Chronic Illness, Writing

Lesson 3: Pain Happens

I find it difficult to write about pain because:

a) I’m not a Buddhist teacher with decades of experience and accumulated wisdom

b) it feels like such an intangible thing to me that I almost don’t know how to put it into words


c) pain sucks.

I’ll give it a shot, though.

Life is full of pleasant things and painful things. There’s more to it than that, of course—so many shades and textures of experience. However, we generally prefer to experience the “pleasant” end of the spectrum over the painful one.

That’s obvious, right?

We spend an awful lot of time avoiding the painful things—and I don’t just mean physical pain. We avoid them so much that sometimes we end up suffering more because we worry about painful things in the past and in the future, and how to avoid them in general.

When we’re in the middle of painful things, we wish they would end. We fight with them. We try to wiggle our way out of the pain. This makes us suffer more.


I didn’t really notice this struggle against pain until I developed a chronic illness.

My avoidance tactics only got me so far when I felt miserable on so many days, when I couldn’t do the things I wanted or needed to do.

I found myself getting angry or depressed when my symptoms flared up. I always seemed surprised when this happened. It didn’t feel fair. I didn’t want to be feeling this way. I didn’t deserve it. Maybe I could just try to push through it.

I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I would tell myself. There’s no reason for it.

It’s taken a long time for me to just accept the painful times when they happen. I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly enlightened being at this point, but I can at least notice when I’m fighting pain and creating more suffering for myself.

It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.

– Pema Chodron

This doesn’t mean that I just sit and stew in my pain or suffering, either. I just stop trying to avoid it or trying to wish it away.

Am I tired right now? Okay, I will be tired. I can either be tired and continue doing this if I really need to, or I can be tired and do something else. Or I can lay down. 

It’s easy to avoid learning this lesson. Who wants to accept pain? Can’t I just try to make it go away? Does this mean I have to resign myself and never try to make things better for myself?

The funny thing is, once I started to accept pain and stop fighting it, my mental state improved. It seemed like a depressing notion, but it was actually quite liberating once I started to acknowledge it.

I can’t make the pain and unpleasantness go away, but I can change my thoughts about it so I don’t make it worse. And that’s pretty great.

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