Pain is not the same thing as suffering. Pain is not reflective, it is a real thing and it exists in the moment. It is a representation of now and is useful at getting an organism to stop doing something that is potentially harmful. Imagine grabbing a hot utensil or hot pan. The pain receptors in the hand fire, sending signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. There will be a reflexive response to these signals, the goal being to stop doing the thing that immediately proceeded the pain. You will let go of the hot utensil or pan and this will stop the immediate sensation of pain.
If the pain stops, reflection on the nerve impulses that made it into the brain can begin and perception takes place. Generally speaking, not a lot of cognitive cycles will be dedicated to reflecting on what has just happened because there is little need to learn from it. Existing automatic responses were sufficient to avoid injury. There is no point in wasting time and energy solidifying the avoidance strategy. The one that exists works fine.
Depending on the nature of what just happened the pain may continue. If you have actually done tissue damage, the pain receptors will continue to send signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. This does not mean that there is an immediate threat, it means that there has been a real threat and the reflexive response was not sufficient to avoid damage. It is also an indication that the nature of the pain is important, that what was automatic was not adequate to avoid injury. It is in the best future interests of the individual to process this information further and create a more robust avoidance strategy to employ moving forward. Tissue damage is not good, so let’s not experience it again if possible. The best way to eliminate the same in the future is to spend time processing it to increase the amount of mental stimulation and increase the amount learning that comes from it. The brain will adapt physically to this stimulation, laying down organic material to be used as memories in the future. This is the way we learn to avoid grabbing things from the oven.
Suffering has a survival purpose too. It is to help the individual to ruminate on something that happened that is potential harmful and should be avoided in the future. However, it doesn’t need to last for very long in order for the lesson to be learned and for an avoidance stratagy to be created. Imagine when you were 6 and blurt out an answer at school. The teacher scolds you for not raising your hand and some of your classmates laugh. While this isn’t as simple as the hot utensil example, it is very much the same thing.
It has been know for a long time that the brain releases chemicals in response to the sensation of pain. Something that has been uncovered recently is that many of these same chemicals are released in response to perceiving certain things in the environment. A lose of autonomy, a lack of certainty, a lack of fairness, a lose of relatedness and a lose of status all cause a similar chemical cascade as hitting your hand with a hammer. What is different is that the pain receptors in the body do not fire because there is not actual cause of pain. The pain receptors that do fire are the ones that fire as a result of the reflection on pain – the ones that fire when in response to tissue damage. Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.
The outcome of this is potentially very profound. If we take the example above of shouting out an answer. There is a loss of autonomy, as the teacher is exerting control over us. There is a loss of certainty because we suddenly do not know what will happen if we shout out the answer in the future. It will not seem fair because we are getting scolded for doing something that we and other people have done in the passed. In scolding us, our certainty about our relationship with the teacher will be called into question. A 6 year old brain does not have the necessary life experience nor the capability to know that there will be a moment after this. Most importantly, the status of the child has been thrown on its side when the other children laugh. As hard as it is to deal with the teacher exerting control, they are still the teacher and are at the top of the dominance, competence, and prestige hierarchies, at least within the boundary of the class room. The other students are supposed to be on the same level. When they laugh my social status takes a clear hit – my peers are laughing at me and therefore I am not as good as them. In this example, the brain of the 6 year old fires up and releases large amounts of reflective pain chemicals in an effort to prevent future damage.
Keep in mind that the response to the threat is very real and that the brain processes perceptions of these violations as it would process actual pain. It does not matter that to an outsider that the attempted behaviour correction by the teacher and the other students response does not actually make-up a real threat. The perception by the individual is sufficient enough to cause a reflective pain response geared towards creating a strategy to avoid the situation / action that immediately preceded the pain.
More importantly, we’re dealing with a 6 year old here. First off, they don’t have a very formed brain – their prefrontal cortex has not developed so they are incapable of processing what has happened effectively. They have few executive functions, little or no concept of the future, and practically no abstract thinking capabilities. Their incomplete and less than capable brain is being forced to create a pain avoidance strategy with limited experience and insufficient long term memory. All they are able to do is generalize to a specific behaviour and outcome pairing that is void of the necessary context to make the proper decision. They are going to get it wrong unless there is a clear explanation and reconciliation of the violations that occurred.
The teacher can, for instance, explain about raising hands and proper turn taking, about the consequences of shouting out, then can mention that it is the behaviour that they do not like or that is unacceptable and therefore the child’s choice that is unwelcome NOT their opinion. And the teacher can take efforts to ensure that the other children understand that if they had chosen to do the same thing, their peers would be laughing at them. The goal is to correct / explain the perception of any of these violations to provide the child and all the children the appropriate context to make sense of what actually happened. Teaching children is not easy and doing so well requires enormous amounts of patients and understanding.
But we’re not 6 anymore yet we continue to process the world as though we are – the pattern has been established and it works. Maybe we learned to not say anything. To keep our mouth shut in class and to suppress any aspect of our personality we incorrectly attributed to being the cause of the reflective pain response that occurred when we were 6. This is not good. It is understandable because keeping quiet DID prevent the same outcome, so silence is an effective strategy. It has just been generalized to everything as opposed to the specific action of speaking out of turn in the classroom setting.
This is how pain becomes suffering. Pain is reactive at first. There is no “me” or “self” in pain, there is no subject. We do something, it hurts, we stop, the pain stops, we continue along. If tissue damage occurs, the pain becomes reflective. This is adaptive and it helps to inhibit a specific action in the future. The terms of reflection are that “action A” caused “outcome B” to the subject “me”. Don’t do A in the future. The subject is not present in the pain response, the is no “me”. There is in fact very little action and outcome because reactions are automatic and tend have very little to do with consciousness. Reactions are over before we knew something needs to happen.
Suffering has the subject, and your suffering has “you” at the centre of it. Other peoples suffering is abstract, yours is real. It is narrative, but it is a real thing in so far as it impact future the future. And anything that happens to you happens to you, and it causes a chemical response similar to pain. Which makes you notice it more, and causes you to feel worse about it. It becomes a cycle and dysfunction is the inevitable outcome.
What do you do about suffering? Well, simply put, you make the decision to notice it as soon as you can and to detach from it the moment you notice you are suffering. If it is pain, you have reacted to it; you don’t actually need to worry about pain. You cannot in fact not address pain, it requires training to ignore pain and most people haven’t put the time in. Suffering on the other hand can be ignored. It doesn’t even need to be experienced. The moment you notice a hint of negativity and “yourself” in your thoughts label it for what it is by saying “there’s suffering.” By interrupting the pattern you buy some time to start to notice that nothing is actually wrong and that almost nothing in the physical world is actually happening. You are thinking, there is some brain activity, but there is no cause of pain and therefore no pain. Any pain response you are experiencing is the result of a perception of a thought that has you at its centre.
This is an effective approach that anyone can train themselves to have. It’s hard, but very simple and after you put the time in, the process becomes automatic and you gain the freedom to choose if and when you will suffer, maybe even liberating yourself from it entirely.