk talk talk to this blog.