Houston Graduate School of Theology

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Suffering = Pain x Resistance

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by Dr. Ria Baker “This should not be happening to me.” That thought has crossed my mind many times these last weeks after fracturing my kneecap in December. Recovery has been slow, difficult, and not fun. In her book, Everybody’s Got Something, Robin Roberts describes how, regardless of one’s background, economic status, ethnicity, or religion, everyone faces difficulties. Everyone goes through adversities from time to time, such as suffering from personal losses of loved ones, jobs, possessions, identity, or from illnesses, accidents, and the like. And sometimes, everything seems to fall apart all at once.

There is no simple solution (or formula) for how one can successfully endure hardships. Kristen Neff (2011), in her book on self-compassion, offers mindfulness practices to help reduce suffering during experiences of pain. She describes how suffering stems from a single source, which is comparing reality to ideals. When reality does not match one’s ideals, wants, or desires, suffering is the result. The key to happiness is understanding that suffering is caused by resisting pain, which cannot be avoided in this life. Pain does not have to lead to suffering, because Suffering = Pain x Resistance.

The ability to distinguish between the normal pain of life, such as difficult emotions and physical discomforts, and actual suffering, which is mental anguish, can be learned. Mental anguish is caused by fighting against the fact that life is sometimes painful (Neff, 93-94). Emotional suffering is the result of the desire for things to be other than they are. The more pain is resisted, the more we suffer. “Pain is like a gaseous substance. If you allow it to just be there, freely, it will eventually dissipate on its own. If you fight and resist the pain, by walling it into a confined space, the pressure will grow and grow until there is an explosion” (94).

Try the following small experiment to observe how mindfulness and self-compassion can help you suffer less when dealing with pain:

  1. Hold an ice cube in your hand for several seconds (mildly uncomfortable). React as you normally would and put ice down when the discomfort is overwhelming. Notice how long you could hold the ice cube before you put it down.
  2. Hold the ice cube in your other hand for several seconds. This time feel the discomfort, try to not resist. Relax around the sensation and allow it just to be. Notice the burning, cold, tingling, and so on. Put the ice down when the discomfort you feel becomes overwhelming and notice how long you could hold the ice cube.

Compare the two experiences and notice if anything changed when you did not resist the pain. Typically, you will notice that the less you resist, the less you suffer.

So, if you are currently going through something, hopefully not a fractured kneecap, remember to look around and realize that you are not alone in dealing with difficulties. Instead, rely on the One who heals and can give you peace, as you accept the pain that you are experiencing. Make changes where you can to reduce pain. Recognize when things cannot be changed and must be accepted as they are.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference” (Neibuhr).

Ria Baker, PhD, is Associate Professor of Counselor Education at Houston Graduate School of Theology.