Do you often find yourself saying “It isn’t fair” or thinking you have more than your share of suffering? Do you play the story of “what happened to you” over and over in your mind like a hamster running in his wheel? Consider the possibility that there IS something you can do about that. The place to start is by distinguishing between unavoidable suffering that is a necessary part of life and the kind of suffering that we create for ourselves.
“Necessary suffering” seems like a strange concept to most people. But, consider the fact that no one gets to escape some form of pain in response to the trials and tribulations of life. You fall and skin your knee – ouch! A friend lets you down or disappoints you in some significant way – sadness. Someone you love and treasure dies – deep grief. In other words, there are the kinds of suffering that come with the territory of being alive. Perhaps you have also noticed that these kinds of unavoidable suffering can become steppingstones to greater wisdom and understanding if you look at them in the right way. Otherwise, you may obsess about them or they become a constant irritant like a stone in your shoe that you don’t realize you can remove. The necessary suffering of life also has a way of getting us to draw closer to one another and to comfort one another in ways that are deeper and less common than we find in everyday life when everything seems to be moving along beautifully.
According to psycho-spiritual teacher, Robert Augustus Masters, the unnecessary kind of suffering is the kind that is a direct result of the stories we tell ourselves about our painful experiences. Unnecessary suffering happens when we get so caught up in either focusing on our necessary suffering in our minds or telling our tales of woe to others. When this happens, we cause ourselves to suffer more than we need to because of the fact that we are intensifying our suffering by focusing our attention on feeling the pain.
Masters advises that we can minimize our suffering by entering into the pain that comes our way and moving through it rather than replaying it over and over like a broken record. To illustrate this distinction, imagine the difference in experience of a birthing woman who is actively working with her breath to move through the pain of her labor versus the one who is busy resisting her pain and screaming about how much it hurts. The path through our pain is to accept its presence rather than to resist it by trying to get away from it. Ironically, we create unnecessary pain by the very act of resisting pain. In other words, through resistance, we focus upon our pain, draw it to ourselves, and attach ourselves to it.
Our point of view – our attitude toward suffering makes all the difference in terms of how much we suffer. In a TED Talk, BJ Miller referred to perspective as “that kind of alchemy we humans get to play with, turning anguish into a flower.”
So, next time you start throwing a pity party for yourself, change your point of view so you can change your experience. Try one of these methods:
1. Expand your perspective to entertain the good news that is coming with the bad. In other words, appreciate the half full part of the glass you are only seeing as half empty. My friend, Barbara Sarah, the founder of the Oncology Support Program at HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley in Kingston, NY shared a list that one of her students in a Constructive Living program made of all the people who she was grateful to for helping her care for her hospitalized husband. 105 people! As the list grew, so did her gratitude to people like the person who supplies the “lollipop” mouth moisturizers, the pre-admission secretary who greets you and sets up your test schedule, the gardener who cares for all the plants in the public areas, and the staff who buzz you in the surgical ICU. So make a list of all the things in your life that are also true blessings while you are suffering and see if you don’t find yourself becoming so grateful that you forget a bit about your pain. This is about finding and restoring balance inside yourself.
2. Give yourself a deadline to finish your pity party. Give yourself 5-10 minutes to really get into all your complaints and suffering. Exaggerate the immensity of your pain and feel really sorry for yourself until the timer goes off. Then, choose to shift your focus onto doing something really thoughtful or supportive for yourself or someone else. Don’t allow yourself to start grabbing onto your pain again. If it hurts, breathe into it and keep going. Ask yourself, “Is there anything constructive I need to do about my pain?” If the answer is “yes” then do that, if it is “no” then make the choice to place your focus elsewhere.
3. Pray for your highest good. Prayer, in its highest form, is about trust and laying down your burdens – surrendering to that which is beyond our comprehension. This kind of prayer is beyond personal preferences or judgments of what “should” or “shouldn’t” be happening. It acknowledges that there are forces present in our lives that are beyond our understanding. By praying for the highest good in whatever the situation is, we appeal to the benevolence of whatever forces are at work in our lives and surrender our burdens to these forces. In other words, we acknowledge that what will happen is beyond our control and we accept that and go on about our business of living the best we can.
4. Decide to make fabulous lemonade out of your lemons. My spiritual teacher, John-Roger always advised using everything for our upliftment, learning, and growth and that advise has served me very well in the hardest of times. This is a matter of choice. We have the option of shifting the message we send ourselves about our suffering from “poor me, this is terrible” to “I wonder how I can work with this to lift myself up, to learn, and to grow.”
The bottom line is we have far more power over the degree of our suffering than most of us imagine. When we stop accentuating the negative, we make more room for better options to be the focus of our attention.