Suffering may not be inevitable, but that doesn’t make it optional.

I kicked up a bit of a firestorm this summer when I questioned Jon Kabat-Zinn’s saying: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”  Here are links to the posts and comments in the ensuing discussion.

The tagline in a recent advertisement for Bhante Gunaratana’s classic Mindfulness in Plain English caught my attention because it quoted the Bhante as writing:”“Pain is inevitable, suffering is not.”  At first I did not read this carefully and did a word search for “optional” in the electronic text of the book.  The word “optional” does not appear in the Bhante’s book so I wrote off the ad as an American New Age distortion of his teaching.

Another search, this time for the word “inevitable” did confirm that the ad quoted the Bhante correctly.  He does write: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Pain and suffering are two different animals.” It’s a matter of “habit patterns that presently control your mind” which “lock you into that suffering.” (93)

This apparently minor difference in wording between the two statements highlights the word I find most objectionable in the most widespread version–“optional.”  Bhante Gunaratana does not say anything about optional.  He clearly recognizes that we do not opt into, i.e., choose, to suffer.  Hence, his version and his explanation avoid the blame-the-victim implications that bother me about the more common version.

Bhante Gunaratana does repeat the assertion that “pain is inevitable.’  He is referring to the automatic bodily responses that the scientists call “nociception.”  Some of the participants in this summer’s exchange strongly objected to the concept of the inevitability of pain because they deny the reality of pain based on their denial of the reality of the material, physical world.  They can argue with Bhante Gunaratana about that.

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