The difference between pain and suffering (and how it can save your life)

Today I want to explore the topic of crisis. More specifically the inevitability of crisis, and what we can learn from that inevitability.

You see, there are few certainties in life. Very few. The fact that things will keep changing, that is a certainty. That you will inevitably die is another. But the one that keeps many of us on our toes is that at some point, we will experience disaster in our lives, and suffer for it.

It’s scary, but it’s also true.

We tend to marginalize this idea, thinking that sure, it happens to people all the time, but it won’t happen to me.

We’re good at ignoring important stuff. It’s just a funny coincidence (or is it?) that the most important stuff in life is also the scariest.

I know you may not want to think about pain if you can help it, but I’m telling you, you need to make time to contemplate this fact. The reason I say that is because ignoring it will not make it go away. The more we come to terms with this reality of existence, the smoother we can deal with the crises when they inevitably arrive.

It may not be obvious what this work of contemplating your own inevitable pain will actually give you, but I can tell you this, from my own experience: When I finally put the pieces together and understood this simple law of human existence, my general anxiety about life disappeared.

I don’t mean to say that I attained buddha-hood or something, although it can be viewed as a degree of enlightenment. When something goes BANG!, I still go AAH!. I still get nervous when talking in front of groups of people. I still manage to worry about deadlines or tests at school.

What I’m no longer afraid of is pain.

This actually lead me to contemplating death as well, and soon my fear of death greatly diminished as well.

The two often go hand in hand. Understanding the former eases us into understanding the latter, but that’s a topic for another day.

The terrifying truth of human existence, is that people are constantly in pain. All the time. People are diagnosed with excruciating terminal illness every single day. Every day, people get into debilitating accidents, or get betrayed by someone they trusted, or lose a loved one.

This is a fact of life. The Buddha said it best: Life is suffering.

And I know at first glance this all seems absolutely, dismally pessimistic. Even nihilistic. But I say that ignoring the truth is infinitely more damaging and limiting than facing it, however scary it is. Monsters hide in a dark for a reason: What can’t be seen, cannot be understood. What cannot be understood is most terrifying of all.

We need to direct the searchlight of our awareness on these things in order to understand them, and when we do, peace follows.

So let’s start with my experience.

How did I come about this knowledge? By direct experience.

A little over two years ago, my life was shattered. I discovered that I had developed a dependency on corticosteroids, a class of drugs used to treat inflammation of all kinds, and that they had stopped working for me. I had used them for years to treat my mild eczema.

However, what I hadn’t been told at twelve years old when I was first prescribed these drugs, was that prolonged use had major side effects, and worst of all, as the body became more dependent on them, there would be a need for ever stronger steroids.

I came to the point where the drugs no longer helped my skin condition except in very high doses, and my eczema seemed to have gotten so much worse over the years.

After a lot of research, I finally figured out what was going on. I was stuck in a positive feedback loop. You see, the corticosteroids are an analogue of a hormone produced naturally in the body, cortisol. When we infuse the body with artificial hormones, the body systematically reduces its own production of said hormone.

The result was that as I stopped using the medicines (I’m loathe to call them that, as intuitively I think of medicine as something that actually heals the body), my body went into full on withdrawal. Topical steroid withdrawal, as it’s called, or Red Skin Syndrome, which is the technical term.

No short term thing

A little further research revealed that this withdrawal was no short term thing. 2 to 5 years on average. I was devastated. To show you why, let me list some of the effects of withdrawal:

  • Intense shedding of skin. I had to sweep the floors in my bedroom every night, because of all of the skin flakes I had scratched off during the night. Think of the sand all over the floor after a day at the beach. This has lasted until the present day, although thankfully it’s gotten a lot less intense, and on fewer parts of my body.
  • Bone-deep itching red skin. My entire body became bright pink, and itched like you wouldn’t believe. I would scratch so much at night that I woke up glued to the sheets due to bleeding, oozing sores. The worst of this lasted for 18 months.
  • Severe lethargy, so that I had a hard time getting up out of bed at all. A big part of this was the insomnia I experienced due to the terrible itching and pain.
  • Nerve pain and “zingers”, meaning my skin was painful even where there were no sores, and I had these sort of heat cramps, like little zaps of electrocution.

I’ll leave it at that. I would say that despite the horror of these symptoms, what got to me the most was the trauma it entailed. I became deeply depressed, developed debilitating social anxiety due to my appearance (my face was swollen, red, and I had scratched off my eyebrows at some point), and generally felt like dying.

In fact, about 18 months in, I was seriously contemplating suicide. The pain and suffering was just so intense and miserable, and even though I (thankfully) knew that this was temporary, it already seemed like it had lasted a lifetime.


At that point I realized I had become fully burned out by staying in school that whole time when I should have just quit right away, so I stopped. That became the first step in regaining my health. I stayed home, slept a whole lot, read loads of books, meditated and journaled. This would be a complete turning point for me.

I started researching ways to optimize my diet for healing. I looked for ways to exercise that were possible for me in this condition. I started to really try to figure out what life meant to me, and what I wanted to get out of it. Did life have value to me, even if it meant this amount of unbearable pain?

Of course, I’m eternally grateful that after much contemplation, I decided that the answer to that question was a resounding YES.

Now that you know my story, let me tell you how I came to this not-too-obvious answer to life’s most terrifying question.

This is an axiom that changed my perception of existence to it’s core:

Pain is a given, suffering is a choice.

If that doesn’t shake your reality tunnel, then you’re more enlightened than you think.

This isn’t obvious, not by a long shot. So allow me to elucidate.

Pain cannot be avoided. Pain will be experienced in life, in varying amounts, to various degrees of intensity.

It can manifest as physical pain, like burning your fingers on the stove, or a car accident, or chronic illness, as in my case. I know you can easily find more ways in which we feel physical pain, so I won’t dwell on it.

It can manifest as mental or emotional pain as well, as in cases of betrayal or great loss, like the death of a parent, sibling, or spouse.

It’s strange, but in many cases we wouldn’t want to remove our pain, even given the chance. My grandfather died a few months back. We were quite close and I loved him dearly. The pain of his absence is what reminds me of what a kind, loving, solid human being he was. It reminds me to miss him.

In the same way, physical pain teaches us to appreciate the times in our lives when we were in good health. I can tell you this much: I will never look at my health in the same way again. I took it for granted once. Now it’s my most valuable asset of all.

Good health is one of those things you don’t even notice until it’s gone.

Pain takes many forms, as we’ve explored here. But what about suffering?

Well, first off, what’s the difference between suffering and pain? Simply put, pain is the event, suffering is the response. What does that mean?

Thus spake a wise soul, eons ago:

I may not be able to control the winds, but I can adjust my sails.

When we’re faced with dire circumstances, we usually have multiple options for responding to the situation. We can run and try to escape (literally by physically running off, or figuratively by for example depending on drugs to escape reality), we can freeze and submit, or we can stand and fight. We can even accept what’s happening and decide to make the best of it.

When most people are faced with disaster, they have no idea how to respond. That’s because they’ve consciously ignored the inevitability of crisis their entire lives!

How can you expect to weather out a storm if you haven’t even thought about the possibility of it ever coming to that?

Let me throw another great quote at you:

Life isn’t about trying to outrun the storm, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

So here you are. You’ve had an accident. Or you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Or you find out your wife or husband has been cheating on you for the last two years. Or your sister just died.

If you’re anything like I was before my own midnight of the soul, you’re in for a very difficult time. Your entire paradigm of the world around you and your place in it will crumble down all around you. What you thought was stable and eternal suddenly seems ephemeral and fleeting.

To be totally honest, I’m not sure if these insights on the nature of pain and suffering can ever be gained without having actually suffered greatly. But the fact is that most of us have, at some point in our lives. Everybody knows what suffering is. Nobody is naturally immune to it. The only difference is how you decide to respond to your pain.

If you decide to dull your pain, escape your misery, you will be just as susceptible to suffering, if not more so, when the next wave strikes.

If, however, you decide to face the thoughts, feelings, and sensation full on, contemplate them, fully feel them, you will gain insight. And through insight, you will become wise. That wisdom will be there for you when you inevitably meet with the next life-crisis.

There’s no trick to this. It’s not easy, but it’s overwhelmingly simple. There’s a lot of fluff surrounding meditation, contemplation, spirituality, but for this life, for the here and now, there’s no need to complicate things.

Sit with it

Sit with your pain, with the conscious intention to understand it and explore it, no matter how terrifying and repugnant it seems to you, and you will be taken to a better place. Your relationship with pain itself will change, and you will transcend suffering.

This takes a lot of work, make no mistake. This is no quick fix. You need to work at everything. Your mentality and attitude, your self-discipline. But rest assured, this is the way to permanently overcome your anxiety towards life.

Taking on this work entails so much more than that, though. You will find that, as your relationship to pain and suffering changes, so will your attitude to life as a whole. As your fear of suffering diminishes, so will your fear of expanding. You will become open to experience in a way that you weren’t before.

You may find yourself following your own bliss, without caring if others judge you for it. You will become more compassionate, doing all you can to alleviate others’ suffering and teaching them to change their own relationship to pain.

You will stop being afraid.

You can partake in life without being hung up about it. You can have fun instead of fretting.

This approach to suffering is ancient. Many attribute it to the historical Buddha Gautama, but it’s older than that. Way older. The Buddha himself relates that he “rediscovered” a technique that had been lost for millennia. Others have done it before us, and more will do it after we’re gone.

In Buddhism and other eastern traditions, this approach is called Vipassana or variations thereof.

The word itself is Sanskrit and simply means “insight into the nature of reality”. It relates to direct experience, as opposed to knowledge gained from an external source.

Mindfulness, as it has been popularized here in the west, isĀ  another approach (which is essentially the same). To call mindfulness a tool is misleading. Instead, it is an all-encompassing approach to existence, in favor of directly experiencing the sensations and events of here, now, as opposed to constant thinking.

The primacy of direct experience is undeniable. We can read, listen, and learn all we want, but in order to fully grasp anything, it must be experienced. Knowledge is power, in every way.

Know thyself, said Socrates.

The better you understand what it means to be a human incarnate in this place at this time, the better time you’re going to have playing this game. The game of life. I believe self-knowledge should be the prime imperative of any human being.

If you learn anything from this article, let it be this:

You are more than the sum of your parts.

In our modern, materialist-reductionist paradigm, we tend to overlook the simple fact of our consciousness. Of our awareness.

You have a body, and a brain, and a mind. You have friends, a job, a personality. But the fact is, you are so much more than all of that.

It can’t be explained, so I’ll stop there.

In conclusion, I will say this: Start to meditate.

Start as small as you have to. One minute, five minutes. Then gradually increase the time. Find guided meditations. There are plenty out there. Stop being reluctant to be fully present with your pain.

It will save your life.

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