How to Work With Suffering in Diabetes

This website is devoted to helping us live better with diabetes, and that generally means helping us manage our disease more effectively. It means helping us reduce the odds of complications, or reduce the pain we might be feeling from complications that are already with us; it means helping us rein in our blood sugars with practical, helpful advice that we can use in a concrete way. This is all wonderful, and I hope that from time to time I have contributed to that — I have a feeling I tend to be one of the “philosophic wanderers” among the bloggers, but I try to offer more practical advice, too. Today, though, I’m going 100% Zen on you! Today, I want to reflect on how we can work with our suffering in a skillful way. I’m going to focus not on how to avoid diabetes-related pain (we should do all we can to live healthy, complication-free lives, of course), but on how to meet that pain and work with it.

I think before I dive in the deep end of the pool, a little setup is necessary. I’m going to be drawing pretty heavily on some Eastern philosophic ideas here, and terminology is important. These ideas are drawn from the great Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. But it’s important to understand that the content of what I’m talking about won’t conflict with other religious traditions. I’ve always been a “boundary-crosser,” and I draw from both Eastern and Western religious traditions in my own life, so rest assured this won’t be stepping on anyone’s toes (at least as far as I can see). With that being said, Eastern philosophy, and in particular Buddhist philosophy, draws a clear distinction between “pain” and “suffering.” There’s a lot that goes into these ideas, and one could contemplate them for a lifetime. But here’s the (very) short version: pain is the direct physical or emotional sensory experience of a set of events that hurt us. When we touch a hot stove, we feel pain. We don’t have to think about it, it’s a direct experience. Similarly, when someone we felt we loved breaks up with us unexpectedly, we feel sadness. That’s pain. Suffering is something different. Suffering is the story line that we tell ourselves ABOUT the pain. It’s the ruminating thought spirals, the “woe is me” story of victimhood, or the building anger that seems to take each new thought and turn it into more kindling for the raging fire of anger.


This distinction is hugely important, because it opens the door for what I’m talking about here. We can’t exactly “work with” pain — it just is what it is. Something hurts — it hurts. Hot stoves will always burn our skin, and the feeling will never be confused with a full-body massage. Breakups will never be fun. “Diabetes bladder” will always suck. But we can absolutely work with the suffering, because that’s the stuff that we essentially create. And with time and practice and strong commitment, we can break the instant link between pain and suffering. Instead, we can learn to experience pain as pain, and drop the story lines. Notice that I’m not saying the pain will go away. Nor am I saying it won’t feel painful. It will feel painful. It’s pain. What I AM saying is that instead of letting pain be the catalyst for a cascade of mental turmoil, we can learn to experience what is in front of us directly and move on.

OK, so now that we’ve got the distinction, all we need are some good tools for working with this process. As with most psychological dilemmas, simply understanding how the process works is half the battle. But here are a few more practical things you can try to start working more effectively with your own suffering. First, check in with yourself often, and when you do, go deep. By that I mean don’t just stop for two seconds in the middle of a busy afternoon to assess your “happiness level,” or something glib like that. I mean stop moving for a moment, draw in some truly deep breaths, and shift your focus as deep as you can shift it until you feel your awareness dropping BELOW the level of the mental chatter. This might take some time, so just start by doing this as often as you can, at least three to four times a day. Just work on shifting the focus inward, shifting the focus deeply into yourself. When you find yourself truly resting at a level that’s more centered, deeper, and calmer than your overactive, thought-filled mind (all our minds are overactive, by the way — it’s not just you…), you’re ready for the next step.

Step two is to meet yourself fully. If your body is feeling pain, experience that pain and meet it directly. Don’t indulge it, and don’t ignore it. Don’t push it away, and don’t wallow in it. Just experience your state of being. Experience your own sadness; experience your own fear; experience your own pain. Now, take some more deep breaths and use whatever form of mantra, prayer, silent meditation, focused breathing, or other practices to accept your pain and move forward. I will sometimes recite the Prayer of Saint Francis, one that I have always loved and felt a deep connection to. It brings me back to the present moment and reminds me that the world is a vast place, and my life is a gift. You might have a different prayer, a mantra, or your own recitation that brings you a sense of peace. Whatever it is, the goal is that feeling of acceptance and calm that allows you to drop the suffering mind and be in the expansive mind that understands this simple truth: “The pain is here and there is nothing to be gained by pushing against it — you can fight it, ignore it, hate it, wallow in it, or run from it, but none of that will change it; let it be here, and instead focus your energy where it will do the most good — for the world around you AND for yourself.”

If you can reach this place, you have learned how to work with suffering skillfully. In truth, it’s usually pretty simple, and with just a little practice, it becomes much easier. In fact, the hardest part is not remembering HOW to work wisely with suffering; the hardest part is continually making the choice to follow this path. Caving in to pain and wallowing in suffering isn’t easier, but it can be strangely comfortable and addictive. That’s why it’s such a good idea to simply build those moments of “checking in” into your schedule. Make it something you do it three to four times a day the same way you set your alarm, brush your teeth before bed, or take out the trash every Wednesday night.

I wish everyone peace and freedom!

Breaking up periods of sitting with standing or light activities such as slow walking or slow cycling can lower blood sugar levels all day in people who are overweight or obese, according to new research. Bookmark and tune in tomorrow to learn more.