The difference between pain and suffering

I have been thinking lately about those who criticize spirit science. I’m not talking about the critics who are skeptical of certain ideas we have. To be fair, some of the ideas we offer do seem to be pretty “out there”, and each person is entitled to their own opinion. Those aren’t the brand of critics I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the group of people who come from a place of deep pain. People who have experienced traumatic experiences in their youth and who snort at the idea of these happy-go-lucky so called “spirit people”. I’m talking about the people who see us as naive because our bright and sunny outlook doesn’t match the horrible experiences that they have witnessed in their lives, who cynically laugh at the idea of “All our pain is an illusion.”

I’m not going to lie. Life is painful. Anyone who says otherwise is either trying to delude you or is deluded. The mere act of being born brings pain to the mother. Pain is an honest fact of life. You are not responsible for your pain. It often comes to us whether we want it or not.

However: you are responsible for your suffering.

Perhaps you’re thinking “hold the fort, what’s the difference?”

To answer the question, I’m going to once again rely of the words of my Buddhist friend Barking Unicorn. “To see the difference between pain and suffering, bring a puppy to a cancer ward. You will see many people in pain, but no suffering.”

The story of Viktor Frankl

Stephen Covey in His Bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” writes about the story of Viktor Frankl, a man who spent three years in various concentration camps including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau.

According to Wikipedia Frankl’s  “best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning (published under a different title in 1959: From Death-Camp to Existentialism, and originally published in 1946 as Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager), chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate based on his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. Frankl was one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists

In other words, the guy was both a badass and an inspiration. It’s not often you get both in one person. Here’s a quote from Frankl about his time in the Nazi prison camps.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked throughout the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Even when every thing else in your life is out of your control, even if you become a slave, you still have the right to choose your outlook.

We are not Pavlov’s dogs

The human mind is a powerful thing, and a key to achieving that power is awareness. There is a chain that is frequently mentioned in the psychology of behavior. That chain is:

stimulus – thought – result.

The stimuli is the initial thing that happens, the “cause” if you will. Thought is how you individually process the stimuli. Result is what happens because of the chain. Sometimes, we have control of all three, but we always have control of “thought”, provided we are aware and stubborn enough, and humans are good at being stubborn. 🙂

Most of the time, we get caught up in these stimulus – result chains without even giving thought to what control systems are in place that make us live the way we do. That’s where awareness comes in. If you are aware that someone’s putting you into a Skinner box, so to speak, then you become empowered to resist it.

Take Ghandi for example. Here is a man that willingly starved himself to fight for a higher cause he believed in. If he had the mere awareness of a rat, he would never have been able to accomplish what he did. He would have begun to search for food in a panicked state. But Ghandi used the ability that all humans have, or at least have the potential to have. He used his thought (and stubbornness) to ignore the stimulus of hunger, to ignore the stimulus that he was starving to death.

At the end of the day, suffering comes from what you think of the pain. Suffering is related to thought, and thus can be controlled. With meditation and focus, you can transmute the pain in your life to something different, something beautiful.

Until next time, hang in there, and know that I’m right there with you.

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