Thursday, March 12, 2009

Suffering is when you want the pain to stop.

Thus spake Natalie Goldberg, at a book signing I attended tonight. Her talk was about writing memoir, and she mostly read from her new book on the subject, Old Friend From Far Away.

Suffering is when you want the pain to stop. The sentence sprang out at me from the milling sidewalk throng. Ambushed, a part of me spent the rest of the evening struggling in a dark alley. What? How can you have pain without suffering? Aren't they one and the same? Why wouldn't you want pain to stop? Who wants pain?

I remember a Peanuts cartoon from years back. Lucy has to go to the dentist and she's complaining to Charlie Brown. He says to her, "You're not afraid of a little pain, are you?" Her retort is classic. "Of course I am! Pain hurts!"

Goldberg practices Buddhism. Buddhism urges us to look at life honestly, to accept what is. Sometimes life is painful. Everyone knows that. Suffering, by Goldberg's Buddhist definition, is wanting something other than what is. It could be applied to anything. As soon as we start wanting something different from what we have, we are somewhere else. We are distracting ourselves from the present, and the present is the only starting point we have. You've heard the saying, "You can't get there from here?" The truth is, you can't get there from anywhere else. The only way out is through, and the only place to start is here.

So if suffering takes me away from the present, and accepting pain is a way to avoid suffering, I'll accept pain. It's kind of hard to ignore, after all. Accepting pain doesn't mean it won't hurt. But, unlike Lucy, I know that not all that hurts is Bad. Au contraire, in fact. What is beautifully ironic, in my experience, is that the more I allow myself to feel pain, the sooner it passes. The more you hurt, the quicker you heal.


Jack W. Regan said...

I think sometimes suffering is a way to deal with pain. A way to sort through the crap life throws our way. The trick is to know when it's time to "move on." Change what we can, accept what we can't. This is, of course, a lot easier to talk about than actually practice. :0)

Peg Spencer said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Jack. I think when we stop trying to fight pain (i.e. stop suffering) is when we can experience it and move on. On the other hand, suffering can also be defined as choosing to stay with pain. Difficult stuff. Thanks for your thoughts.

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