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You Are Not Your Pain: Primary and Secondary Suffering

This is the third in a series exploring the topics covered in the book You Are Not Your Pain [Amazon affiliate link]. See You Are Not Your Pain: An Introduction to learn more.

Pain has two components, the physical sensation and our emotional reaction to the physical sensation. We cannot control primary suffering—which is the pain itself—but we can control secondary suffering through our reaction to the pain. I used to believe this distinction was immaterial, but I’ve come to believe it is possibly the most effective coping strategy for to help me deal with all manner of adversity. I use it in every aspect of my life.

Kerrie Smyres: How do the principles of “You Are Not Your Pain” apply to someone who has pain as one component of a chronic illness with other symptoms that can be just as, or even more, debilitating?

Vidyamala Burch: The principles of the book “You Are Not Your Pain” equally apply to anything that is unpleasant, whether that is pain, some other debilitating symptom, or more mental and emotional suffering. The absolute core principle is that when we have anything unpleasant we resist it. The pain isn’t really the problem; the resistance to the pain is the problem, the response in the heart and the mind of ‘I don’t want this.’

This response means that you are kind of pushing it away and when you push it away you make it worse. In the book we make a distinction between ‘Primary and Secondary Suffering’ to describe his. Primary suffering is the unpleasant sensations in your body, heart or mind that have already arisen. We call this a ‘given’ in this moment. But if you automatically push it away you then get lots of other suffering—and we say that this suffering is optional and that is the secondary suffering.

To summarise: the primary suffering is anything that is unpleasant in your experience; it doesn’t matter whether that is pain, illness or a painful mental state. All the approaches in my book will teach you how to accept the primary suffering and reduce/overcome the secondary. This means your overall suffering will reduce—sometimes dramatically.

KS: Primary suffering can seem so overwhelming that secondary suffering feels inevitable and unavoidable. What advice would you give someone struggling to separate secondary suffering from primary suffering?

VB: It is difficult, as pain can feel incredibly solid. We can feel as if we are solid and the pain that is the enemy is also solid and there is very little room for separation within this solidity. But the deeper awareness that comes from mindfulness is that life is like a river, it’s not solid at all. It is a flow of thoughts, emotions and feelings arising all the time. So, what we are doing is learning is to rest our awareness within the flow of the river of life—we are learning to work with this fluid experience as it comes into being and passes away moment by moment.

One of the models that I use to help people struggling to separate secondary suffering from primary is blocking and drowning. When we look at discomfort the first thing we do is resist it, so first of all is the ‘I don’t want this’ response then that bifurcates into two different reactions: one is where we harden against the experience, perhaps tuning out or becoming quite blank and at the same time the body becomes quite hard because of tension, the mind is rigid, and we get emotionally numb; this is what we call the blocking response.

The drowning response is the opposite. We feel overwhelmed, where there is nothing else other than this pain. You are just completely overwhelmed, you feel ‘Oh my god, this is just far too much.’ Part of the skill is to understand which of the two things you are doing, because most of us either do one or the other. If you find that you are blocking, numb, a bit stuck, rigid, bored—often boredom comes with blocking—then the art, or the skill, is to come a little closer to what is actually happening – what are the sensations in my body? What am I thinking? How is my heart feeling? Then come a little closer.

But if you are in overwhelm, then you need to broaden and become aware of other things as well. If you are overwhelmed by pain, or discomfort and there is nothing else in the universe other than this stress in my heart, or this pain in my head, or whatever it may be then the task is to notice other things around you. You can look in your body for pleasant sensations, in the moment there is always something pleasant, so what is pleasant? It might be warm hands, well I notice right now that the sensation of the hair on my forehead is actually quite pleasant, it might be something as simple as that. It’s like you pull back a wide angle lens on a camera. How many other things can you feel? You can feel your bum on the seat, your feet on the floor and hair on the forehead, cardigan on the skin, warm hands, breath in the belly, soft face, eye lids touching—that is often very pleasant!

So you learn to ‘calibrate’ blocking and drowning tendencies with awareness. You are playing around with going closer, pulling back, then going closer and pulling back. Eventually we arrive at a place of beautiful equanimity where the pain is there but we are not overwhelmed nor are we blocking—for most of us it’s a dance and dancing between those two movements of pulling away and broadening is very interesting, it can become so fascinating. 

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