26 August 2011

Suffering is Optional

Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.

This unattributed Zen aphorism has been in my mind and spirit this week, while I wait to find out if the Botox treatment I had on Monday will take care of the chronic migraines that have plagued me for almost seven years now.

Since I love and try to live by the Buddhist concept of "equanimity" - which I have posted about before - my desire is to spend this waiting time in a state of tranquility with a peaceful awareness that maybe the Botox will work for me, maybe it will not. 

Equanimity.  If you click on the link above, you will find that one way to define this concept is:

"to stand in the middle of all this." 

This has to do with balance.  It means that one finds and stands in a place of steady, quiet inner strength that depends not at all on the vagaries of circumstance, mood or situation.  Losing equanimity is suffering: this has become an essential tenet of my pain management.  When I lose my equanimity, the pain that is inevitable - that of the migraines - is miserably augmented by the suffering that is optional - that of worry, or fear, or anxiety, or anger.

I would not have thought that hope could be added to that list.  Yet today during quiet time I realized that it can swamp equanimity: I hope so much that the Botox will work! I'll exercise more!  I'll find meaningful work of the sort I was doing before!  My life will be normal again!  I feel these attractive, positive and exciting thoughts lure me from tranquility by focusing my thoughts upon a future that is not at all certain.  There is inherent in them a wild plunging back and forth: It will work and I'll feel better!  It won't and I'll feel worse!  I ride the teeter-totter of suffering.   It might work.  It might not work.  It might.  It might not.

And so, however much I have heard all my life that hope is precious and not to be discarded, this week hope makes me suffer.   

Perhaps, however, it is only where I choose to place hope that causes me suffering, not hope itself.  Rather than focusing hope outwardly on an outcome that I cannot know and that will assuredly be accompanied by its own temptation to suffering, I can focus hope inwardly on my own spirit.

I can find hope in equanimity: inner balance that I choose to cultivate whether or not the migraines go away. I can hope in the power of spiritual tranquility to serve me steadily whether I am set forth on a newly pain-free life, or on the next phase of the pain-filled life. Without planning for exactly what this will be like for me, I can hope in the journey that is a moment-to-moment choice for balance.

Thus is suffering made to be optional, and hope to bloom. 

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment link below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.  Thank you.


  1. Hi Carol,

    I hope with all my heart that the botox works. If it doesn't though, you have such a strong grounding in equanimity, that I know you'll be okay.

    Love to you,

  2. I am keeping my toes crossed that the botox works. This probably sounds like a platitude but it's the only way I can make sense of pain and suffering - Is that ultimately we are not our bodies and pain helps me detach from my body and connect with God and soul.
    Easy to say and hard for me to do.

  3. Toni: I was thinking of you as I wrote this post. So much of my journey toward equanimity has been influenced by your wonderful book.

    Judith: It is hard to do, yet I think you have put into words something very hard to describe to those who do not deal with daily pain. Somehow the pain becomes an conduit, an avenue toward God, into the Divine.