I remember the first time I heard that pain is inevitable, but suffering is an option.
I absolutely didn’t buy it. In fact, I was incensed.
In my Italian Catholic family, suffering is simply what you do when something horrible happens. Or even, when something horrible might happen. We are a family overflowing with empathy. We love deeply, and fear for the well-being of everyone.
How could we not – that’s what love is, isn’t it?
I thought so.
In fact, just considering not suffering over something tragic that happened to someone I loved felt like a betrayal. Thinking about it flooded me with guilt.
It was Rick Hansen’s book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, (which I highly recommend) that finally made it click.
Simply put, pain is that thing that happens in the present moment.
In the case of physical pain, it is the moment(s) of OUCH. In the case of emotional pain, like grief, it’s in those visceral moments when the grief stops you in your tracks and washes over you.
It is always now.
Suffering, on the other hand, is the story we tell ourselves in response to that pain. It is never in the present moment – always in the past or the future.
When we experience physical pain, our minds descend quickly into thoughts like, “How long is this pain going to last?” or “I hope it goes away – that it’s not going to get worse – that it’s not going to…” or “Why do things like this always happen to me?”
Emotional pain is no different. The moment after that gut-punch of grief, thoughts like “It should never have happened…” or “If it hadn’t happened, right now we would be…” or “I could have done …” flood our minds and hijack our emotions.
Those thoughts are stories that never serve us. They do not help the people we love. They in no way make things better or move us forward. There is nothing noble about them.
The good news is that you actually have more control than you think. You can choose not to suffer.
Shifting away from suffering thoughts back into the present moment.
Try this simple technique to strengthen your ability to focus on the thoughts you choose and shift away from those that don’t serve you:
When you notice yourself moving into a story of suffering, direct your attention to any tangible thing – a pencil, a ring, a flower – anything will work.
Begin with three, slow, deep, cleansing breaths.
As you continue to breathe, focus your attention on the thing you’ve selected. Think anything you’d like about the thing.
When other thoughts (thoughts of suffering or other distractions) arise, simply notice them without judgement, and make your very next thought about the thing.
Continue focusing your breath and attention in this way for what feels to be about a minute.
For my favorite way to practice this exercise, try this quick MP3!