On Pain and Suffering

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
~ Rumi

If you desire healing,
let yourself fall ill
let yourself fall ill
~ Rumi


There is a Buddhist story (The Arrow) that says most humans experience pain twice: the first time is inevitable: we either feel the pain or discomfort coming from the first encounter with the harm, the painful, the injury, the frustrating, the unfair: it may be physical or emotional pain, as if we were wounded with a first arrow.

The second arrow, however, is what Buddhist call “suffering”. While pain is inevitable (and I will argue later than in some cases we can actually avoid it because in many cases this pain, fear or discomfort may be associated with perception, vulnerability and sensibility levels), suffering is not: suffering is produced by our reactions to the first arrow, usually mental processes and actions that lead to more pain, discomfort or fear (i.e. suffering). This is like being hit by a second arrow: we complain, blame, criticize, whine and perpetuate the suffering by passing on to either ourselves or to others, extending the wound even further.

According to author Ronald Rothberg (The Engaged Spiritual Life), most of the pain (first arrow) and suffering (second arrow) we carry is hidden and even unconscious: “Afraid of certain kind of pain, we often segregate, marginalize, minimize, deny, avoid, repress, or hide the pain, when we are not simply ignorant.”

“Pain” is just a generic name that includes any discomfort: from physical pain from an injury or sickness to frustration, anger and emotional pain.

Rothberg says there are three types of hidden pain:

  • Individuals carry unresolved pain that we are either unable to face or we don’t want to face. Unresolved pain usually generates neurotic behavior: defense mechanisms, patterns we use in order to not experience this pain again. We may space out or distract ourselves, develop complex rationalizations, avoid or deny it or even resign resentfully to it. Most likely, we may cover over with elements of a “good life” such as a career, family, etc.
  • Interpersonal relationships also hide the pain by avoiding talking about it or even avoiding the subject (the “toxic” person who always comes with a “drama” or has issues we don’t want to face). This same reaction is seen in organizations and groups where pain, frustration, anger, fear or discomfort are not talked about but ritualistic ways to deal with it are developed, making the dynamics chronically dysfunctional.
  • Even in the collective domain, we tend to hide, stigmatize and avoid the poor, the sick, the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally unstable. We do the same with garbage, waste, and toxic material: we send it “away”, bury or throw it in spaces far away from where most people live. We flush our toilets! Mining, polluting and depleting resources is usually done away from those who use them most. We hide the misery of animals raised to be eaten and used and we hide slaughterhouses. We wrap the products in sterilized packaging so we disconnect ourselves from the pain our “choices” cause to others.
  • Structural violence is another term mentioned by Rothberg and different from the direct violence or cultural violence such as racism and other forms of discrimination; structural violence occurs when a group is discriminated by the structures that are supposed to protect them, such as the case of certain groups dying more often from cancer or falling sick because of inferior quality of medical care, access to appropriate services, etc.
  • Many of these “hidden” pains are passively ‘accepted” and the responsibility shared in different ways: the millions of people dying from car accidents, alcohol and smoking, the chronic physical and emotional pain and disabilities caused by a sedentary lifestyle and bad diet; the consumption and disposal of products that pollute or have been made using child labour, exploiting peoples and other species, etc.
  • Other type of collective pain Rothberg talks about in his book is the pain of our “enemies” and “victims” who are systematically ignored or minimized: we learn the stories of those killed in Western mass shootings but not the ones of those our governments and corporations kill in wars, attacks, interventions of through oppression and exploitation in other countries
  • Finally, there is the collective shadow: the inherited pain, the legacy and lingering violence in the past such as holocausts, genocides, slavery and the like…


So what do we do with all this?


As mentioned before, our tendency is to shoot the second arrow: hide ourselves behind depleting and eroding patterns of language, gestures, actions and behaviors, some inherited, some culturally sanctioned as “appropriate” and ‘acceptable” but most of them self-destructive or dysfunctional.

What this does is perpetuates the cycle of harm, pain and suffering for us as individuals, for our relationships (families, friends, groups, etc.) and for our local and global communities.

Buddhism proposes other ways to deal with this “second arrow”:

  1. We learn to open to the bare and direct experience of pain and discomfort: we observe what triggers the pain and discomfort and what reactions (physical, emotional, cognitive, etc.) we have to what is happening. We take some distance to observe the patterns as if we were scientists studying a topic. Without judgment or trying to change anything or involve anyone else, we take audit on what happens through mindfulness: what happens in our bodies, in our hearts, in our brains, in our actions, in our relations, and how all this impacts with others in our communities and with our own plans.
  2. We start by opening to smaller pains: similar to the therapy of desensitization, we expose ourselves to minor pains and increase the exposure as we gain courage and strenght
  3. We determine what pains we can face directly and which ones we may need to face indirectly (because they are too painful, too big or too traumatic). We do this through practicing meditation, loving-kindness, joy, self-understanding or by studying the teachings and wisdom of those who have already faced similar pain
  4. We take note of our reactive patterns again and again, until we become “experts” in our own reactiveness to pain, frustration and discomfort
  5. We accept the gift of opening to pain: pain, frustration, anger and discomfort are usually good doors to learning about us and others and to become more compassionate as we start understanding how our individual and relational patterns forge the world and the systems we are in. With the gifts of compassion, deepened wisdom and peace and safety for us and others, we start a path that helps all in the healing and transformational process of not throwing the second arrow.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the founder of the concept of “engaged Buddhism” said:

“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

I invite you to open yourself to your own suffering by following the suggested steps above (Rothberg) and by trying this “Truth Mandala” by Joanna Macy (“Coming Back to Life”), you can try this with a friend or family member, and if you are a good facilitator, you can also try this with a group which dynamics may be suffering from hidden pain, discomfort, anger and frustration.

When considering this, remember the steps that include starting with small pains (“start small and slow” permaculture principle); observe and take audit of patterns, reactions, triggers and effects (“observe and interact” and “accept feedback” principles from permaculture), utilize indirect approaches when appropriate from those who may facilitate the process for you (“use natural and renewable resources”, “use the edges” and “embrace diversity” permaculture principles)…a good friend, a healer, a counsellor, a good book may help you if are not yet strong enough:

  • Draw a circle in the floor and mark four quadrants.
  • Put in each quadrant one of these: a stone, a bunch of dead leaves, a thick stick and an empty bowl.
  • The stone represents fear, a hard and contracted heart
  • The dead leaves represent sadness and grief
  • The stick represents anger and violence
  • The empty bowl, confusion and emptiness
  • Say out loud what bothers you: let the pain be in the spotlight and put it where it belongs: stone, dead leaves, stick or empty bowl. Speak from your heart and not from what others say or do.
  • Acknowledge the different pains and discomforts
  • Use the center of the circle to add anything that does not fall under the four quadrants
  • If you are doing this with someone else, all those who are listening say “I hear you” to each statement from the one mentioning the pains.

Let the pain guide you to engaged compassion and ethical change/action.

The heart that
breaks open can
contain the
whole universe
~ Joanna Macy

Candle Light by Antokr Stock Photo – image ID: 100165673 from: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

References and resources:


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