What hurts more? Is it pain itself or the idea of pain?
When I bruised my knee as a kid, I would head to the clinic for a tetanus shot. The thought of the injection was terrifying! I would wait at the clinic, where every minute I thought of the needle piercing my skin. Once it was my turn, my doctor would smile and put me at ease. But a minute later, he would appear with a cap, a sinister mask and peer at me from behind his square rimmed glasses. My terror would be back redoubled.
He would draw the serum from the bottle and push the air bubble out. I would notice how sharp the needle was. I would think if I could take a pill instead. I would think of pointing to the corner and yelling, “Look! Polar Bear!” and running away. Yet, those plans never materialized.
When the needle drew closer to my skin, I would shut my eyes tight, grit my teeth and clench the muscles around my temple. The hypodermic needle would meet my skin, pierce my vein and the doctor would push on the injection’s plunger. In two seconds, it would be all over and I was always left with the same thought.
“That wasn’t too painful.”
Every single time, I would realize that the injection wasn’t even as painful as the throbbing wound on my knee. And yet, the next time I bruised my knee, my injection phobia would return.
We suffer more in our imagination than in reality – Seneca.
The thought or idea of an unpleasant experience is more painful than the experience itself. When a needle pierces our skin, the nerve endings on the skin are exposed. The sensation of pain this causes is inevitable. But we are in control of our imagination – the runaway reaction of thoughts in our mind that make an injection seem more painful than it really is.
By observing our mind as we go through unpleasant experiences, we are able to train it. With practice, we become familiar with fear and can reduce its impact on the suffering that an unpleasant experience brings us.
So goes the Buddhist saying – pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.