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Yesterday I climbed for the first time at Maple Canyon in Utah, an overhanging playground of cobbles. If we want to get strong, Maple is the perfect place. We climbed several routes until we were totally exhausted. On the last difficult route I had only enough strength to climb bolt to bolt. Sometimes I couldn’t even do that and would fall. And, today I’m sore and my fingers are swollen. The feeling of exhaustion, feeling sore…am I suffering, or in pain?

What is the difference between suffering and pain? The dictionary defines these as:

  • Suffering: to be subjected to, or endure pain, distress, disadvantage.
  • Pain: physical suffering or distress, such as injury, illness; a distressing sensation in the body.

Although there is semantic crossover, “pain” seems to be physical whereas “suffering” seems to be mental. The descriptors for pain—injury, illness, sensation—represent physical characteristics occurring in the body. The descriptors for suffering—being subjected to, enduring, distress, disadvantage—are mental characteristics occurring in the mind. We feel an injury or sensation; we think of being subjected to something, enduring something, being in distress, or having a disadvantage. We feel with the body; we think with the mind. Pain is physical; suffering is mental.

We engage in a stressful experience, like climbing, and then we recover from it. We need to pay attention to both: the stress we experience climbing and the pain we experience in recovery. There is no need to suffer while going through stressful climbing and no need to suffer during pain of recovery. Suffering originates from mental resistance to reality. If we wish the climbing wasn’t as stressful, or we were stronger, or our fingers weren’t swollen, then we’re suffering.

Mental suffering interferes with physical pain by distracting attention. Attention is distracted from the reality of the pain toward coddling mental resistance. If we’re climbing, mental suffering distracts attention from applying ourselves. If we’re recovering, mental suffering distracts attention from healing. Wishing we were stronger or weren’t sore is an expression of mental suffering. By noticing when we fall into mental suffering we can redirect attention to physical pain. With attention on physical pain we can take actions for effective climbing or effective recovery.

Yesterday I wasn’t suffering on those Maple Canyon routes, I was just feeling exhausted. That feeling was actually enjoyable because I like the feeling of using my body and pushing it. Today I’m not suffering by wishing I wasn’t sore or didn’t have swollen fingers. I simply pay attention and feel my body during all my recovery activities. I did some yoga, drank plenty of water (well, also coffee), and rested. I can enjoy the climbing and the recovery.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Greg Leach

    Life (or pain) is inevitable,
    Suffering is optional.
    Travel well.

  2. David Wright

    Hi Arno …. you are doing some really great work passing along all the valuable thoughts all the time … I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your work and also to re-iterate what great cross-over learning for life is contained in your e lessons.Hope all is well with you and yours…. Thanks! David Wright

    1. Arno

      Thanks for your comments David. Been a long time since we’ve seen each other. Let’s stay in touch. a

  3. Mell

    Thanks for another great e-lesson, Arno.

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