Archive for Suffering

How to enjoy life’s hardships

We spend so much of our lives either in pain and hardship, or in fear of pain and hardship. We dread the first sign of illness, we lament our lack of time and money, we try hard not to think of that inevitable day when either we or our loved ones will die. It seems so easy to find something new to worry about or fear. It seems so hard to see life as perfect. What is the solution to all this? Can we transform our attitude towards life?

Although our lives are defined by the search for the “good” and the avoidance of the “bad”, there is really nothing in life that is inherently good or bad. Such notions are relative – the “good” cannot exist unless we can contrast it with the “bad”. It is easy to conceive of lives much easier than our own, just as it is easy to conceive of lives much harder. Thus, there is no way to say whether our lives are easy or hard. What is more important is how we relate to our so-called hardships.

When we go to the gym to lift weights, we likely experience a lot of pain. However, this pain does not bother us because we know that the harder we push ourselves, the stronger we become. We see the pain is a good thing, taking pleasure in our ability to push ourselves further and experience greater hardships. Similarly, if we were to climb a high mountain, we would enjoy the struggle involved – it would give us a feeling of accomplishment and pride. It becomes a challenge.

What is it that makes such striving a source of enjoyment and accomplishment? The key difference is that sense that we have taken it on voluntarily. If a student sets herself a goal, such as taking 10 courses in a semester, she enjoys the challenge and relishes the difficulties. On the other hand, if she were forced to take this many courses, she has a different attitude. She may complain and feel that she were being treated unfairly. To enjoy life’s hardships, we must stop resisting them and stop seeing them as unfair. We must embrace the situation, and take pleasure in the difficulties.

It is not enough to merely climb the hills – we must come to love the hills. When we take on challenges with this attitude, whatever the situation may be, the difficulties no longer bother us. It does not make the pain go away, and life does not become suddenly easy. However, by fostering that sense of challenge and adventure, we give up that limiting belief that life is supposed to be easy. Instead of pining for something easier, we learn to enjoy the parts that are hard.

Featured in The Seventeenth Edition of the Carnival of Improving Life.

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How can we deal with chronic pain?

We all know the experience of pain, whether it be physical or emotional. It is a state in which we cannot sit still, a state that our minds refuse to accept. This is true almost by design. When our hand touches that hot stove, it is the mind’s complete nonacceptance of the resulting pain that causes the hand’s instant withdrawal. In such cases of acute pain the remedy is immediate and obvious, and the benefit of the pain is clear. However, at times we must also deal with chronic pain, where the remedy is neither as simple nor as apparent as merely withdrawing our hand from a stove.

How can we deal with chronic pain? One step that is helpful to try and look at exactly what that pain is. What is it that we are feeling right at that instant? If we are not currently experiencing pain, we can practise this exercise now simply by pinching our arm and observing the sensation. What we find may be surprising. We find that it is not the sensation itself that is actually causing our pain. Instead, the part that is so unbearable is our mind’s complete refusal to accept that sensation. We want scream because it hurts so badly, and our minds try to flee from the feeling, and yet really, if we actually force ourselves to feel the sensation for what it is, we will find that it is almost neutral.

The lesson here is that pain is essentially a mental construct. Another way to look at it is to say that it is not the pain that hurts, but rather our reaction to the pain. This is an important observation in our management of physical pain, and is equally important for managing emotional pain. Take feelings such as grief, depression, or even common unhappiness: what are these feelings really like? When we observe them closely we find, as with physical pain, that the actual part that hurts is hard to define. We find that the feeling of pain breaks down under close observation, because that pain is ultimately a mental construct and is not really solid. We may consider ourselves depressed, but there is not really a force hanging around with us right now that is making us feel this way. We may examine our depression and come up with a bunch of thoughts that justify why our life is so bad, but we do not have to think these thoughts, and nor do we have to conclude from them that life is bad. Depression, being a form of pain, is simply another example of suffering as a result of refusing to accept a situation. Once again, it is not the sequence of events that has hurt us, but rather our reaction to them. The same is true of grief, of boredom, and of fear.

Thus, next time we feel any kind of pain, we should examine it more closely. We must see it for what it is. We must observe as closely as we can the actual sensation or event that is supposedly causing this hurt, and try to understand that it is our reaction that is actually the problem. This way of dealing with pain goes against our preconditioning and it takes practice to become proficient. However, when we succeed, it will completely transform our relationship to pain. Pain will not longer be seen as an enemy, but rather as a helpful signal that we are grateful to have. It is not something to fear and run from, but something to look at and experience exactly as it is.

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