Everybody Hurts: Transmuting Pain

The art and alchemy of managing suffering.
Acknowledging pain as a universal truth connects us to all of life. Photo: Daniel Barczikay

By Dimitri Ehrlich

Deep down, we probably didn’t need the band R.E.M. to remind us that “everybody hurts, sometimes.” We may try to deny it, but life is a painful enterprise. No wonder the first noble truth of the Buddha is the truth of suffering.

During 2021, an estimated 20.9 percent of U.S. adults experienced chronic pain. In other words, more than 1 in 5 adults is either taking painkillers or wishes they were. The problem with opioid painkillers, of course, is they are highly addictive and sometimes lead to fatal overdoses.

So, when pain comes knocking at our front door, what’s a poor soul to do?

To begin with, there is a difference between pain and suffering. According to the old saying, pain is unavoidable, but how much we suffer is up to us. The challenge is, philosophical aphorisms such as these may be easy to recite, but they are an entirely different beast to experience.

Most doctors will ask you to identify any pain you report on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being like a mosquito bite and 10 being like having your arm ripped off by a lion.

In my personal experience, when the pain reaches into the 8, 9 and 10 levels, it’s extremely challenging to take a spiritual approach to it. All you want is a painkiller.

I’ve never taken morphine, but having recently endured several months of debilitating pain due to a problem with a nerve in my brain that terminates in the teeth, I had to take enormous amounts of Advil, and sometimes the heroin-lite known as Vicodin. Without warning, there were random onsets of pain, several times a day, for weeks and months on end, some of which sent me to the hospital. 

Fortunately, I have been taught some useful coping mechanisms—what might be called spiritual tricks—for dealing with pain. None of them will help us avoid pain or make it go away any sooner, but they can change our relationship to it.

The simplest method of dealing with pain is basic mindfulness. Mindfulness exercises can help us notice that what seems to be a monolithic experience is actually constantly shifting and changing. Pain is usually a dynamic process rather than a static situation. Mindfulness can also help us deal with the depression and anxiety that often accompanies long bouts of pain.

There are also ways to combine visualizations with mindfulness of the breath, such as the practice of tonglen, in which you imagine taking on the suffering of others and cheerfully giving away your own well-being.

An even simpler version of this method is just to think: By going through this suffering, may I serve as a substitute for others so that nobody else ever has to experience this. Basically, this is a way of shifting our stance from one of cowering aversion to a confident and courageous position. “Bring it on,” we say to our pain, rather than begging for mercy.

Of course, by imagining that we are taking on pain on behalf of others, we aren’t reducing pain for anyone else, since unfortunately, there isn’t a finite amount of it to go around. But we can definitely shift our attitude and that can lessen the emotional suffering that often accompanies physical pain. This kind of meditation also allows us to begin to create some space between pain and suffering.

Another method is to think, “By going through this pain, may I pay my own spiritual debts.” This doesn’t mean blaming oneself for misfortune or illness, but it can help to imagine whatever pain we are experiencing is alleviating a karmic burden. (Needless to say, this requires some acceptance of the idea that cause and effect are constantly at work.)

Even if one is not familiar with—or receptive to—the concept of karma, we can shift our basic attitude toward suffering. As my teacher used to say, when we have difficulties, we often say, “Why me?” We don’t tend to say, “Why not me?”

Ultimately, none of these meditative methods are amulets that can magically protect us from life’s vagaries. There will be loss. We will encounter situations we wish we could avoid and be separated from the things and people we love. But if we acknowledge suffering not only as a private, specific, deeply personal experience but also as a universal truth, it can deepen our empathy and give us a genuine sense of connection to all people—as well as living beings of all species.

In this way, pain can not only be mollified by a mind suffused with caring for others; our suffering can become the basis for a more vivid kind of compassion. Genuine empathy is one of life’s most meaningful and stable sources of joy. Pain can be transformed into an opportunity to find a deeper, lasting connection and contentment.