Pain Is Inevitable; Suffering Is Optional

pain is inevitable suffering is optional

“It’s not the thoughts, feelings or life situations that you experience that create suffering. It’s the thoughts you have about them. Pain Is Inevitable; Suffering Is Optional “

If you’re familiar with the teachings of mindfulness or Buddhism, you may have come across the expression, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

But what does it mean?

You’d think that suffering is a perfectly natural response to experiencing pain, wouldn’t you? That the two are synonymous?

According to Buddhist wisdom, however, there is a fundamental difference between them, the understanding of which can remove a lot of self-created and unnecessary suffering from our lives.

Although painful experiences are inevitable and beyond our control, suffering is, to a large extent, determined by our attitude— by the way we look upon and react to the difficulties that arise in our lives.

Let’s take a closer look.

Chasing Butterflies And Swatting Flies

Most people’s primary motivation in life is to chase after pleasant and rewarding experiences whilst trying to avoid unpleasant ones as much as possible.

We have a strong attachment to things being a certain way and suffer when our experiences in life don’t match our wishes, desires and preferences.

In her book, ‘What’s In The Way Is The Way’, author Mary O’Malley paints the image of a person standing in a beautiful meadow with a butterfly net in one hand and a fly swatter in the other.

Most of us are so preoccupied with chasing butterflies (security, sensory pleasure, approval etc.) and swatting away the flies of rejection, loss or defeat, that we fail to notice the beautiful valley we find ourselves in.

On a piano, both the black and the white keys are needed to play a tune. The symphony of life is just the same.

Life is a play of dark and light. When we reject the shadow aspects, we cut ourselves off from the full experience of being alive.

The Difference Between Pain And Suffering

Pain is indeed inevitable.

If you inhabit a human body, you’re going to get sick, you’re going to be rejected or treated unfairly. People close to you will die. Your business may go bust. Your house may burn down.

Ups and downs are an unavoidable part of life… and it can really hurt.

So what’s the difference between pain and suffering?

Suffering is created when we reject the painful experiences in life and think they shouldn’t be happening — when we look upon them as bad or wrong, rather than as natural and inevitable functions of life.

First, we experience the pain of what is happening (which is totally natural), and then, through our resistance, we pile on layers of additional suffering.

We add the fuel of non-acceptance to the fire of pain and produce a self-created inferno.

What begins as a painful experience becomes full-blown suffering through our unconscious reaction to it.

The Buddhists have a word for this— ‘second arrow.’ 


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First and Second Arrow

The Buddha likened life’s painful experiences to being pierced by an arrow.

When you get hit by an arrow it hurts. There’s no getting around that.

What we then typically do, however, is to shoot a self-inflicted second arrow into ourselves as an unconscious reaction to the first.

We resist the painful experience—label it as bad or wrong, ruminate on how awful it feels, wallow in the pain, curse our bad luck, worry that it will never stop, feel sorry for ourselves, and generally pile a whole load of added suffering and misery on top of the pain that’s already there.

I’ll give you a common example that comes up frequently when I  coach clients.

Let’s say someone is having self-critical thoughts (something that most of us experience).

The fact that these thoughts exist in your head is an example of first arrow. You don’t choose them. They appear by themselves.

What typically happens then is that the thoughts trigger an automatic inner dialogue, “This is bad. There’s something wrong with me, I hate having these thoughts, I want them to go away, I’m never going to experience peace. I can’t live like this. When will I ever be happy?”

This knee-jerk commentary is ‘second arrow’ and, unlike the initial pain, it is self-created… and unnecessary.

The first arrow is pain and the second is suffering.

Anyone can learn to stop adding unnecessary suffering to the original pain by accepting what is.

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Here’s what the Buddha has to say about second arrow:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows.


Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl

While it’s impossible to go through life without experiencing pain, how we respond is in our own hands.

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, recognised the power and freedom that lies in being able to choose our response.

What’s the difference between reacting and responding?

Reactions are automatic and unconscious. They happen on autopilot. Responses flow from awareness and are more measured and intentional.

When you are aware of your own role in creating suffering for yourself, you are free to respond differently. 

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

living in the moment

What Happens When You Drop The Second Arrow?

Let’s look at the previous example of self-critical thoughts. With awareness, comes the freedom to choose your response.

Instead of kicking, screaming, and fighting against what is already there anyway, you can choose to:

  • step back and watch the mind without judgement
  • drop your resistance / give the thoughts permission to be there
  • challenge the thoughts and question whether they are true or not
  • observe the tendency to indulge in second arrow thinking and choose not to

All of the above steps will stop you from adding additional suffering to what you’re already experiencing.

In general, the less resistance we offer to the experiences that life brings our way, the more peace we experience. What you resist persists.

Most of what we experience is beyond our control anyway, so we may as well work WITH what life gives us rather than fight against it.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl

If you have enjoyed the article, be sure to leave a comment.

What are you resisting in your life?


5 thoughts on “Pain Is Inevitable; Suffering Is Optional”

  1. Thank you for this, very well written! My response to diffucult and painful circumstances in life was often unconscious and it took me years to realise, that there are different ways to address to them. Recently I got in touch with stoicism and try to adopt some of these principles to put down the second arrow as soon as it appears. Not so easy but always worth the effort.

    Thanks for your articles!

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