Pain & Suffering (aka Eating Too Much Food to Avoid Feeling Bad About Having Eaten Too Much Food)

What a cheery title. Who wants to think about pain & suffering? And yet, we human beings tend to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about pain and suffering: in fact, suffering, or dukkha is at the core of the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Not that you have to be Buddhist to be in pain. The point is that it’s universal. Pain is. From the first moment of birth, when infants cry because wtf, it was warm and safe and dark and now holy s#*t it’s cold and weird and very bright and who are all these people, we experience pain. From the simplest skinned knee when learning to ride a bicycle, to the heart rending grief felt at the death of a loved one, life hurts. It’s also fantastic. Like, really freaking great. But I’ll write about that another time. Today, it’s pain and suffering because things change and change is hard. We were feeling good and now we feel bad. Ouch!

BUT: (Hey, look, she’s getting to her point now), there is a huge and crucial difference between pain and suffering. They are not synonymous, at least not in my office, at least not in how I view and interact with the world. This is something I rant about to my clients all the time because if you can get this one, it’s a pretty magical key to a pretty sweet kingdom of way better.

Let’s start with pain. Wheeee! No, but really. Pain hurts. Pain is real. Physical, mental, emotional, pain can reach body, spirit and mind. For example, when my three year old son over-enthusiastically turns a corner in our house, slips on the rug, smacks his lip on the floor and splits it open (way to go, dude), that’s pain. He hollers “Mama, Mama, Mama!”, tears roll down his cute little cheeks and my heart breaks. AH HA! Heartbreak. Everyone’s favorite. Pain, or suffering?

This may sound harsh, but the heart break is my fault. It’s because of what I believe, which is that little dude should not hurt, should not feel pain, and should be always and perpetually ok because I love him and I’m his Mama and I’m going to save him from the world. Good luck, lady.

Heart break is suffering. Suffering, (with the getting to the point) is the experience we have when we fight the pain, get angry at the pain, stomp our little feet and shake our fists and say NO! This should not be. I do not like this pain, and I insist that the Universe get out it’s rule book and make some changes. No more pain, thanks. Again, good freaking luck.

And THAT is what I’m talking about. Pain, to repeat myself, is. Suffering does not have to be. It is possible to change one’s mind. This is very hard, and requires a lot of practice, like, every day, every minute, practicing and practicing and practicing (Hey! That’s what people call their mindfulness work. Practice. Whaddaya know.) The way we are trying to change our minds to move out of suffering into a space of acceptance and freedom is to stop fighting what is. The pain is not going to go away. But the suffering can go away if we let go of the belief that pain should not be. It’s that simple, and that complicated.

Here’s a look at how this works from a moment I shared with a client yesterday: She came into my office in tears because she feels “fat and disgusting”. That her body has changed is true; she has been binge eating for over a year and the food she has been using as a kind of one-size-fits-all pain fighting system is more than that body needs. For many people, especially if you have found your way to this post, this scenario is all too familiar. Using food in an effort to numb, stuff down, reject or avoid pain is at the heart of much of the disordered eating my clients report and that perhaps you yourself experience. And THAT is suffering. The work of change is to move from avoiding pain and trying to fight against it, with food, or booze, or overworking, to accepting pain. Pain is. That’s it. When the fight is gone, replaced by acceptance, than my client can feel the emotional pain of being in a larger body, and rather than (oh, the irony) eating too much food to avoid feeling bad about having eaten too much food, she can make a different choice. She can make many different choices. “Because why?”, as Mr. Three Years Old likes to ask. Because why? Because she is free. Free to choose to respond to pain in ways that lead away from suffering, not deeper into it.

When you stop fighting what is, you are free. It’s a platitude ascribed to about 14 different people (thanks, Google), but at the heart of my practice, both personally and professionally, is the true truth that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Which often makes my clients want to kick me in the shins, but it’s so worth it. It’s just pain, after all. Heh. That’s a joke. I make terrible jokes. But, I can accept that.