Do you believe suffering just happens to you? Is there nothing you can do about it but suck up and deal? Most of us think this way much of the time. I'm here to show you it can be otherwise.
One recent sunday morning, my man and I planned to get up early and get a start to our day. I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and rolled over to hug him awake. He chatted briefly but wasn't sharing in my early morning alertness. He pretty much didn't budge when I snuggled up to him, kissed his forehead, massaged his shoulder... “Hmm,” I thought, “we need to get up... but we need to cuddle before we begin our day...It's sunday after all, a day to enjoy things, even if we have plans this morning”. When he continued his sleepy non-response to my cuddles I thought “geez, he doesn't like my hug as much as sleep...” and then I started to feel bad, sad, cut off. When I told him in a grumpy kind of way that I needed a hug before I got out of bed he rolled over and gave me one, but also wisely told me it was a great opportunity to share my need softly and kindly. Which made me think “I did that wrong, I could have said that so much better, I'm no good at this, I'm lame...” This had the effect of making me feel terrible and drew tears to eyes.
This was a perfect example of how, as the saying goes, life is painful, but suffering is optional. In this example, I let my thoughts lead me into feeling terrible, into suffering. We all have minds that lead us into strange dark places.This is the fault of the “ negativity bias of the brain”, or what we might call our Inner Lizard, (more on that another day), which has a biological purpose, but often causes unnecessary suffering. This is because we BELIEVE our thoughts, we fuse our experience with the thoughts that are rushing through our mind. We all do this until we learn how not to. This is the hard part of being human, of having an advanced brain. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Luckily for me, I had some tools to help me see how my thoughts were creating a problem that wasn't really there and to bring me back to the truth of the moment: I was safe and well. Yes, I wasn't getting what I wanted, and that felt uncomfortable. But I didn't need to let my mind spin into thinking about my shortcomings and buy into my childlike fears of being imperfect and unlovable. I was creating suffering from simple discomfort.
How can you stop or reduce suffering when something painful happens? Here are 4 simple steps to get you started:
1) Take note that your thoughts create emotions.
2) The next time you catch yourself thinking a heavy thought (such as I'm lame, that was a dumb thing to do, I'm not lovable, etc), pause and notice those thought constructs.
3) Acknowledge the discomfort those thoughts create.
4) Turn back to the evidence of the reality in front of you. What are the objective facts about what is happening?
For me this process looked something like this:
1) I realized how my mind and emotions had been hijacked by my thoughts. “I am letting my thinking dictate how I feel again .” 2) I noticed the specific thoughts causing suffering: “Hmm, I am thinking that he doesn't like my hugs. I am thinking that I am stupid because I haven't mastered this love thing perfectly yet.” 3) I acknowledged how crappy this made me feel. 4) I looked at what was objectively happening (without the filter of thought blinding me): “The man is right next to me, now actually hugging me, sharing this bed and this life with me. Yes, I make mistakes, and, yes, also, I am still loved.”
I was then able to laugh compassionately at myself and break free of the suffering I had started to set in motion. The day wasn't lost to a bad start.
Next time you feel bad emotionally, run through the above quick steps and see what happens. Yes, there might be some clean pain still there, but you don't need to slog through it with a sense of suffering. Let me know how it goes, if you'd like, by commenting below.