Simpler Than You Might Think: How To Suffer Less
If you know me, you know I am a student of life, always learning, always considering new ways of being in this world, and may I say that I’m very much a student these days. Life circumstances (Eric’s health in particular) have required me to dip my bucket deeper into the well of what I’m thinking and feeling.
It is clear to me that my thoughts govern my feelings, which guide my actions, and finally what I have (what shows up in my life). So the flow is think, feel, act, have.
What I have is sometimes joy or satisfaction. And sometimes I have suffering. I realize occasional suffering is considered a normal part of human experience, a natural part of life.
I have to say though, these days I’m interested in a little less suffering.
THE FINER POINTS OF SUFFERING
What is suffering and how does it happen?
What I’m about to say is simple and it has changed me. Again. More deeply.
If I am suffering, my mind has convinced me of something that isn’t true. My mind suggested (even promoted) a bogus thought and I accepted it as truth. (“I will not be able to handle it if Eric’s health gets worse.”)
I suffer when I’ve fallen for a lie. (“I’m too emotional. I cry too much.”)
I suffer when I’m caught up in thinking that this moment before me, right here, right now, should be different than it is. (“This is not what I signed up for.”)
If I believe “My partner shouldn’t be ill” I suffer. What’s obvious is that he’s ill. If I rail against what’s so, it hurts. It’s hard work. It’s not respectful or loving, because there’s a war going on inside me. I know that might sound drastic, but all I know is that’s what it feels like.
If I think I should have a healthy guy who is out playing tennis and golf, I suffer. I’m suffering any time I’m pushing against what’s true. Acceptance ends any internal war.
LEARNING TO LOVE WHAT IS
Teacher Byron Katie says, “I don’t ever have to wonder what I want because I’m always living it.” She calls herself a lover of what is. For me, the idea of being a lover of what is, is a work in progress. I can see the value of it. I know in my bones that “loving what is” ends internal angst. I have experienced that, I love how it feels, and I know the truth of it.
It’s common for humans to believe that if something has “gone wrong” it needs to be fixed in order to be happy. If I believe that being married or having a partner is better than not having one, and I lose my partner, I suffer. If I believe life is over if my partner leaves me (divorce, separation, death), I suffer. If I believe that “I can’t bear to… (fill in the blank)” that’s a stressful thought and I suffer.
IS IT TRUE?
But is my stressful thought actually true? Maybe not. Maybe my circumstances aren’t the problem. Maybe my beliefs about my circumstances are causing the trouble.
I’m sure you’ve heard prison stories, for instance, where a prisoner uses the time behind bars to plan their revenge. When they get out, they commit another crime, perhaps even worse than the first one and get thrown back in jail.
There are others who use time behind bars to transform themselves inside and out, and when released, they go on a speaking tour or become a leader in some way. They are a gift to the world.
Both individuals committed a crime and went to prison, but the outcomes were entirely different. One person used their circumstances to justify and maintain their point of view. The other used the time to change and open. It’s a perfect example of how it’s not circumstances that make the difference. It’s what we believe about our circumstances. It’s what we do with the card we’re dealt.
I’ve known this idea, and thought I understood this idea. I’ve practiced self-inquiry about my beliefs and unraveled and release many.
NOW YOU’RE PUSHING MY ENVELOPE
But now I’m being asked to move way, way out of my personal comfort zone. It’s pretty easy to be happy when things are going my way, when life is good for me, Eric is healthy and life is humming along. It is a different ballgame when things head in “not my favorite” direction.
Believing things should be different than they are leaves me unable to be with this person I love. I cannot hear him if I’m worried. I cannot see him if I am consumed with fear instead of being present in love.
I can’t truly be with him if:
- I’m caught up in my attitudes (this should not be happening, I thought our sixties would be different than this).
- I’m caught up in my thoughts (imagining negative “what if’s.” Essentially, I’m making myself afraid of what hasn’t happened).
- I’m caught up in my beliefs (Eric’s illness is too hard to deal with, I don’t want to be dealing with such difficult matters on a daily basis).
If I believe things are going sideways or that what’s in front of me shouldn’t be happening, I resist. I am compelled to try to correct something I have no control over (someone’s life and their path). I brace myself. I hang in limbo. I worry. I fret. I imagine a negative outcome. (No, actually, I imagine a stream, a raging river of negative outcomes.)
But I know in my heart (and I teach) that my relationship with another person shows me much more about me, than about the other person. This is an idea not many of us practice fully because it requires a deep willingness to grow an open mind.
LEARNING FROM THE ONE YOU LOVE
There are many examples of what relationships show us about ourselves. The last one in the list below is my personal and most profound learning these days.
If I hurt you (lash out at you), it shows me how I hurt me. How I judge you is how I judge myself. As I attack you, so I attack myself.
My criticism of you is how I criticize myself. I use those exact words on myself, quietly and privately. How I react to you is a perfect picture of my pain.
How I treat you is how I treat myself. My opinions about you are the same ones I have within me, about me, both positive and negative.
How I speak to you is how I speak to myself, especially in my head, in moments when nobody but me is there to hear it. If I speak to myself unkindly, that is often so painful that I’d rather talk about you, point the finger at you. I pretend that what I say about you is all about you.
(Read slowly) Anything I perceive as hurting another also hurts me. If I am hurting, I cannot be there fully for the one I believe is hurting.
It doesn’t matter whether my stressful belief is about my neighbor, my child, my best friend, my new president or my partner.
My simplest, most revealing personal practice these days is to listen to myself (write it on paper) to learn more deeply about me and what I think, especially what’s hovering in the deep dark corners of my mind. I’m shining a light into places I have not been before.
This I know for sure about myself: I am willing to question the thoughts that cause me to suffer.
When I do, I grow an open mind.
Open mind brings open heart.
Open heart brings freedom.