6 Ways to Decrease Your Suffering

Kid on the Beach

“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 a 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

About Maia Duerr

Maia Duerr is passionate about supporting people on their journey toward true freedom. You can find more of her writing at

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  • “There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” – R. D. Laing

    “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

    “We, who are like senseless children, shrink from suffering, but love its causes.” – Shantideva

  • Michelle Barry Franco

    This is beautifully written and yet so practical. I especially love “don’t spin your story” – story is so much of everything, and I have spun myself into all kinds of crazy webs by telling myself the wrong/hurtful/useless/powerless (you name it) story. Thank you for this generous gift. It will serve me and many, I know.

  • Maia

    John, thank you for these powerful quotes which really amplify what I was trying to say in this post. I’m especially struck by the one from Shantideva.

  • Maia

    Thanks, Michelle! Yes, “story” is a powerful modality. I don’t want to dismiss ‘story’ altogether — certainly we can also tell our story to ourselves in an empowering way. From my experience, though, I really do need to be careful not to get myself caught up in crazy webs (love that you called it that) of self-doubt or self-negation.

  • Dr.Subhash

    Good thoughts.

  • Pamela

    Thank you for these insightful practical steps. It really is in being aware and then giving ourselves permission to step beyond ourselves in or to continue to heal ourselves. Your wisdom is much appreciated.

  • June tanoue

    6 practical ways to decrease suffering – excellent and so very helpful!!! Mahalo Maia!!!

  • Astha Kaushik

    a good post with lots of practical solutions….what i believe is life is too short to be unhappy about…if life gives u lemons..make lemonades 🙂 means even if the situation is really really bad..make the best use of it..use it as ur strength..i remember as a child i hated my long journey in bus while going to school as my school was very far from my home…what i started to do was to read a new book everyday on my way in order to make best use of it..and it helped!!

  • Maia, thanks for this! I know I can certainly be the spin doctor of my own story and get caught up in my own sad drama. Luckily, mindfulness is slowly starting to help me learn to just notice my experience without buying into it or putting butter on top of the whip cream.

    Great post! I’m sharing this on my Facebook page.

  • Bobbi, isn’t it great how mindfulness practice helps us spot that tendency before we spin too far out of control? So glad this post spoke to you, and thanks for sharing it.

  • Astha, that’s a great example of turning a situation into something positive. Another teaching that I’ve appreciated this year comes from another Shambhala teacher, Fleet Maull. He says, “Situations are neutral.” It really is up to us how we work with them and the kind of meaning we give them.

  • Thanks, June… great to see you here! aloha…

  • cris

    thank you- my husband died 9 months ago– your idea of story spinning reverberated very much in what I fall into. that I have a choice every moment, feels like it will help smooth my life out.

  • Dear Cris, I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. That is a deeply, deeply painful loss, there is no denying that. I wish you strength, and I know that you will be able to step into new choices, moment by moment, as your life moves forward. Many blessings to you….

  • wski1

    Thank you!! I need to be reminded of these things once in awhile.

  • Andrea

    Well said…just what i needed right now…thanks

  • Thank you for these wonderful suggestions. I’m glad to hear that you use mindfulness meditation to overcome suffering. Even though I’ve been practicing for some years, I am always inspired when I hear success stories with the practice.

    We’ve recently begun incorporating a new technique in the mindfulness meditation practice. We call it writing meditation. What it does is reprogram our subconscious in a way that seems to be much more effective than simply reading, hearing, or reciting the affirmations.

    Everyone who has tried this exercise has seen dramatic changes in just a few days. And it only takes about 10 minutes a day. It works really well for improving our relationships and healing the wounds from our past. It also helps people sleep much better.

    Charles A. Francis
    The Mindfulness Meditation Institute

  • Hi Charles,

    Thanks for sharing about the added dimension of writing practice. I’m a big believer in the power of writing to help me understand what’s going on inside me at a different level, and also to change my own narrative from victimhood to empowerment.

    Thanks for doing the good work!

  • So glad this spoke to you, Andrea. Take good care.

  • Mef

    I found much comfort in your words.I too believe in goodness.Even though we have a different name of are goodness.My life has been that God is good and all goodness come from him. Maybe we have the same God under different names of teaching.For what is good should be shared and we need to learn to respect and learn goodness from one another .

  • lala

    my pain and suffering brought me here.. i feel refresh whenever i read it.. thanks for this.. I’ve been spending my money than saving it, because i have always thought that buying something may decrease my emotions. and i was wrong.. ;( thank u very much to the author of this blog. it helps me a lot..

  • Glad this article spoke to you, Lala. Take good care.

  • I truly believe that our differences are a good thing, Mef : ) Thank you for sharing here.

  • You’re welcome, Maia! I’m glad the quotes were amplificationalizeriffic!

  • b

    this is gay

  • Nobody

    Still suffering