by Lisa Clodfelter
So many of us are searching for an end to suffering on some level. “I’m so miserably unhappy in my marriage, but I don’t want to get a divorce and drag my children through that hell” or “This job is literally killing me, but I’m strapped financially and I don’t know if I’ll be able to replace this level of income if I leave” or “I can’t bear life without the person I just lost”. When we feel compelled to reflect on our lives, one of the most common components for all human beings is suffering.
Throughout history we as a race have studied or tried to explain suffering and what we can do to alleviate it. And while it’s not the only human dilemma under scrutiny, it is definitely the most intimate. Suffering is intimate because our bodies are hardwired NOT to suffer. When we feel anxiety, fear, depression, or grief our bodies respond in a physical way. We can feel tense, tired, physically sick, etc. Our breathing changes, our heart rate speeds up, or we can’t sleep. Our bodies send us the signal that something is not right. It’s like our biology is telling us that we are not designed to suffer and we need to find a way to end that suffering. So, our minds jump right to work to find a solution.
When we take a closer look at the cause of suffering, it turns out to be surprisingly simple.
We tend to look outside of ourselves for the causes of our suffering – someone said something hurtful to me, a family member has treated me very harshly, or I got a profoundly serious health diagnosis. All of these can be very true, but when we look at the various reasons that we suffer, we have to ask ourselves where is the place from which suffering arises?
Suffering tends to arise when we start believing our thoughts.
We have a negative emotion that comes up such as hurt, fear, guilt, or disrespect and what’s the first thing that occurs? Our minds go right to work thinking thoughts and finding strategies to alleviate those negative emotions. Our thoughts begin to rush around justifying actions, finding possible solutions, or finding the personal meaning around events that have occurred. In essence, our minds start to construct a “story” around that negative emotion and in reality, begins arguing with what is. For example, “Someone said something hurtful to me – he must not like me”, “A family member has treated me very harshly – she must think I’m not good enough”, or “I got a serious health diagnosis – I am going to die”. Our minds begin to tell us that things aren’t the way we wish they were. And furthermore, what we should have done or now need to do in order to get the situation to where we’d feel safe again. Of course, when these thoughts ensue and we believe these thoughts, suffering begins. As these thoughts begin to whirl in our heads, the negative emotions intensify. As the emotion intensifies, the thoughts come faster and more furious in order to strategize an end to the negative emotion; and the cycle of suffering ensues.
To unravel our suffering, I believe step one to be the act of not attaching a story to emotions. “Someone really hurt me today with that harsh comment. That stings!” But don’t let the thoughts come in. Just try to sit with the sting. Our minds will jump right to work trying to construct a story on why this happened or what we must do next, but we have to make a conscious effort to turn the thoughts off and just let the emotions be. If we can just sit with the feelings and keep thoughts at bay, we don’t really change a negative emotion to a positive one, but we don’t suffer. The feelings will tend to dissipate over time rather than increase in intensity.
Once we become more comfortable with not knowing how everything will work out, and that negative things can come, and negative things will go; positive things come, and positive things go, and more importantly, we are bigger than the emotions of the current moment, we can begin to unravel our suffering.