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A mindful look at pain and suffering

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In the law we treat pain and suffering as running together. But . . . the stronger our mindfulness, the more clearly we are able to regard the pain as 'life happening' and, as a result, we are less avoidant of the discomfort associated with it.

MindfulnessIn mindfulness circles the language of the law slips in when the topics of resilience, decision-making, and well-being are discussed. When our mindfulness is strong, we see things more clearly. As a result, we are less likely to make assumptions, become lost in thought, catastrophize, ruminate, or caught in the tangle of bias. We are less likely to confuse what is actually taking place from what we can tell ourselves is taking place.

The legalese that emerges is the phrase “pain and suffering,” though in this context is understood to be the discomfort that inevitably accompanies life, e.g., the physical discomfort of injury or the emotional toll of grief and loss. Suffering, in sharp contrast, is what we experience when we resist what happens, i.e., life, as it is. The ultimate insight — and a helpful reminder — is that, by and large, while pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional. I write by and large because we can try to structure our lives to minimize pain — but avoid it entirely we cannot. And while it might be a relief to know that suffering is optional, knowing this generally is not enough to entirely avoid it.

For the mathematicians among us, a simple equation represents this relationship:

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

Our suffering is a product of the pain life brings our way exacerbated by the extent we try to resist it. So that this might be a little clearer, it plays out like this:

Suffering and Resistance

Say you injure yourself while on a vacation and experience. This is bad enough, as it is, and it can surely be painful. The suffering emerges when we “can’t believe this happened,” and think “why did it have to happen now,” or “to me” and get angry and blame ourselves or someone else for “not leaving the light on,” and feel anxious with worry that “we might never ski or jog again.” To the extent we can notice and observe the arising of resistance — in the form of thoughts and feelings — without getting as caught in the content of our thoughts and feelings, we suffer less. Mindfulness practices train us in this regard. The philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, addresses this when we writes:

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.

The challenge is that we are so accustomed to our thoughts and feelings that often we don’t even notice them arising in the first place. Knowing that “thoughts are not facts,” “feelings are fleeting,” and “this too shall pass” carries little weight when we are lost in thought and emotionally reactive.

How to Suffer Less

Suffering can take many forms — physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual — and pervade many aspects of our personal and professional lives. The helpful thing about an equation is that it isolates variables we can manipulate to change an outcome. We may not be able to do much with the pain — which often is much more bearable than we “think” — but we can begin to observe (a little more) and evaluate (a little less) what life brings our way, and that can go a long way to alleviating our suffering. Importantly, when the pain is too much to bear, leaning away from it may well be the wiser and more compassionate thing to do.

In the law we treat pain and suffering as running together. But as the above suggests, the stronger our mindfulness, the more clearly we are able to regard the pain as “life happening” and, as a result, we are less avoidant of the discomfort associated with it.  In resisting less, we suffer less.

So, the next time you find yourself agitated, turn your attention away from the “thing” that happened and to your evaluation/judgment/assumptions/story about the thing that happened and notice whether the degree of suffering begins to soften, even if just a little.

Scott Rogers

Scott Rogers

Scott Rogers, M.S., J.D., is a nationally recognized leader in the area of mindfulness in law and founded and directs the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program where he teaches mindful ethics, mindful leadership, mindfulness and negotiation, and mindfulness in law. He is the creator of Jurisight, one of the first CLE programs in the country to integrate mindfulness and neuroscience and conducts workshops and presentations on the role of mindfulness in legal education and across the legal profession. He is author of the recently released, “The Mindful Law Student: A Mindfulness in Law Practice Guide,” written for all audiences.

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