The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

This may sound weird, but meditation has taught me that you can have joy even when you have pain.

In the beginning, most of us start meditating to eliminate our pain. I know I did. I wanted to get rid of my sadness and fear. But meditation doesn’t eliminate pain -- it eliminates suffering.

What’s the difference?

There’s a saying in meditation circles that Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Pain is all the things I can’t necessarily control about life: illness, old age, construction work on my block, the slow guy in line in front of me at the grocery store...

Suffering is the tension I create around the pain: lamenting that I have the flu, hating my gray hair, complaining incessantly about the noise of the jackhammer outside my apartment window, shooting imaginary laser daggers at the guy unloading his shopping cart one… orange… at… a…. time.

Of course, intellectually we know that we all get sick, everyone gets old, roads need repair, and I wasn’t even late for anything that day at the grocery store (why the rush?).

But intuitively, emotionally, it’s a different story. Because suffering, that tension around the pain, arises unconsciously, even instinctively.

There’s a simple equation that expresses this: PAIN x RESISTANCE = SUFFERING.

When we push pain away, we expend our energy in resisting things we can’t usually control. I prefer not to have jackhammering all morning while I’m trying to work, but creating tension around it is not going to change the city’s construction schedule.

It’s not that I need to convince myself that the noise is pleasant. It’s probably not. But I can’t make it stop either. If I resist the noise (with complaints and exasperated sighs every few minutes), I’m simply increasing my discomfort.

If something is unpleasant, can I just let it be that way? I don’t need to push it away. If I just notice it, maybe that noise is just… well, sound. That’s what it is. A loud sound. A very loud sound. I can feel that and not make a whole story about the inefficiencies of city hall.

Easier said than done, right? That’s why we practice meditation.

Meditation practice is a stripped-down version of our everyday experience. We have the intention to sit and be with the breath but within minutes, maybe even seconds, the mind is off: Be with the breath. Oh, I have to call Naomi. Where’s my phone. Where did I leave my work keys? My left foot itches.

And then, we start in with the judgments: Why can I never meditate properly? I suck at this.

But suppose we didn’t add all that resistance. Suppose we said, okay, distraction is happening. The noise of the mind, just like the noise of the construction vehicle outside. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It’s just what the mind does.

And then, once the resistance is released, joy arises.

The late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said joy is whatever is happening, minus our opinion of it. Of course, she didn’t mean that everything is pleasant all the time. That’s clearly not true. She means that there is a deeper kind of joy that arises when we can be with our experience exactly as it is. When we don’t need life to be another way.

By being mindful and making space for whatever is happening in meditation, we learn how to make space for whatever is happening in life. And joy becomes possible in any moment.


Born in Addis Abada, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Sebene Selassie has been drawn to explore the intersection of different cultures. She was a self-professed “really bad dharma student,” until she was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer at age 34. Seb has survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher and community advocate in New York City.

Sebene Selassie