We’ve taken a close look at three powerful and effective approaches to life’s suffering: the Buddhist’s perspective, the philosophy of the Stoics, and Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy ideas about turning suffering into meaning. You may have noticed plenty of overlap between these, or, more accurately, you might have seen what is essentially the same idea reworked in different cultures and historical contexts. Each of them points, in its own way, to our freedom, responsibility and conscious choice about how we approach the inevitable pain of life. None of these approaches tells us that pain is something we can or even should eliminate from our experience.
We are told by each of these philosophies that action counts. We choose our attitude, and then we demonstrate that attitude by taking action in the world around us. In this chapter we’ll consider more deeply some of the tips and techniques we can use right now, whether we’re dealing with minor daily irritations or profound loss and suffering on a bigger scale.
The question is, how shall we experience pain? We will experience pain, and the previous chapters has outlined the attitude we can take towards that pain. But now what? What do we do with all this knowledge? In this chapter, we’ll look at five practical tips and techniques to use when (note, not if but when!) you next experience pain, disappointment, loss or discomfort.
Tip 1: Get good at reframing
We looked at this when we considered the big (sometimes enormous!) difference between pain and suffering, i.e. our stories and narratives about what that pain is. Viktor Frankl sees that humans are built for telling these kinds of stories, and he encourages us to use that power for good, and rewrite the story of pain so that it’s one of compassion, dignity and love.
Reframing might be one of the best things you can learn to do when it comes to pain. Our body receives and interprets signals from our environment that alert us to danger, but this is a very lean process – all the additional messages we tell ourselves are unnecessary, and completely under our control.
Consider, for example, the “rule” about what counts as pain in the first place. Why are you responding to something in the environment? If you’re a modern human, you almost never encounter true physical threat.
Basically, the technique of reframing is telling yourself that you don’t always have to take your own word for it. It is usually our rules and stories that make us decide something counts as pain – if we remove those stories or rewrite them, suddenly there may not even be pain anymore!
Here’s an example: a friend forgets your birthday. You immediately feel hurt and angry. But rewind a little, and you’ll see there’s something before the hurt and angry feelings, and that is the mind-frame that told you, “If someone forgets your birthday, it means they don’t care about you.” It’s this that has caused your reaction, not your friend. But if you can step back a little, you can query this. Is it really true? Can you know that for absolute certain?
You can probably think of evidence for the fact that your friend really does care about you. And you can also imagine that there are people you care about to who you’ve nevertheless forgotten to wish a happy birthday. In other words, don’t just assume that your interpretation is obvious or correct. The pain you may feel is real – but challenge your rules for deciding on why you feel that pain! If you do, you might discover that you are suffering needlessly. There isn’t any problem.
Consider a different example. Your friend forgets your birthday, but when you talk to them about it and think it all through, you realize that they have become much less invested in your friendship, and, well… they forgot because they genuinely don’t care as much about you anymore. This could make anyone feel rejected or upset, right? But you can reframe here, too. Maybe you speak to your friend, and they say that since having kids, and since getting a promotion at work, life has been busy. You two have moved further apart, you don’t share the same hobbies anymore, and keeping the friendship going is proving difficult.
Is this a cause for suffering?
Potential frame A: everyone always abandons you eventually because you’re just not an interesting person
Potential frame B: it’s a shame, but sometimes good friendships fade after a while just because life gets in the way, and it’s nobody’s fault
Potential frame C: it’s not bad when lukewarm friendships drift out of your life, since they make room for people who are a better match for you as you are right now!
Each of these frames will result in a different set of emotional reactions (without any change to the actual, objective circumstances!). Also, each frame will impact how empowered you feel, and your chances of taking beneficial action going forward:
Frame A: There’s nothing to do but feel sorry for yourself. This is getting the most possible suffering out of the situation!
Frame B: A moderate amount of suffering, but you’re likely not going to feel completely crushed or immobilized by the realization. In fact, you might find it a relief to forgive, forget and move on.
Frame C: Maybe you don’t suffer at all. Maybe you even deliberately decide to go seek out new friendships – should you get in touch with that interesting person you met in your book club?
Whatever situation you’re in, try to delay rushing into an emotional reaction before you’ve examined the “rules” and beliefs you have that could be causing you to suffer. Ask yourself:
• What assumptions are you making? Do you actually have any evidence that they’re true?
• What are you not focused on at the moment? What are you forgetting to factor in here?
• Are you “mind reading” and just guessing what others think and feel, or what they intend?
• Have you told yourself some rule about how things “should” be?
• Are you telling yourself that something “means” something else when there is no evidence for that?
Tip 2: See emotional responses for what they are
Let’s keep remembering that for most of us modern humans in the world today, there is very, very little that is a genuine threat. Our nervous system evolved from ancestors who had to face survival threats more intense than the ones we face today, but the same neural machinery and endocrine machinery are still there. Luckily for you, you also have a higher brain capable of examining your responses and choosing something different for yourself.
The thing about pain is that it is fleeting. As the Buddhists teach us, all of life is transient. It constantly moves. Our nervous systems were designed to register pain – but then to act to restore equilibrium as quickly as possible. It is in nobody’s interests for you to continue hearing that same pain signal over and over again. Rather, pain arises and then dissipates again.
When you’re experiencing pain and suffering, you can fool yourself into thinking that it will last forever. That this is just the way life is now. But this is a form of clinging – it is our attachment itself that is maintaining the pain in the moment, and stopping it from moving on. What happens when you just look at feelings of pain, threat and anxiety as they emerge? You may notice that those feelings are just ghosts. Just patterns in the brain, little crackles of electrochemical energy that have no basis in the real world.
Just because we are having a sensation, it doesn’t mean that we will always have that sensation, and that that is all we are, as people. Depending on our perspective and attitude, we can see pain as a punishing life sentence that floods our conscious awareness… or we can see it as a temporary cloud that passes over the sky. One that can’t help but float away again eventually. If you’ve ever observed a person having a panic attack, you’ll know how powerful the mind can be in convincing us that an apocalypse is unfolding when it’s actually a perfectly unthreatening, unremarkable day. In this case, all of the apocalypse is happening purely within the mind. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. And when those brain signals stop, there’s nothing there anymore.
We’ve spoken a lot about dealing with the inevitability of pain in life, but there’s a good chance that a lot of what you’re calling “pain” is just a phantom in your mind, nothing more substantial than a weird dream. To dig even deeper, some Buddhists will say that all suffering is, in fact, an illusion. To free ourselves from suffering is not to solve the problem of suffering once and for all – it’s to realize that suffering never existed in the first place.
Whether you want to go that far with it or not, you could probably benefit from asking yourself honestly whether you’re creating suffering for yourself out of thin air. Sometimes, we become attached to feeling bad. It might sound strange, but we are almost convinced that if we feel bad (angry, sad, scared), then we had better carry on being that way. Even though we’re not enjoying our suffering, we still hold onto it, almost looking for further reasons to justify it. Have you ever felt yourself deciding that you were in a bad mood, and almost deliberately choosing not to crack a smile at something funny because you were busy being in a bad mood?
Though it’s a little cheesy, you can think of emotion as e-motion – energy in motion. Every time you feel something, remind yourself that an emotion’s job is to move. It’s just like a ripple in a pond. The pond exists, but the ripple is just a temporary movement, nothing more.
Here’s how we can best let emotions do what they do and move on:
• Acknowledge them. Embrace and welcome them fully, without resistance, judgment, blame, interpretation, shame, clinging or denial. Don’t distract yourself or bully yourself into feeling some other way. Can you find a name for what you’re feeling?
• Get some distance in the language you use. Instead of saying, “I’m a miserable wretch” say, “I feel sad right now”, or even “there’s a lot of sadness at the moment.”
• Recognize that you only feel bad right now because previously you felt good… and before that, you felt bad. Is it really the end of the world to have your emotions move and change? Keep asking yourself, “In all this change, what is permanent? What is unchanging?” This is a profound and anchoring question to return to.
Tip 3: Embrace effort and difficulty
The “effort paradox” is what some psychologists call our tendency to want to avoid effort (i.e. be lazy) when hard work is a source of pleasure and meaning for us. Call it human nature to want to take the shortcut or the path of least resistance. But an interesting quirk of how we think is that we also tend to value more those things we’ve worked hard on. In other words, putting effort into something makes it much easier to deal with – even like.
Benjamin Franklin said that if you wanted people to like you, ask them to do you a favor. When people work for something, they automatically value it more. Taking it further, when something arrives at the end of effort and was quite difficult to win, we seem to think it’s more valuable than something that came for free. Researcher Michael Norton at Harvard Business School put his study results down to what he called the “IKEA effect” – when we do things ourselves (for example, build our own furniture), we value them more.
Consider the answers you might get if you asked people to outline their dream life for you. Maybe they would say they want to sit on a tropical beach forever, never having to lift a finger. The truth is (and you can ask any retired person to confirm!) you get bored without something to work for. Without a little challenge and friction and effort. Your self-esteem and sense of purpose suffer. You lose motivation and energy. So, there’s the irony – hard work can be energizing, and rest can be draining.
How does this apply to suffering? Well, think about the fact that most of us seem to have an unconscious idea about how much suffering is normal and expected in a life. How bad can things get before we feel that we’re hard done by? We may have a hypothetical end goal on the horizon, where all of our problems are finally solved, there’s no friction, nothing to worry about, and everyone is self-actualized and completely free of angst.
But just reading that should show you how silly this expectation really is!
So far, we’ve considered a stoic (lower case “c”) attitude to grinning and bearing whatever adversity comes our way. Like pain is something to tolerate bravely. But can we also learn to actually appreciate effort and friction for the value it brings to life?
Let’s look at examples. Imagine you and your partner occasionally have disagreements. They have the uncanny knack of knowing the most annoying things to say to you, and you seem to push their buttons at times, too. You don’t agree, and sometimes you even wonder what planet they’re living on. You have moments when you doubt your relationship, and when you feel angry at them. But then, you’re forced to communicate, compromise and be humble as you own up to all the ways that you’re not quite perfect, either.
If you do this and come back to harmony with that person, you may well value this harmony with them way more than if you had blandly gotten on without any friction ever. Occasional arguments are a challenge. They keep you on your toes and stop you from getting complacent and making assumptions. They remind you that you are dealing with an ever-changing, sometimes contradictory, ultimately unknowable force in the universe – another human being! You need to learn intelligent new skills to work with them, you need to cultivate forgiveness and trust and love, and together you build something stronger than it was before you had your argument. It's hard to imagine people valuing one another more if they have never been “tested” this way, never been pushed to the limits of their skill or understanding or ability.
Similarly, if you were an athlete, you would doubtless think less highly of your sport and your own abilities if your coach insisted on keeping you well within your comfort zone, never pushing too hard. Many people leave good jobs for a related reason: because they are not stimulating enough. Just as Frankl suggested a link between suffering and meaning, we can see that meaning is also connected to effort. To hard work.
The next time you feel that you are experiencing pain or, ask whether you are actually suffering, or whether you are just learning. Is the discomfort you feel just what it’s like to change and grow? Can you think of a few things this “suffering” is actually teaching you? Can you think of all the things it’s training you to value?
Tip 4: Accept the reality check
We wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t include one very common source of suffering in life: our own stupidity. What’s more, we sometimes suffer purely because of our own actions. Perhaps we’ve failed to heed warnings and carried on with a bad course, only to have it blow up in our faces. Perhaps we’re in denial, and the pain is showing us that we can no longer avoid something. Perhaps we need to be frank about our role in choosing circumstances that are just no longer working. Our body sends pain signals when our hand is on a hot stove so that we can pull our hand away. In the same way, emotional and mental suffering can be seen as a message telling us, “Get away from this situation!”
We will continue to feel suffering until we do.
Think about someone who is in a job that is really bad for them. They are underpaid mistreated, and the hours and workload are ruining their health. Leaving this job would be scary, however, so the person puts it out of their awareness for a while. They still suffer in the job, though. But when they feel bad, they meditate and tell themselves, “Well, suffering is a part of life. What are you going to do? I’m choosing to graciously accept my fate.”
There’s one thing such a person can expect here, and that’s that the “pain signal” will only get louder. More stress, more health problems. Maybe everything won’t be OK. Maybe they are not being accepting but rather telling themselves comforting lies to hide the fact that they have chosen not to act to improve their situation.
It’s a wonderful thing to be optimistic and to embrace what can’t be changed. But as the Stoics teach us, that’s only half of the “serenity prayer.” We are only encouraged to accept the things we genuinely cannot change. To the full extent that we can take responsible action and shape our lives, we do. We reserve acceptance only for things thing s beyond that.
Sometimes pain and suffering is a messenger that’s yelling at you, “it’s time to change!” We might be tempted to downplay that or run away from it when we assume that this pain is just part of the natural order somehow. Of course, nobody is suggesting that you collapse into pessimism and bitterness, and declare that life sucks. But if that is how you feel, acknowledge it. Accept that that is how you really feel. It may be the first step to realizing that something needs to change for you. And this may have to be a big, serious, genuine change, and not some sugary fairy tale.
This can be a tricky area to navigate, for sure. We need to get good at being honest with ourselves. Remember that a reassuring lie may feel better than a harsh truth, but it won’t make you grow, won’t add to your understanding, and won’t allow you to learn anything. In the long run, the lie creates more suffering. In this case, we need to realize that sometimes “suffering” is the right way forward. It’s like having a deep cut. You need to clean the wound and dress it so that it can heal, and maybe even get stitches. This will hurt a lot, but if you avoid that pain, you allow the problem to get worse over time, and risk that wound not healing properly or getting infected and leaving a scar. Likewise, you can’t pretend that you can just slap on a Flintstones Band-Aid and forget about it!
Here are some questions to help you check in with the function your pain may actually be serving right now:
• If you are honest, is this pain here because of something you’ve been deliberately ignoring till now?
• Carefully try to understand what your role is in bringing this situation about, and maintaining it. There’s no need for blame – just see what portion of the problem is due to your actions and choices. Can you write them down?
• Sometimes we avoid facing our feelings because doing so would compel us to act and make changes. What feelings are you too scared to acknowledge right now, because you’re not sure what you’d do with them?
Tip 5: Train for the pain
Think about the attitude that extreme athletes and sportspeople have to pain. They’re able to push themselves through punishing ordeals, scale mountains, swim and cycle and run unthinkably long distances, and keep going despite extreme discomfort and pain. Why? And more importantly, why do some others not manage to endure pain as readily?ted in this very question. In:
What were these coping strategies?
Alschuler found that the most adaptive mindset was one that reframed pain not as pain at all, but as a challenge. The people who fared best simply refused to allow the discomfort to bother them, or they ignored it completely. During painful periods of their long-distance and endurance challenges, the best performers simply distracted themselves and carried on. They seem to quickly accept the reality of the pain but tell themselves that there’s no getting rid of it. The options are to keep going or to stop – and for the ultra-elite athletes, stopping just wasn’t a viable option. So they didn’t even consider it.
This actually isn’t quite as difficult as it may seem. It’s more a question of what you don’t do – you don’t catastrophize or let yourself dwell on just how bad it is. You don’t entertain thoughts of giving up. You just stay in the present and focus on the challenge in front of you. When that’s accomplished, you move on to the next one. If the pain’s intense, you may need to do this literally second by second. But if you can, you may find that you develop extraordinary resilience and endurance.
Realize that you are not your suffering, and that the pain is temporary. Realize also that you greatly increase those feelings if you focus on them. Instead, hold onto the idea that you have committed to act, and that you will keep acting accordingly, no matter what. Keep it simple.
You don’t have to be a pro-athlete or runner to use this mindset. Simply choose not to dwell too much on your own pain, or indulge in drama. Even if things are really uncomfortable, are they the end of the world? Can you just relax and get through it? An unpleasant feeling is just that unpleasant. It’s not the end of you, and it’s not a sign that you should stop.
Imagine that you are studying hard for an important exam and need to put in the hours. You can do whatever you like when it comes to planning and strategizing, but at some point, you’ll have to get working, and endure several study sessions that may feel like running a marathon. The tiredness is not the main adversary – your attitude to the tiredness is. You could decide that a bit of fatigue and slightly sore eyes is a Bad Thing and freak out about it, or you could have a quick break, stretch, rest your eyes for a second and tell yourself that you are capable of enduring temporary discomfort.
In emergencies, too, people fare best when they make sure that their lazy, scared or fearful minds get out of the way, so they can think calmly and just do what needs to be done. If someone you loved passed away and you were tasked with all the duties of arranging a large funeral, well, the best way to do it is to see the discomfort, acknowledge it, and simply do what needed to be done without too much drama or overthinking. You could tell yourself, “People are relying on me to take charge here, and I will. It’s a challenge I am capable of meeting. I don’t have to like it, but I will do it, and I will be fine.” Everything beyond that is suffering. If you grit your teeth and curse the responsibility and complain about how unfair it is and how you’re too upset to do it and on and on, it doesn’t change the fact of the task that is ahead of you. Once you start running that marathon, however, and you just put one foot in front of the other, you will realize something great: that you can.