“The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.” ~Helen Keller
You’ve probably heard the saying “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
For many years, I didn’t understand how pain and suffering were different from each other. They seemed inextricably wrapped up together, and I took it for granted that one was the inevitable consequence of the other.
However, as I have grown to understand my own capacity to create happiness, I noticed something interesting about the nature of my suffering.
As I reflect back on painful episodes in my life, I can recall losing people who were dear to me. I remember abrupt changes in jobs, housing, and other opportunities that I believed were the basis of my happiness.
In each of those experiences the immediate visceral pain was searing, like a hot knife cutting through my heart. Then afterwards came grief, an emotional response to loss that arose quite naturally.
But closely on the heels of physical pain and emotional grief comes something else, something that I create in my own mind even though it feels quite real. That something else is “suffering.”
As a friend of mine once said, this is like putting butter on top of whipped cream. Suffering is the “extra” that our mind adds to an already painful situation.
It is at this very point, when your mind starts to fiddle with the pain and grief, that you have the possibility of doing things differently.
If you’re in the midst of great pain right now, it might help to know that the old saying really is true: While the pain can’t be avoided—it’s the price of being a human with a heart—there are ways we can reduce this kind of self-generated suffering.
Over the years, thanks to the guidance of wise friends as well as my own meditation practice, I’ve developed six tactics that have been helpful in reducing this type of suffering. I hope you’ll find them beneficial too.
1. Don’t “spin” your story.
“Spin doctors” are media maestros who take an event and distort it to serve their political goals. We often do something similar when it comes to our emotional life, although we don’t realize that it actually doesn’t serve us.
The starting point is the painful experience itself. But then we tell ourselves all kinds of stories about what it could mean based on our past experiences or future fears.
When we tell ourselves that the end of a relationship will ruin the rest of our lives, or that no one else could ever understand what we are going through, or that there is no way out of our suffering, we are adding layers of meaning that don’t exist within the original feeling. We have no way of knowing any of these things with any certainty.
This is a sure source of suffering.
Mindfulness meditation can be a very effective way to work with our mind’s habitual tendency to spin a story.
By practicing noticing our thoughts and feelings just as they are and gently stopping ourselves when we catch ourselves creating a story on top of them, we can begin to liberate ourselves from this tendency.
2. Embrace change.
In the midst of difficult situations, I’ve sometimes said to myself in a very gloomy way, “My life will never be the same again.” Then I realized how silly that statement is—or at least how deceptive it is to think of change only in the negative sense.
The statement that our life will never be the same again is not false. In fact, it’s true in every moment! Change is always happening. Sometimes the change is for the “good,” sometimes it’s painful. But we can never know the ultimate outcome of a change.
What might seem horrible today may in the longrun turn out to be just what we need to take us to the next step of our life. If we can learn to lean into change rather than resist it, we’ll find the possibility inherent in a situation.
3. Smile, even if you don’t feel it inside.
Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” This is a wonderful reminder that we have more power to change our mood than we realize.
Something as simple as finding the smile that is inside of us, even when life hurts, can help us access that deep well of joy. It may feel forced at first, but watch what happens to your state of mind when you practice smiling. And notice how people react differently to you when you smile at them.
This kinds of positive feedback loops can make a big difference in overcoming our own suffering rather than being entrenched in it.
4. Jolt yourself out of your usual routine.
Sometimes suffering comes about because we’ve ground ourselves down into a rut. We obsess over our loss and can’t seem to think of anything else.
At times like these, it helps to give our psyche and soul a jumpstart by doing something we wouldn’t normally do.
Maybe it’s time to actually take that trip to Europe that you’ve dreamed of. Maybe it’s time to register for that yoga class that you’ve been considering. Maybe it’s time to say a kind word to a stranger you pass on the sidewalk.
Whatever it is that may pull you out of your rut, give it a try and see how it changes the nature of your suffering.
5. Soften someone else’s suffering.
When we experience pain, it’s easy to isolate ourselves and believe that no one has it worse than we do.
While whatever pain you are experiencing is unique to you, it helps to remember that all human beings share the capacity for joy and suffering. Having contact with someone else who is also having a difficult time and offering them simple kindness can be a great antidote to our own suffering.
Bring flowers to an elderly aunt at a nursing home and take time to listen to her stories. Look into the eyes of a homeless person as you walk down the street and give him a kind word. Volunteer on the children’s floor of your local hospital and play a game of checkers with the kids there.
You may not be ready to do this right away. But once you’ve made it through the acute phase of a painful experience, see if you can push yourself a bit beyond your comfort zone to spend time with someone else who is going through a hard time. Offer some simple kindness to that person. And watch what happens inside of you.
6. Remember your basic goodness.
“Basic goodness” is a wonderful concept that comes from the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. It reminds us that no matter how chaotic or negative the circumstances of our life, there is a ground of basic goodness in ourselves and in the universe that we can count on.
Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it like this:
“If we are willing to take an unbiased look, we will find that, in spite of all our problems and confusion, all our emotional and psychological ups and downs, there is something basically good about our existence as human beings.”
When you are in the midst of deep pain, allow yourself to touch back in to this truth—or at least the possibility of this truth. You can do this in very simple ways. Take a walk outside and appreciate the warmth of the sun on your face. Drink a sip of cool, fresh water.
Each of these actions can help to remind you that in a multitude of ways, the universe is supporting you. This basic truth is deeply healing and deeply reassuring.
Finally, it’s good to remember that while there is self-generated suffering, there is also self-generated happiness. May you make some for yourself today!
Photo by Kevin Krejci