The first time I encountered the idea that suffering is optional, I resisted it. “You’ve got to be kidding”, I thought. “I’ve been in pain my entire life so I get that it’s inevitable, but suffering is optional? No way.”
I’ve changed my mind since then, however.
Through my work, first as a nurse and now as a naturopathic doctor, I was able to see the pain experiences of others. I learned that whether the pain is physical or psychological does not matter. What matters is how invested you are in your pain. That’s when it transforms into suffering.
There is a distinction
If I unpack this further, it comes down to a subtle distinction between pain and suffering.
Pain is the automatic response of your mind or body to harm. Suffering is your reaction to your response (pain). Pain is inevitable because it is automatic; suffering can be automatic or not. It is based on a chosen perception, and your judgments about it.
The choice of one’s perception can be conscious or unconscious. An unconscious perception is still a choice as long as the option to modify the perception exists.
Many people with chronic pain resist the idea that part of their pain experience is optional because then they would become responsible for what they live with. While some might view this as a bitter pill of the “blame the victim variety”, I think being responsible for your experience to any degree is empowering because it means you can eventually change it into something that adds to your life instead of limiting it. The choice is ours to make.