Thoughts on Suffering and Meaning

~ By Patricia Kay Youngson, RN ~

No one would argue that physical and emotional pain evoke suffering.  Interestingly enough, however, there are claims that you can have pain without suffering.  For instance, Reynold Price in his book “A Whole New Life”, says that although his pain “roars around the clock” in his body he says it is not a problem. Actually, I read the whole book and still don’t know how he did it. Shinzen Young (“Break Through Pain”) says that Suffering=Pain X Resistance and the resistance can be overcome by meditating on the pain.  Stephen Levine (“Guided Meditations, Explorations, and Healings”) says: “We turn pain into suffering  by attempting to escape.”  Well who wouldn’t?  And Maggie Phillips (“Reversing Chronic Pain”) says:  “Healing our suffering means not so much the absence of pain but the ability to meet it with love and compassion instead of fear and blame.”

So this brings us to “Life is suffering.” which is what the Buddha said:    Buddhism describes suffering in terms of being wounded by two arrows.  The first arrow is the actual event that causes us suffering The second arrow is the aversion, resistance and resentment that we feel because of the first arrow.  This is head stuff or the emotional overlay that increases the original pain.  One emotional overlay is catastrophysizing–all the negativity that we pile on.

There is the suffering that life naturally brings to us, i.e. sickness, pain, aging, death, disabiity, and loss.  In addition there is the suffering that we bring on ourselves through 1) Resisting change. 2) Expecting life to be fair. 3) Dwelling on our suffering.  4) Failure to be compassionate with ourselves and others and 4) Poor choices (Brehony, K.A. “After the Darkest Hour”).  Poor choices can include not taking care of your health with poor food and not exercising or risky behavior such as not wearing your seat belt in the car or a helmet while biking.  I am sure you can think of some others.

So how about meaning?  Is there any meaning or any value in your suffering?  Suffering is hard enough but suffering without meaning is intolerable.  Nietzsche said:  “He that has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”  Finding a meaning for our suffering helps reduce it.

What are some possible meanings or positive aspects of your suffering?  Or suffering in general?  It is pretty universal to hear that we develop character and personal growth through our trials and suffering.  Spiritual development can be another outcome. There is a shamanic promise that illness is a profound spiritual initiation (Carolyn Myss, “Sacred Contracts”).  Pain, for instance, can lead to a rare power of mind and spirit found in the spiritually evolved (Khalsa, D.S., “The Pain Cure”). I believe it is because many in pain are motivated to do work to aleviate it which is basically spiritual.  One positive affirmation by BelleRuth Naparstek in her “Ease Pain” guided meditation is:  “More and more I am becoming a true warrior of the heart.  I can use this pain to trengthen my mind and my spirit.”

Another positive of suffering is the growth of compassion since we have a better sense of the suffering of others.  We also have more of a sense of kinship with others since we all have suffering in common.  This compassion and kinship can grow into the desire and an increased ability to help others.  For instance, you may be inspired to work for change as many people do who are faced with suffering and tragedy in their lives.  One example is the woman who started MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) when her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. You can probably think of some others.

In addition, the spiritual teacher Patricia Sun says that when we have experienced and overcome a particular trial we even carry a “frequency” that others, facing a similar trial can tap into and receive help from.  That is pretty esoteric, but it makes sense to me.

Finally, how can we decrease our suffering?  Polly Young-Eisendrath (1996) in “The Gifts of Suffering” gives several suggestions:

  1. Have a larger perspective through exploring religious or spiritual traditions and/or spending time in nature.
  2. Have compassion for yourself and others and help.
  3. Recognize any self-imposed suffering.
  4. Practice mindfulness.
  5. Grieve.
  6. Surround yourself with love, from yourself and friends and family and pets.
  7. Be aware of your blessings and be optimistic.
  8. Look to role models of courage and elicit your own inner hero.
  9. Have a sense of humor.
  10. Express your feelings through talking or writing (journal, poetry).  Listen to others.
  11. Set time aside to meditate or pray and ask for prayer.
  12. Meet your life like a warrior with awareness, bravery, compassion, and discipline.

Best wishes in dealing with your suffering, possibly diminishing or ending it and in finding a meaning that helps you.

Patricia Kay Youngson

Patricia Kay Youngson

Patricia Kay Youngson, RN has a Masters in Counseling from Naropa and specializes in helping people with pain.  E-mail:  Website:

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