There is an old saying frequently attributed to the Buddha: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

Many people are familiar with this saying but far fewer seem to live their lives as if their suffering is truly an option. Few seem to realize that the thinking they add to their physical or emotional pain is the source of their suffering, not the pain itself.

In my December 2018 newsletter article, “False Narratives: Causes of Needless Suffering,” the stories we tell ourselves about anything we think should be different than what causes the suffering, not the situation – whether it be a betrayal of a friend, a kick in the chin or a hurtful comment. Our minds are the biggest source of our suffering, not the painful incident.

Psychology Today addressed this in an article* several years ago:

“Suffering is both a cause and an effect of the catastrophic cognitions and distressing emotions associated with chronic pain: anxiety, irritability, anger, fear, depression, frustration, guilt, shame, loneliness, hopelessness, and helplessness. Negative thinking only makes situations we believe to be “bad,” worse. Many people, including those who do not suffer from chronic pain, can ruminate on something by continuously and unproductively replaying it in their minds or magnify the negative aspects of it. Our thoughts have the capacity to make us miserable, and negative thinking can be especially insidious, feeding on itself, with the potential to become a self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophesy.”

We can’t avoid painful incidents. They happen. We may be able to minimize them but they cannot be completely avoided. To that degree, they are inevitable.

In contrast, we do have total control over whether we suffer over these incidents, making ourselves miserable as the article implies. We can control what we think about.

Next time something occurs that you wish didn’t happen, watch for the tendency to ruminate on it and cause yourself unnecessary suffering.

*“Pain Is Inevitable; Suffering Is Optional,” by Dan Mager, MSW, Psychology Today, January 13, 2004


  • John Renesch

    Conscious Leadership Pioneer

    John Renesch is a businessman-turned-futurist, writer and keynote speaker on topics that integrate the subjects of work, organizational and social change, and positive scenarios for the future of humanity. Having published 14 books and hundreds of articles, he has offered a variety of services during his lengthy career - international keynote speaker, private mentor/coach and confidential advisor to consultants. A thread that runs through his work over the past four or five decades is creating more conscious leaders and building conscious organizational cultures. He is a founder of FutureShapers which hosts executive peer groups and offers coaching services that focus on helping its members become more conscious. His latest book is The Great Growing Up: Being Responsible for Humanity’s Future, which received the 2013 Grand Prize for Non-Fiction by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. In addition to his writing, he presently volunteers his time for causes to which he is committed.