I learned a little about suffering this week…


Fortunately nothing bad happened to me, in fact, the experience was wholly positive – I was in Macclesfield for a course on Mindfulness and Leadership run by the King’s Fund (yes, the same one as the tiger).

Our instructor, Byron Lee described a fascinating aspect of Mindfulness that I had somehow managed to miss while reading through the tome that is JKZ’s ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ – that is, primary and secondary suffering.

What does this mean?

It is pretty obvious when you think about it –

We all suffer; whether we are patients or not, whether we are good or bad, old or young – this is being alive. The discomfort of our existence is what makes us human. Whatever the ‘suffering’ – hunger, fear, cold, deprivation, fatigue, pain, disease, death – the human condition overlaps completely with this essential component of existence.

Yet, there is more to this – there is primary suffering – the insult, the pain or trauma we experience first-hand when something goes wrong, the ‘stubbed toe’ that Byron described to the group, the tongue bite, the accidental head bang, the emptiness inside when you think you are alone – all of this is predicated upon the human condition – existing-in and perceiving the world. The light may blind me, yet it is the light, which allows me to see.

And beyond this experience, is the secondary phenomenon. The pain that radiates through our bodies, via nociceptors and neurons, from the toe to the spinal cord and the brain – the discomfort travels at the speed of light to alert us to a physical or existential threat. We pause, we look around, take evasive action, in an attempt to stay alive.

Then, there is the secondary experience – the attribution, the blaming, the rationalizing, the internalization of fear that help us make sense of the situation, the child who left the toy on the stairs, the driver who didn’t indicate, our own inability to focus on what we should be doing, the stories that grow – ‘The knife slipped, if I hadn’t needed to repair that thing that was broken because A didn’t complete the work properly, that B didn’t pay for, because of C…’

You see where this gets us; running in circles of recrimination and blame. Perhaps the blame makes us feel better, perhaps it allows us to come to terms with the injury, the insult, the trauma.

Yet, there is surely a better way, a way through the experience, as described by Frankl –

‘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.’

We, the perceivers, the individuals who live the experience need to take charge and decide who determines our response – who owns the space that shapes our futures.

This, is Mindfulness.


by Ramón y Cajal

Published by rodkersh1948

Trying to understand the world, one emotion at a time.

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