How are you, Emily?
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Suffering is not Enough
And it’s not just physical pain – suffering in this context is much more than that. We all struggle with the different forms of psychological pain: difficult emotions and thoughts, unpleasant memories, and their unwanted sensations and urges. We think about them obsessively, worry about them, resent them, anticipate and dread them.
The beautiful part of it (and why I love my people) is that in the face of this suffering you still demonstrate enormous courage, deep compassion, and a remarkable ability to move ahead even within the most difficult personal traumas. Knowing you can be hurt, you still endeavor to love others. Even knowing the Cosmic Joke of your inevitable death, you still strive to find meaning. At times, you are fully alive, present, and committed.
The secret to life is mostly about how to move from suffering to engagement with life. The mistake is waiting to win the internal struggle with your own self for your life to begin. For the most part, my mission (and many of my blogs) is about living now and living skillfully – with (not in spite of) my past, with my memories, with my fears, and with my sadness.
My personal journey has shown me that many of the tools we use to solve problems lead us into traps that create suffering. Frankly, we are playing a rigged game in which our minds, that wondrous tool for mastery, have been turned against us.
Perhaps you have noticed that some of your most difficult problems have become, strangely enough, more entrenched and unmanageable, even as we strive to solve them. This is not an illusion and it’s not your fault. This is a consequence of asking your logical mind to do something it was never meant to do and suffering being one unintended result.
This may seem a strange thing to claim, especially if you’re interested in overcoming some of your psychological issues. Generally, people turn to self-help measures in order to develop tools to solve specific problems: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, trauma, stress, smoking, to name just a few. Overcoming these problems implies not just an ultimate goal, but also a goal to be reached in a specific manner.
For example, for the average person, overcoming stress must mean eliminating stressful feelings; overcoming smoking must first involve getting rid of the urge to smoke, and so on. But what if someone told you that many of these seemingly common sense routes to a better life are now known as risky and even detrimental by current psychological theory? Consider the following:
- Psychological pain is normal, it is important, and everyone has it.
- You cannot consciously be rid of your psychological pain, though you can take steps to avoid making it worse.
- Pain and suffering are two different states of being.
- You don’t have to identify with your suffering.
- Developing an attitude of acceptance toward your pain is a step toward ridding yourself of your suffering.
You can live the life you desire and value, beginning right now, but in order to do that you first have to learn how to get out of your head and into your life.
What I am asking for here is a basic shift in the way you deal with your personal experience. While some forms of change will certainly not be immediate, I can say that my experience and work has demonstrated that the role of these barriers to living can be transformed, and sometimes changed quite rapidly.
The difference between the function and the form psychological pain takes can be compared to someone standing in a battlefield waging a war. The war is not going well. The person fights harder and harder. Losing is a devastating option; but unless the war is won, the individual fighting it thinks that living a worthwhile life will be impossible, so the war goes on.
Unknown to that person, however, is the fact that, at any time, he or she can choose to stop the war and begin living now. The war may still rage and the landscape may still look the same, but the outcome of the war is no longer important and what seems logical — namely to win the war before living genuinely — is abandoned. In stopping the war, you begin to live – now, this very moment.
The metaphor of a war helps us see the difference between what appears as a psychological problem and its substance. In this metaphor, for example, the war looks and sounds the same whether you’re fighting or simply watching. It’s appearance (form) stays the same. However, its impact – its substance – is profoundly different. In other words, fighting for your life is not the same as living your life.
The funny thing is that when you change the substance it often changes the appearance. When leaving the battlefield and letting the war take care of itself, it may even subside. This reminds me of the 60s anti-war slogan, “What if they held a war and nobody came?” If you want to be genuinely happy and live a life with dignity, you have to focus on the substance and not the appearance of your problems. Learning to approach your pain in a fundamentally different way will quickly change the impact it has on your life.
What I am saying is that if you want to live – truly live – you have to stop the battle that’s raging inside your head. Happiness and genuine living is possible, now, this very moment.