The other day I saw a marvelous television program in which Bill Moyers interviewed Pema Chödrön, an elderly American lady, now Buddhist nun, who has become famous for her wisdom mixed with common sense.
One of the subjects she dealt with that struck me with great force was the difference between pain and suffering. The interpretation she chose to differentiate between those words was powerful. She described pain as being for example, an unwelcome event, an injury, a disappointment, and so on. And suffering is what we then do inside ourselves in response to that event.
For example, say we have an audition for a part in an opera that we really want. If we don’t get the part, the moment of finding that out may cause pain. Intense, unwelcome pain. But if the moment after that we start to say, “Why didn’t I get the part? Did they like that other soprano/tenor/baritone better? Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was. Maybe I’m never going to get a part. I should have practiced harder. Maybe I should be with a different teacher. If only the accompanist hadn’t played that wrong chord just before my entry. That really put me off! Maybe it was what I was wearing. Maybe I’m too old/overweight/the wrong color/ethnicity/sexuality…”, this is where the suffering can begin. And it has the potential to persevere for a loooong time.
Of course it’s understandable that one might experience thoughts like these. And then the emotions have a tendency to follow those thoughts. It’s tempting to immediately blame oneself or others. However, when we begin to become aware of thought patterns like these, then we have a better chance of taking a different road.
What other roads are there? It can certainly seem strange initially to begin to explore other options.
“You mean I’m not supposed to mind or be upset? Am I supposed to be made of steel? Give me a break! Anyone would be upset!”
Well, it’s your choice. But here are some other options.
The Nurturing Option
“I’m feeling extremely disappointed. I really wanted that job. Well, I think I’ll take some time out to be gentle with myself for the rest of the day. I’ll ask myself what would feel nurturing. Hmm… a warm bath… a great book… a funny video…. a good chat on the phone with X.”
(N.B. Beware of wanting to numb out– sudden longings for large amounts of alcohol/chocolate cake/TV/shopping may block out the painful feelings temporarily, but they’ll just come back in the morning.)
The Observational Learning Option
“Well, I don’t understand why I didn’t get the job. Hmmm…I think it’s worth looking at what I did to prepare… maybe get some feedback from the panel/accompanist. You know, if I’m honest, I didn’t really know that aria as well as I thought. And actually it’s difficult for the pianist to sight read, so maybe I’ll take my regular accompanist along next time.”
The Underlying Intent Observation
“You know , it makes me wonder why I’m actually doing this? What’s my intention? Well, I want to be successful. Why? So people will like me? What’s the experience I’m actually looking for? Hmmm… self-expression. Well, how else could I find opportunities to express myself? Oh, there’s that dance class/stand-up comedy class/street festival/jam session I was thinking about doing…
(Yes, I know that opera is the thing that you love most, but you might be freer in the next audition if you are feeling creatively fresh and juiced up!).
In my experience, there is a good chance that if you try one or more of these options, your pain may still be there, but hopefully your suffering will decrease. It may take great perseverance, as our habitual reactions can be hard to eradicate, but change is certainly possible. Bon courage!