How to Avoid the Suffering in those Unavoidable Moments of Pain

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”- Haruki Murakami

Pain is an inescapable truth of life. Alternatively, suffering is not! You get to choose.  

Have you ever felt a level of psychological distress or unease which interferes with your day-to-day living?

Psychological distress can be best described as unpleasant feelings or an emotion that affects our level of functioning. It is characterised by symptoms relating to anxiety or depression. The author Tim Ferriss uniquely describes distress as harmful a stimulus that impacts our confidence to move purposely forward in life.

Recently these symptoms showed up in my life in the form of anxiety and worry. I was trying to come to terms with some big decisions I needed to make around change. What seemed simple on paper was becoming a mental challenge.  Choices around the unknown are never easy. There was a lot of internal unease and fear around the future- “What if?”

Doubts and fears of the unknown started a relentless chain of negative thinking that aroused a constant sense of resistance.  With this resistance there came a feeling of pain and suffering.

This is where the problem starts.  

Understanding the Mechanics of Pain and Suffering

It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens”. ~ Pema Chodron

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It’s important to know that pain does not equal suffering.   It’s a common misconception that pain is synonymous with suffering; however there is a distinct difference worth understanding.

Pain is all the things we can’t control about life. It is the sensations within your body that warn you something is happening. It is a universal constant that is unavoidable:

  • Someone suddenly cuts you off in traffic
  • The extended time waiting on the telephone for customer service help
  • The harsh verbal judgement by a fellow worker
  • The supermarket line that never moves

What was causing my pain?

My pain related to having no control of an unknown future and the fear that surrounded that change. I had had a comfortable existence for some time, but now things needed to start moving in a new direction. Shifting away from that comfort zone left me feeling vulnerable.

Pain does not always need to be physical to hurt. Psychological pain can also pack a mighty punch.  As an example, in his book “Buddha’s Brain”, Rick Hanson highlights how the emotional pain of rejection can feel very similar to the physical pain of receiving a root canal. Both register signals on the same neural pathways of the brain. How we choose to interpret those signals is a matter of choice.

Suffering is the emotional tension we create around the pain. It develops from the narrative we tell ourselves about the experience we are having. There is a cause. It is in part due to our inability to let go and embrace what is happening. We cling and crave pleasant experiences.

My suffering was the result of one part of me wanting things to stay the same and in my control. The other part of me knew this was no longer possible in this new world we are living in. There was an internal conflict that had not come to terms with what was happening. The resulting psychological distress in the form of anxiety caused a constant internal dialogue questioning my ability and skill level to successful move on.

How do we get from pain to suffering? – Resistance

“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.”― Ram Dass

 Shinzen Young, in his book ‘Break through Pain,’ shares his philosophy of pain and suffering. He believes to suffer in life two things need to be present: Pain and Resistance.  

PAIN x RESISTANCE = SUFFERING.

So how do we manage the inevitable pain and avoid the suffering?

When we push pain away, we expend our energy in resisting things we can’t control.

Looking at my experience I had a strong preference to hold onto the past and what I know, rather than face the reality of the situation that was not working for me anymore.

Ultimately, pain creates a conflict between the way things are and the way we’d like them to be.  

The problem with avoiding pain is that it’s just not possible. With increased resistance the situation generally will always get worse. We need to let go and finding a place of acceptance.

Once you’ve changed your relationship to the pain, the physical discomfort will start to ease.

That’s the key point: You have to change your relationship to the pain. By opening up to it and paying attention to it you can find a place of acceptance and let go.

Change is only possible if you can separate and distinguish between pain and suffering.

Pain without Suffering-The Tale of the 2 Arrows

“If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?”- Buddha

How can we practically learn in those moments of pain to avoid the suffering?

The Buddha told a parable back in the day that can help us better understand how we can overcome the chain of events that leads from pain to suffering.

The premise of the tale tells us that at any time misfortune comes our way there will always be 2 in-bound arrows. The first arrow is the inevitable pain of human existence. It’s unavoidable. In the words of Rick Hanson: “As long as you live and love, some of those darts will come your way”. They are real and can hurt.

Now in reality, once the pain of arrow 1 has hit the target it triggers the predictable arrow 2 to be fired.  This second arrow represents our emotional response to our misfortune.

At this critical key moment we have a choice. Suffering is optional.

My initial response to the pain of my arrow 1, and the anxiety and worry relating to needed change in my future life; saw a release of a number of secondary incoming arrows. There was fear, doubt, blame and judgement around not doing enough. Only when I was able to gain a greater perspective and awareness around these incoming emotions was I better equipped to find a way to start controlling these second arrows.

So how do you avoid firing the second arrows?

  1. Notice the first arrow.  When you’re in emotional pain, feel it. Notice your arrows of emotional pain, physical pain, irritation, or frustration.
  • Notice your impulse to add another arrow. Do you want to yell at someone? Do you want to complain? Are you looking to blame? Just become aware and notice your reaction.
  • Ask yourself, “Do I need to shoot the second arrow?”  Become the conscious observer. Become aware and stop yourself before adding more pain. Choose your response to the stimulus.

Finding the Gap to choose between Stimulus and Response

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”Viktor Frankl

Only through conscious awareness do we gain the ability to see there is a gap for us to choose between the stimulus and response. The gap represents an opportunity to change our thinking around what is happening. The wider the gap the more choices become accessible in the way we can respond.

Before we focus on what we choose to do inside that gap, it’s vital that we first learn how to widen the gap itself.

Poor choices are rarely acted upon when we are fully present and conscious of what is happening through our emotions and behaviours. In the bestselling book ‘The Power of Now’, Eckhart Tolle stresses the importance of making it a habit to regularly monitor and observe your mental-emotional state. “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place”. By shinning the spotlight on the many ways unease, discontent, and tension arise due needless judgements, resistance and denial we create an opportunity to dissolve what was previously an unconscious conditioned habit.

So how can we widen the gap?

Mind the Gap, and Enjoy the Ride

‘If you can change your mind, you can change your life.” William James

Being a passenger in life isn’t an occasional occurrence. In some sense, you are a passenger every time you don’t have control over what is happening. The good passenger sits back and relaxes into the uncertainty of not knowing where you are going. Alternatively, the unrelaxed passenger experiences an emergency at every change in direction. Have you ever had the experience of the back seat driver? You are driving along know where you are going, but someone else in the car feels they need to constant judge and inform you of a better way from point A to B. The outcome is tension and agitation.

By developing an increased awareness in the present moment you become that passenger that watches reality unfold with a growing trust in the outcome. You find a relaxed window of opportunity that allows you to be with whatever arises without reacting. Pain will always possibly arise in many forms; however through training the mind you break the chain of suffering.

For me, the practice of meditation served that purpose. It has allowed me the opportunity to widen that gap in thinking that then offers me a space to make sensible decisions without distraction between stimulus and response.

How does it do that?

When you are meditating you are learning to observe your thought patterns in the present moment as it is, without withdrawing from what is ugly or challenging. This develops many skills:

  • Patience
  • Non-judgement
  • Curiosity
  • Calmness

These skills allow you to stay rational and composed when uncertainty becomes the issue. It teaches you to live less in survival mode.

I have observed that I would always get anxious anytime I had to wait in a line. I would get frustrated when people ahead of me caused delays and made the wait longer. Now, I have become the good passenger and remain calm. I have given up attempts to control the uncontrollable: reactions of others, the weather, and the fate of the future. Meditation practice has created a conscious space that allows me to choose how I wish to respond to those challenging situations. It takes regular practice to gain some level of know-how; however the rewards are well worth the investment.

How about you?

Do you find yourself emotionally reacting to events or situations in your life?

Would it be beneficial to you to be able to bring calmness and confidence to life’s challenging moments?

It’s possible to feel okay regardless of whether or not things are going your way.

If you would like to make meditation part of your life please reach out- I’m here to help!

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