“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” —Buddhist proverb
One morning when I was trying to leave a meditation group, I became agitated because others were “making me late” for another meditation group. I moved swiftly from blaming others to feeling shame at my imagined late entrance and fearing that I wouldn’t be able to find a place to sit. These worries, coupled with my anxiety about pain in my back and whether I could even sit, led to a meltdown.
I rapidly convinced myself that everyone (yes, everyone) would stare at me and shun me forever (yes, forever). I disconnected from the facts. I forgot that these people were my sangha—my community of Buddhist practitioners—and are committed to compassion for all beings (yes, even for me). They weren’t there to judge me. Like me, they were there to hear our teachers. But who needs facts in the middle of a meltdown? I found myself weeping as I drove, conjuring all kinds of judgment about what a bad person I was for falling apart. “And you call yourself a meditator! Tsk, tsk!” said the voice in my mind.
As I drove along in misery, I somehow remembered I could drop all of these stories. Suddenly the thought arose, clear as a bell: “I am just crying.” That was the simple truth of the situation, the only thing that was actually happening. My relief was immediate and complete. By the time I arrived, I had settled. I blew my nose and entered the hall as the lamas were beginning their talk. I found a seat easily and was greeted warmly by friends sitting nearby.
As usual, all my suffering was for nothing. If more pain had come my way in that moment, fretting about it wouldn’t help. Fretting only leads to further disconnect from my heart and my strength. If no pain had come my way, then fretting would only waste precious time and energy. As Buddhists say, “If you can do something about it, no need to worry. If you can’t do anything about it, no need to worry.”
We all experience pain in our lives. Unfortunately, our attempts to manage pain often turn it into suffering instead of providing relief.
Some common ways we create suffering include:
- Ignoring pain. When we ignore pain, we don’t learn anything. Instead we often continually repeat the habits that create suffering.
- Making pain our story. When we turn pain into our default self-narrative, we can overlook the details of our emotions. We might experience depression or anxiety as a solid, unchanging wall. But in reality the experience may be full of gaps and moments of freedom.
- Rejecting our pain. Making an enemy of our experience can lead to suffering. When we push away our experiences and don’t allow ourselves to explore and understand our feelings, we cannot learn or grow from them. Experience is just experience. Rejecting our thoughts and feelings is usually pointless. What’s more, it can deepen the conflict in our lives. (Of course, some experiences may be simply too painful to examine for a time, or on your own. If you are dealing with something particularly difficult, please seek help from a qualified therapist or counselor.)
Both physical and emotional pain can be effectively managed when we look directly at what is actually happening. We examine it, but we don’t reject it, cling to it, ignore it, or elaborate it. This perspective allows us to notice the true nature of pain: transitory, mutable, and impermanent. It is not solid and ceaseless, It has no story—despite our attempts to give it one. It appears and then dissolves over time.
We all experience pain in our lives. Unfortunately, our attempts to manage pain often turn it into suffering instead of relief.
It takes an open mind to perceive our situation clearly and accurately. It takes patience to sit and observe without altering, judging, or making assumptions. It can help to remember that we are never alone. Any pain or suffering we feel has also been felt by others. There is no one whose life is free from pain, who does not wish to be free of suffering, and who does not deserve compassion. We are all in this together.
Practice sitting quietly a few minutes each day without letting your thoughts or feelings run things. Use this time to wish for all beings—including ourselves and the people we find difficult—to be free from suffering. Practice mindfulness. This can help us learn to recognize which of our stories are creating suffering. When we recognize this, we may become more willing to drop them on the spot.
When we simply rest our minds on pain without aiming to alter our experience, we might notice that the pain changes. This can bring great comfort and reassurance. Pain is no more permanent than anything else. Headaches are not solid and unchanging. Neither are depression and fear. Through this practice we can gain confidence in our ability to work with whatever arises in the moment. We don’t need to cover the world with leather to protect our feet. We can simply wear shoes.
One thing is certain: more pain will come our way in this life. It is inevitable. But it is possible to choose whether we will turn it into suffering or simply leave it to arise and dissolve on its own. That is always an option.
© Copyright 2010 by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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