Pain Is Inevitable But Suffering Is Optional
I never really understood this quote, but have always known it holds such wisdom.
On reading Buddha’s Brain I feel like I finally understand it…
See, to live and to love go hand in hand with pain.
There is no avoiding it.
To think otherwise would be going against thousands of years of evolution. (Which I won’t go into the ins and outs of here — read Buddha’s Brain for that)
What I want to talk about is our avoidance of pain…
Because it is this avoidance that causes much of our suffering.
See when we feel pain and discomfort, its a natural human tendency to run away from it.
Which we do by exiting the body and going into the head. Where we rationalise or distract ourselves from the felt experience.
And as our brain is wired to look for the negative in things, we stand little chance in seeing the good or opportunities in that moment. Which goes on to feed a state of negativity, pessimism and anxiety… and the cascade of negative spirals begins.
Our other choice for avoiding pain, is to distract ourselves by seeking comfort in pleasure.
And this is where we begin to self medicate and numb the pain with alcohol, drugs, shopping, social media, cake… anything that takes us away from the pain.
I spent a lot of my adult life there.
In my head and distracting myself from the pain I was avoiding.
The pain of not living in congruence with the person I wanted to be.
Which, if I sat with at that time, I’m sure I would have seen what was going on and made some changes. But instead I did what most do… Distract. Self medicate. Stay busy.
Which I got really good at.
But as I experienced… a fulfilled life doesn’t happen in your head or in seeking pleasure in things.
A fulfilled life comes with growing, contributing and living aligned with your values.
Which I eventually got to… but only by leaning into the discomfort.
There is no other way.
So what can we do…?
Well, as mindfulness teaches us… we need to learn to stay present with whatever is arriving in awareness, without reacting — however uncomfortable. Then work skilfully with the mind to direct our attention to something within your control. Like the breath.
And over time through training and shaping your mind this way, you will be less triggered, be able to choose your response and eventually get to a point where the reaction doesn’t even come up!
Sounds simple, but as I’m sure you have experienced it’s harder to execute…
And to be clear… I am not there!
But I’m working hard on it…
And the way I am doing that is twofold…
One — by increasing my capacity for stress and discomfort, by consciously inflicting acute stress and pain with things like cold showers, embracing boredom and my “dark place” workouts. And in that discomfort focusing on the things within my control — self talk and breath being the two biggies.
And Two — by using life and relationships as feedback.
And for me, I’ve found it’s in the mundane things where much of our opportunity for growth lies…
I have a thing about cleanliness. Having a clean and tidy house allows me to think clearer. And I often need it that way before I can fully relax… (perhaps something I need to work on letting go of there… one for another day)
My wife on the other hand (is clean of course) but she can come back to cleaning at the end of the day.
Something that used to drive me nuts!
As when her dishes weren’t done, and I’d hear her playing with Frankie, I could get caught up in a story of “she knows I like the kitchen to be clean, why doesn’t she care.” And if I really gave it some welly, I would spiral and could easily get myself into a frenzy.
But I have been using these little moments to practice mindfulness.
To notice the feeling of anger, but to not judge it, just to be with it, breath and then remind myself of how much my wife does for me. Remind myself “I too could leave this to the end of the day to play with Frankie… this is my choice”.
For a while, I could recognise being hijacked but couldn’t get rid of the resentment I felt inside, and occasionally I’d blurt something out or come up with a passive aggressive comment.
The next stage in my growth was being able to recognise being triggered, allowing the feeling of irritation but instead choosing my self talk, and reminding myself that this is a choice and my wife already does so much for me.
And after perhaps 6 months of working through this mundane example, I am now at a point that the reaction rarely comes up. In fact, I have started to enjoy washing up, as it’s something I am weirdly present for.
An example I feel a little embarrassed to share, but I also believe, (which the book Buddha’s brain agrees with) these little moments of practice will gradually and truly increase our fulfilment, kindness and outlook.
I’ll finish with a simple quote from Naval Ravikant, that sums this up so perfectly,
“Sit with the pain till it passes, and you will calmer for the next one.”
P.S. Whenever you’re ready… here are 3 ways I can help you start living life on your terms.
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