Suffering = Pain x Resistance


Shinzen Young, an American mindfulness teacher, has said that suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance.  For anyone aiming to reduce suffering in this world, that equation can be very helpful.

 Pain is an inevitable part of life.  Suffering is simply pain speaking more loudly because it has been pushed out of the conscious mind before being heard out.  Most of the time as adults we are able to make space in our consciousness to feel our pain if we choose.  And choosing to feel our pain when it occurs means we are not resisting it.  By not resisting it, we are stopping the creation of suffering.  We are reducing our own suffering and likely the suffering of those around us.

This equation is not perfect, however.  If we don’t recognize the paradox within it, if we don’t understand that the words cannot perfectly capture the truth, we can run astray of our compassionate intentions. When we have been on a spiritual path aiming to reduce suffering, we may begin to view the existence of suffering as a sign that spiritual work is not getting done properly, that too much resistance is occurring.  We may even begin to believe that suffering is a choice, that it is optional, or maybe even that it signifies some sort of failure.  We may look at our own suffering as a sign that we are failing in our mission to drop emotional resistance, and maybe even look at others’ suffering as a sign that they are “too resistant”. We can start to resist resistance itself, compounding the equation and creating even more suffering.

We must be careful not to pathologize resistance or suffering or be intolerant toward them even if they are indeed things we could choose to avoid.  Sometimes resistance is the right thing to do.  When we stand up to injustice or threat of personal harm, that is resistance. Sometimes resistance is heroic, like when it allows us to run from a tiger on a broken foot.  We would damage the foot much further and suffer greatly with that foot—if we escape the tiger, that is—but resistance would have undoubtedly been the right thing for us to do in that example.

Sometimes resistance is not necessarily heroic.  Sometimes people resist facing the truth or fulfilling responsibilities out of conditioned fear or trauma.  Sometimes we are resisting because we don’t have the strength to do “the right thing”.  But even, and especially, in those cases, we need and we deserve compassion.  We are where we are, doing our very best, and suffering is a natural and necessary part of our journey.

Sometimes we are unable for whatever reason to turn towards our pain, and as a result of that resistance we experience suffering. But we can later turn towards our suffering if we accept it as a normal part of life, and in doing so we can alleviate that suffering by addressing the needs that sparked our pain. Compassion and mindfulness accept reality with kindness and patience. They reduce emotional resistance by saying “I have room for your pain and suffering, I see you as you truly are, I care deeply for you, and I am here to address your needs.”

Just as pain is an inevitable part of life, suffering is inevitable. Pain and suffering are faithful messengers of truth.  They always have a noble purpose, and they do not take leave of us until we accept their messages.

It helps me to know that any experience of pain or suffering is an opportunity to show myself the beauty of my own love through self-compassion.  It helps that self-compassion feels fantastic.  Once self-compassion becomes a habit, paradoxical equations become straightforward and really helpful.

***If you found this post interesting, you may want to join me for a 2-session workshop on the subject of ANGER (a special variety of pain, resistance, and suffering!) this upcoming Sunday, July 14th and next Sunday, July 21st from noon until 3pm in West Asheville. Pre-registration is required. Details and registration can be found here. You may also be interested in signing up for the 8-week Fall MSC course, which starts September 5th. Registration for this is also available at the link above. The early bird deadline for the 8-week course is August 22nd, so you may want to sign up soon!

Holly Satvika