Pain vs. Suffering: The Work of Byron Katie

So – I get that neither pain nor suffering are actually very much fun to talk about, but this is real life and pain happens.  It happens to everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, wealth, beauty, fame or anything else.  The most outwardly blessed people experience pain and the most outwardly wretched experience pain, and there’s no way to tell which pain is greater (nor any reason to really). This can be physical, mental or emotional pain because really it all boils down to the same thing. There is a caveat though. Is pain the same as suffering? Do we have to suffer? Let’s look at the question of pain vs. suffering:

Pain is a Part of Life, But Suffering is Optional.

Commonly people don’t really make a distinction between pain and suffering, but I would like to propose that they’re very different things – that while pain in life is inevitable and there will always be losses, deaths, illness, and injury – we don’t actually have to suffer about it. Let me explain:

Pain vs. Suffering: What’s the Difference?

Pain is the event – the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the illness that you have or the injury that happens. This is what happens.  Suffering is the thought about the pain – the feeling that something isn’t right.  The loved one shouldn’t have died or left, the relationship should be something other than what it is, the illness shouldn’t exist.  It’s the idea that something about right now isn’t the way it should be.  The feeling like something *wrong* happened.  Does that make sense?  So Pain = what happened in reality.  Suffering = the difference between reality and what you wanted.




What would happen if you made a choice about that? If you choose to accept what happens as what is supposed to happen?  After all, all the angst in the world about someone dying doesn’t bring them back.  Say the worst case scenario happens – someone you love with your whole heart dies.  Pain slams into you like a Mac truck.  You don’t really have a choice about that – the pain will happen.  What next?

I can say that in my clients the people who get through grief well are the ones who accept that even though it isn’t what they wanted there may be a larger plan at work.  Things happen – maybe for a reason or maybe not but wanting them to be different doesn’t make them different, it just makes you unhappy. I know this all sounds very zen – the trick is starting to practice this accepting on little things so that when the big things happen you have some tools to deal with them.  Even if the big losses have already happened to you, start to work on accepting the little ones until you can begin to accept the big ones.

Steps to Accepting What Is:

There are many tools out there to help you accept what is, but one of my favorites is called The Work and it was developed by Byron Katie. Her entire system is online here, but I’ll outline a quick version below. This is a process of asking yourself questions about your belief and really exploring the answers you find. The first part is called the “Judge your Neighbor Worksheet,” then you’ll ask four questions and turn it around.

  1. Write a statement about something that you’re angry or suffering about in the format “I am ___________ (angry/sad/whatever) with _______________ (person) because _________. ex. I’m angry with my neighbor because he doesn’t respect me.
  2. Write down how you want them to change or what you want them to do. ex.  I want him to stop letting his trash drift into my yard, I want him to stop his dogs from barking.
  3. In this situation what advice would you offer them? ex. My neighbor should train his dogs better, my neighbor should not let stray trash fly out of his truck.
  4. In order for you to be happy in this situation what do you need them to say, think ,feel or do? ex: I need my neighbor to apologize. I need my neighbor to watch out for stray trash…
  5. What is it about this situation you don’t ever want to experience again? ex. I don’t ever want to have trash in my yard again.

(I just have to put in a side note that my neighbors are actually kind of awesome and that the above example is entirely made up – but I couldn’t really think of anything else and it works.)

Now you have this list of grievances.  This list of things that has been bugging you or getting under your skin. Don’t be nice in the list – be mean and nasty and horrible because nobody else is ever going to see it – get all of that out so that you can look at it.

Now ask 4 questions.

  1. Is it true? (yes or no – if no jump to #3)
  2. Can you really know it’s true?
  3. How do you react? How do you feel when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?

So let’s look at our example:

My neighbor doesn’t respect me:

Is it true? I think so – yes.

Can I really know it’s true? – no.  Maybe the trash is there because it flies out of the back of his truck when he isn’t there to see it. Maybe the trash comes from someone else. Maybe he can’t see through my bushes to even see the trash. Maybe respect has nothing to do with it.

How do I feel when I believe that thought? Angry! I feel like he’s not appreciating what a good neighbor I am and my stomach gets tight and my back starts to feel all tense.

Who would I be without that thought? Well – I’d probably be a lot happier, I wouldn’t get so mad when I walk out into my front yard or when I hear the dogs bark. I’d probably be able to enjoy my yard more.

Now turn it around – change the direction of the statement so that you’re turning it back on yourself (I don’t respect me), you’re turning it to the opposite (my neighbor does respect me) and you’re turning it to the other (I don’t respect my neighbor). For each turn-around find three examples where that has been true.

Why do The Work?

What you’re doing here is starting to see your thoughts as NOT REAL. Because they aren’t. The world is real. The things that happen are real. Your thoughts about them are literally all in your head. The thoughts we have about things are the reasons we suffer and letting go of those thoughts helps you to let go of suffering.  In the pain vs. suffering debate pain is mandatory but suffering is entirely optional.

I would highly recommend Byron Katie’s books – especially Loving what is.

Loving What Is by Byron Katie

Loving What Is by Byron Katie



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