Think about your life right now. What form does suffering take for you?
Perhaps you are depressed or anxious, or you have relationship troubles. Maybe you struggle at work or with finances, maybe you have an addiction, or maybe your problems seem vast, abstract and difficult to pin down. Maybe the main form your suffering takes is that you’re confused about what’s wrong in the first place! You just know you feel bad, but you can’t say why, or identify a clear path out of the trouble.
Exercise 1: Distinguishing between pain and suffering
Let’s begin by simplifying things. The different shapes that suffering can take are truly endless – there might be layer upon layer of suffering, and suffering can feel like a knot made of other knots. How do you even begin to untie it all?
A great first step to help you find clarity and hopefully a sense of calm is to tease apart what is pain, and what is suffering. The Buddhist story of “the second dart” explains this difference clearly. The unavoidable pains in life are called first darts – because they are like an arrow someone shoots at us. These hurt. However, the second darts are our thoughts, reactions, and responses to the first darts. “That’s so unfair!” It is like we shoot ourselves again, with another arrow: no longer pain, but suffering.
If we want to start identifying our role in maintaining pain, i.e. suffering, we can start by noting the difference between pain and suffering. One way to do this is to slow everything right down, so you can look closely at the cascade of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that occur after a painful experience.
What can happen is that, in our attempt to improve our lives, feel better or “fix” things, we focus on the second darts. We get carried away with the stories we tell … and only end up creating even more confusion, and second and third and fourth darts. Instead, it helps to just pause and look at what is actually concrete fact out there in the world, and what is happening inside us, i.e. what exists only as interpretation, expectation, ego or narrative.
The next time you find yourself unhappy or suffering, stop. Become aware and get out a journal to help you tease things apart. First, just become aware of what is happening to you without judgment. For example, you may have just had an upsetting argument with a friend, and so you sit down with your journal. To do a “dump” of everything that is in your heart and mind, you write down the following:
I feel really angry
I don’t know if I want to be his friend anymore
He thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone, and I’m sick of it
I thought we were friends
Why is this happening? What have I done for him to start acting like this?
He told me I’m an idiot, but I think he’s an idiot
And on and on. Without trying to judge or interpret, you just write down what is in your heart and mind. Then, when you feel you’ve captured the gist of it, stop and take a look at what you’ve written. Now, draw two columns on a piece of paper, one labelled “first darts” and the other “second darts.”
Spend the next ten or twenty minutes deciding which column to place each of your thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This may take some care. You want to identify which part of your experience is a simple fact of life, part of reality and an unavoidable truth, and which part is coming from you – i.e. your attachment. It may be easier at first to simply imagine you are sifting through “fact” versus “opinion.” Imagine a completely neutral third party was writing a bland news article about the situation – what would they say was pure fact?
For example, let’s take the statement, “He’s wrong to play the victim when he’s the one who’s being a bully.” This may be a sincerely held feeling, but in truth, it’s not an objective part of reality. Rather, it’s a belief and interpretation that comes from your perspective. It’s definitely a second dart! Likewise, “he’s an idiot” is an opinion whereas, “he told me I’m an idiot” is plain fact. “He shouldn’t have said that” is a second dart – and likely something that is causing more suffering than the pain of the first dart.
Sometimes, certain statements of thought and feeling hint at deeper underlying expectations. For example, “I thought we were friends” suggests a deeper expectation, i.e. “we used to be friends, and I was expecting that we would always be friends.” Again, this is a second dart. It is our desire for an outcome for the situation, rather than the situation itself.
If you look at the above list, it may start to become clear just how little is fact, or a first dart. If you remove expectation, interpretation and attachment, you might be left with very little indeed: “My friend and I argued, he called me an idiot, and we may not continue to be friends.” It may take you some time to pick apart situations in this way, at least at first. Often, things get confusing because we mix up facts and opinions. But though it takes time, it’s worth un-mixing these things and just looking at what is on one side, and what our reaction is on the other side.
Once you do this, you will start to gain a certain clarity. When you feel like you’ve thoroughly dissected the situation, ask yourself the following questions:
What is the reality of my situation right now? What are the facts?
In what ways am I adding second darts to the situation?
In this situation, what is pain and what is suffering?
What can I control here, and what is out of my control?
What beliefs, expectations, and interpretations are extending or adding to the pain right now?
Here’s another, simpler example. You notice you have a headache and feel miserable. You stop and ask, what is pain, and what is suffering? You realize that your head literally hurts right now, but that your mind is also filled with a whole slew of thoughts along the lines of, “this couldn’t have come at a worse time, I’m so busy today!” and “I had too much coffee, that’ll serve me right. I really have to fix up my lifestyle” or “I wonder if it’s brain cancer…”
By simply doing this, you separate out what is pain and what is suffering, what is under your control and what isn’t. Then, you give yourself the option to choose. You can take a painkiller or sit somewhere quietly while you wait for the inevitable pain of the headache to pass – which it will. And maybe, since it’s entirely unnecessary, you decide not to get carried away with self-talk about the headache, which only makes things worse. You have a headache, you accept that you do… and somehow, the problem is much, much smaller.
Knowing how to discern between fact and opinion, or between first and second darts, won’t make all your problems disappear. But it will stop you from making them bigger than they have to be, or holding onto them long after they have naturally moved on.
Exercise 2: Finding the middle way
By now, you’re probably beginning to better understand the title of this book: how to suffer well. That we will suffer is a given. But we can choose to master this inevitable fact of life, even making an art of it. Sadly, many popular Buddhist ideas have trickled into the Western mainstream, but not before getting a little mangled in the process.
When we pass certain Buddhist concepts through our pre-existing framework, we can sometimes land up with beliefs that are rather limiting: for example, the unconscious belief that if we meditate enough, if we are mindful enough, if we are detached and spiritual and pure enough, then somehow, we won’t have to suffer. We may secretly hope that we can attain nirvana and never have to suffer again.
We may feel that if we are unhappy, we are doing something wrong. It’s a black and white, all-or-nothing view: either we are in blissful happiness and perfection, or we are bad and wrong. It sounds extreme, but how many self-help books out there are covertly promising exactly that?
But light and dark go together. Happiness can be grasped because it occurs alongside sadness. In our world of polarity, opposites are not at war with one another – they are mutually defining. Thus, our wellbeing and peace necessarily exists with and because of our confusion and anxiety. We cannot reach a state of no-suffering any more than we can find a mountain that only has a downhill, and not an uphill. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, no mud, no lotus. When we see the world in such a black and white way – and value only one binary – then we are not seeing reality as it is. And we invite more suffering.
Many psychologists call this particular way of thinking a cognitive distortion, and cognitive behavioral therapists work hard to empower people to notice when they’re doing it – so they can choose something else. If you are suffering, pause and become aware of what is going on inside you. Try to seek the “middle path” and avoid extremes, and see if you’re engaging in all-or-nothing thinking. For example:
“This entire situation is hopeless.”
“This kind of thing always happens.”
“I will never get to the bottom of this.”
“I am a failure.”
“You can’t trust anybody.”
“I have no choice here. It’s this crummy job or I don’t eat.”
There is a harshness and inflexibility in all of these statements that actually doesn’t reflect reality. When we see absolute terms like always, never, everyone, nothing, completely and so on, we know we are likely in a polarized, black-and-white mindset. But look at nature: it’s complex, soft, dynamic, and plays out in endless grey areas subject to constant change.
Black-and-white thinking can be thought of as a kind of grasping or attachment – it’s like looking at a single frame of a movie and making a pronouncement about the entire movie based on that tiny moment. If we look at one event, one thought, or one action and make a definitive statement about everything everywhere, we are no longer in the moment, and we are no longer perceiving reality. We are telling ourselves a story – and the difference between that story and what is actually happening will often be a source of suffering.
In the Buddhist tradition, the middle path is the one we take when we avoid extremes. There is no absolute position but rather a constant flow along with the ever-changing moment. You do not have to be a brilliant and perfect angelic being, and not being so does not mean you are a repugnant waste of space, either! You don’t have to starve yourself, but it’s probably best not to binge, either. The middle way is not just about moderation, though, it’s a metaphysical position: when we adopt the middle way, we are more aligned with life itself and at peace with the nature of reality, which is impermanent and illusory. Truthfully, extremism is often something that stems from our ego’s need for control and certainty, rather than from our direct perception of life around us.
To reduce your own suffering and practice more nuanced thinking, be on the lookout for exaggerations, generalizations and assumptions. Be aware of any time you are making a blanket statement based on very little information – or none at all. Then, look to see if you can soften or moderate them. Let’s take a closer look, considering our earlier examples:
“This kind of thing always happens.”
Does it really always happen? Every single time, in the history of everything? Probably not. By telling yourself that this is a permanent state of affairs, you increase your resentment, powerlessness and anger at the situation. You especially stop yourself from imagining or discovering a potential solution. Instead, you could remove that absolute word “always” and soften it to “sometimes.” Isn’t that more comfortable? You could even go a step further: “this kind of thing is happening right now.” There is instantly more light and more ease. You acknowledge the pain, without adding on extra suffering by imagining that the pain is eternal.
“I will never get to the bottom of this.”
Again, will you never? Ever? If you can instead say, “I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this yet” you are creating less suffering for yourself. You are looking at the moment, as it is, rather than inviting anxiety and needless suffering by making definitive pronouncements about what hasn’t even happened yet.
“I am a failure.”
While there are no absolute terms here, the statement is still a cognitive distortion – failure is something that happens, it isn’t what people are. We will suffer if we think this not only because it’s a harsh thought, but because we will be prolonging a temporary situation (failing) by believing that it says something about our lasting character as people. We could instead say, “I failed” or even “I didn’t succeed.” Even better, we could say nothing, and simply carry on trying to achieve what we were in the first place!
“You can’t trust anybody.”
It doesn’t take long to see how black-and-white this is. The kind of cognitive distortion we see here is called overgeneralization. One person hurts us, and that means that all people will hurt us. Which is more painful, knowing that one person hurt you, or that every single living soul also has the potential to hurt you? Thinking about it, this belief may do more damage than any single person ever could!
“I have no choice here. It’s this crummy job or I don’t eat.”
Whenever you find yourself narrowing the entire realm of possibility down to just two options, you are, by definition, in all or nothing thinking. You are artificially setting up a trap for yourself, and deliberately shutting out other perspectives. When you indulge in either/or thinking, you suffer. But this is unnecessary suffering. You can also choose to frame it as both/and – or abandon the binary completely! When someone says, “you’re with me or you’re against me” they are creating a conflict where none might exist. They’re creating suffering. Instead, get curious. What options do you have? When you pit two options against one another, are they really so different? Maybe when you told yourself that it was Team A vs. Team B, you missed the fact that both could win.
To find the middle way, prick your ears for any time you are speaking in absolutes, or using black-and-white thinking. Then try to find the moderate path between both these extremes. At the very least, there is a lot of relief and serenity to be found sometimes in simply saying, “I don’t know.”
Exercise 3: Embrace what is
It’s a mistake to think that to be happy, we need to get rid of all suffering within us. We need to smooth over all difficulties, solve all problems and redeem all our bad traits and weaknesses. But this is just more black and white thinking – “either I’m happy, or I’m sad.” A mindset shift comes when we realize that we can, in fact, live good lives and suffer. We don’t have to wait for everything to be perfect and painless – we can be content and well, right now, with everything just as it is.
This is perhaps the most difficult task in the modern world, designed at every turn to distract us. We are constantly bombarded with ads trying to sell us solutions, with addictions promising to numb out our pains, with entertainment to soothe our sense of malaise, and noise and confusion around every corner. The unspoken message is always: happiness is elsewhere. First, you must buy this product, read this book, or achieve this goal. You must be this person before you are worthy of being happy.
Really, the message goes deeper than this: whatever you do, escape the present moment, which is difficult and flawed and uncomfortable. Instead, flee to the past or the future, or some hypothetical fantasy world.
But that is not where we find peace or happiness! The irony is that so much of our suffering comes not from reality itself, and the pain that naturally occurs because of its impermanence but from our constant desire to flee that reality. To run away from what is. Instead of sitting in the moment and allowing it to unfold as it is, our minds run around at a thousand miles an hour. We imagine what might happen, and stress about what has already happened – and long gone.
Because we are afraid of pain, we suffer more. Because we don’t know how to deal with suffering, how to suffer well, we do it badly, and end up suffering more, and for longer than is “necessary.” If we know how to suffer, we suffer less. If we don’t fear suffering, we don’t push against it and try to escape it – and we, therefore, make it so much less overwhelming. It’s a little like childbirth: if we are scared of the pain, that anxiety creates tense muscles and higher cortisol levels. And this is what makes it hurt more. If we embrace the fact that sometimes, we will experience pain, we somehow soften around the experience, and allow it to pass without turning into suffering.
How can we actively practice embracing what is, rather than avoiding it? For one, we can get better at emotional regulation. Try the following exercise.
The next time you feel an emotion, make your priority to simply become aware of what it is, name it, and allow it to be. Don’t judge, suppress or diagnose the emotion. Don’t try to interpret it or hurry and find a solution or explanation. Don’t try to imagine if you are justified in feeling it or not. Don’t rank or appraise it, deciding whether it’s a good or bad emotion, whether it’s too much or too little. Don’t get impatient and wonder what’s on the other side of the emotion, and start wondering how you can move it along. Just become aware of it. That’s all.
You might even like to deliberately say to this emotion, “Hello, emotion, I see you. I’m not afraid of you, don’t be afraid of me. Let’s sit together.”
It sounds a little corny, but notice what it’s like to just be with the emotion, as it is. You don’t need to summon Buddha-like levels of compassion or totally approve of the emotion, either. You don’t have to like it, understand why it’s there, or feel as though you’re in control of it. You just have to see it.
Easier said than done, however. You might find that the moment you and your emotion are alone together, your brain instantly asks, “Is this it? Come on, give me something more interesting to do!” You may be so automatically drawn to distraction or escape that you don’t even notice it at first. But if you are tempted to flee the moment, just bring yourself back. Remember, you’re not solving any problems or wrestling any demons. You’re just “sitting with.”
This exercise sounds a lot simpler than it feels to practice in the moment. But that’s all you need to do – practice. Just keep being aware. If you find it tricky, there are a few ways to stay anchored in the present without getting distracted by a wandering mind. One way is to “ground” yourself in your sensory perception.
Because your senses are in your body, and your body can only ever be in the present, connecting with your senses will keep you grounded. The next time you’re feeling bad, overwhelmed, confused or just generally unhappy, stop and take a moment to reconnect to the present:
Step 1: Focus on your breathing for a moment as you sit somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed for a few moments. You could even excuse yourself and step into the bathroom for a moment to gather yourself – you only need a few minutes.
Step 2: Close your eyes and sink into your sense perceptions: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Watch as your mind floats around everywhere, and gently ask it to come settle on the things in your immediate environment. For example, you could notice the cold feeling of the tiles on your skin, the tiny specks of water on the faucet, the faint smell of lemon bleach, and the low whirr of the bathroom fan.
Step 3: When your mind wanders, just come back to a sense – any sense. Imagine yourself literally tethering your attention back down to something concrete. The texture of the towel. The feeling of the hard edge of the bath you’re sitting on. Don’t decide whether anything is good or bad, just notice it.
Step 4: When you’re ready, end your sensory contemplation and come back into life again. But before you do, notice if your ruminating mind is a little quieter, and a little less inclined to race from one thought to another.
Exercise 4: Watch your information consumption
Often suffering is a question of overwhelm. As we explored in the exercise above, it almost always accompanies a busy mind that wants to tell stories about the present moment, rather than just sit in stillness in the present moment. But any time we are hypnotized by the stories our own mind tells us, we are no longer present, and no longer available to life.
The mind is a wonderful servant, they say, and a terrible master. When left to run amok and do whatever it likes, the mind can very definitely concoct a whole world of suffering for you. We not only try to evade pain in the present moment as individuals – we are guilty of this bad habit on a society-wide level. How much of our culture ultimately came about due to someone’s distraction, coping mechanism, or denial? And when we engage in the outward manifestations of other people’s “thought traffic” do we always do so with perfect awareness of the effect it has on us?
In today’s world, many of us find ourselves completely saturated in digital media. TV shows, movies, podcasts, music, social media in all its many forms, the traditional news media, books… everywhere we are surrounded by people saying, essentially, “Look over here. Pay attention to this.” And we turn our attention to do just that, we instantly forfeit our ability to decide what we want to focus on.
Let’s be honest: the motivations of most of the people who would capture our attention are not noble. Advertisers want to force their way into our awareness, artificially create a need for something, and compel us to buy – even if we never had any intention of doing so. Social media makes us feel bad about who we are. The news makes us afraid, angry, or a mix of both – it’s designed precisely for that reason. The content we encounter everywhere is trying to present a particular view of the world to us, and when we absorb it all, we cannot help but take that perspective on as our own.
When we participate in our society’s cultural products, we open ourselves up to potential suffering. The ancient Buddhist monks paid close attention to the food they ate, what they wore, and how they filled their waking moments. In their study of mindfulness, they knew that theirs was a discipline rooted in awareness and attention. Their practice was to maintain concentration despite the noise and distraction of the world.
One way to cut down on suffering is to become mindful of the media you consume:
• Before you reflexively pick up your phone or open a new web browser, pause. Notice what you’re doing, and why. Are you trying to avoid the moment? What preceded the impulse to distract yourself?
• When you are finished watching a show, reading or listening to something, pause to ask how it has affected you. How do you feel now compared to before you consumed this particular piece of media?
• Can you notice any ways that the media you consume has fed into your “second darts”?
• What do you encounter when you choose not to watch, read, or scroll as normal, and instead just sit with yourself for a moment?
• Once we can properly identify suffering for what it is and become aware of it in ourselves, we can begin to manage it better.
• Suffering takes all different forms for each of us, but according to the four noble truths, there is a way to ease and reduce our suffering, by letting go of attachment.
• One way to do this is to practice distinguishing between pain and suffering, first and second darts, and facts or opinions. When you feel upset, slow down and tease apart the situation until you see it as clearly and objectively as possible.
• Try to avoid extremes and black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Watch out for clues to cognitive distortions and bias like absolute terms, catastrophizing and generalization, and instead look for a balanced path down the middle of extremes. We can achieve this merely by changing our language and how we frame things.
• Counterintuitively, we reduce feelings of suffering by being willing to “sit with” and acknowledge all our feelings, without trying to escape them. We can learn to stay in the present and be aware of how we feel right now, instead of letting our minds get carried away with thoughts of the past or future. One way to keep in the present is to ground in the senses.
• Finally, take care with what you consume, information-wise, since suffering is often a question of overwhelm, or being looped into people’s stories and interpretations. Pay close attention to the media you take in, its effect on you, and how these distractions may be helping you avoid your feelings in the present.