Suffering comes in many forms.
It can be experienced emotionally, mentally, physically and even spiritually.
Suffering can show up in our lives unexpectedly.
It can be experienced as heartache when someone close to us leaves, as anxiety when we replay the same worst case scenario over and over in our minds, as a stomachache because we ate too much chocolate cake, or it can even be a feeling of emptiness and fear when we think about our life—what’s the meaning? The purpose?
No matter what the situation, one who is suffering is clearly not at peace.
Suffering can linger on in its various forms for days, weeks or even years. It is a phenomenon that is experienced in both body and mind, and no one is immune to its presence in their life.
Suffering is universal; at some point, every human being on this earth experiences it.
Now that I’ve scared you, I want to say a few things about how recognizing and being aware of our suffering is the first step towards transforming it into peace.
Although it’s true that we all suffer, it is also true that we can learn from it and truly heal while becoming compassionate and peaceful beings full of wisdom, radiance and love.
When the Buddha was alive, he taught that our suffering is sacred and holy if we experience it fully and deeply.
If we try to push it away, (which, let’s be honest, most of us do) we think we’re minimizing the damage, when in actuality we’re just making it worse:
“What you resist persists.”
~ Carl Jung
So it builds up, not ever dealt with, stacking upon itself in its different forms, until one day it collapses in on us in some way or another. We finally reach our threshold, can’t handle it anymore, and something major happens.
Some call it a wake-up call, others call it hitting rock bottom; it is that moment when we are forced to look at our suffering (often with great humility) and find the lesson in it, so that we can move on.
Once we understand what we are feeling, we have taken the first step toward being liberated from it.
As strange as it sounds, I want you to be inspired by the ways that we can minimize suffering and even transform it into peace, joy and happiness.
To find this inspiration, I like to draw upon teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master and beloved Buddhist teacher who has a gift for explaining core Buddhist teachings in a way that is comprehensible and digestible.
We must acknowledge the first Noble Truth:
1. Everyone suffers.
Instead of pushing away the feeling of suffering, the first step is to realize it’s there and touch into it deeply.
Recognize it. Be aware of it. Feel it. Lean into it. Go ahead right now.
You probably don’t want to experience suffering in your life. I’m asking you to name it and feel it.
Why are you suffering?
Take a moment. Is it something someone did to you that hurt you? Are you lonely? Tired? Anxious? Depressed? Empty?
Take a moment to recognize and acknowledge your suffering as it is, even if it is scary. Honor the suffering compassionately by giving it space to just be there without judging it.
Let it speak to you without turning your back on it. Give it a chance to have the floor and be center stage, if only for a moment. Your suffering is trying to show you something.
Understand it. Be all ears. Recognize it, accept it, and embrace it with love.
Once your suffering is identified, felt and understood, it is time to move on to the Second Noble Truth:
2. Figuring out the origin, roots, nature, creation, or arising of suffering.
After we touch into our suffering, it is very important to recognize how it materialized in the first place.
Now this part is tricky because often times we will label the cause as an external event beyond our control. In all likelihood, the prompting event could be external, but it is our reaction and assimilation of the event that, in most cases, generates suffering.
Let’s use the example of someone who is depressed as a result of losing his job. When we focus on the external event of losing the job, we aren’t necessarily deepening into our own role in the suffering. Perhaps before losing the job we were not getting enough sleep and staying up too late watching television. This late night TV watching may have caused us to show up late to work and not complete daily required job tasks. Over time, these behaviors may have lead to us being dismissed.
Perhaps after losing the job, we lose hope, sleep in all of the time, don’t leave the house, rarely socialize and start drinking because our suffering is too much to bear. After time, depression sets in and now we’re dealing with something a lot more complicated.
I am not suggesting that we are to blame for our suffering in every event; often it comes out of left field. I am just using this as a simple example to illustrate the concept of finding the origin of our pain. Once we fully understand our own hand in the creation and perpetuation of suffering we can be more informed on what we are dealing with.
What behaviors and thoughts perpetuate your suffering?
Really stop and think. Feel into it. Write it down if it helps.
It could be anything from participating in negative self talk, eating unhealthy food, using substances, sleeping too much, or holding on to a grudge.
In essence, I am asking you to take an inventory of the seemingly “yucky” stuff about yourself you might not like to look at. Bring it into the light with compassion and love for yourself.
You can’t understand and transform something that you don’t acknowledge.
The answers to these questions lead us into the Third Noble Truth:
3. The cessation of creating suffering.
Pretty basic right? Yes it is, but as most things are, it’s easier said than done.
The good news is you have a pretty clear understanding of what you are suffering from, how it came to exist, and how you may be perpetuating it. You should feel empowered.
This Noble Truth embodies the Buddha’s teaching that healing is possible.
It’s a truth! Healing is possible! And it starts with you.
A great analogy I love using with my clients is that there are good seeds and bad seeds. Whatever seeds you water are the ones that will grow. Whatever you put your attention on will be what manifests.
Would you like to cultivate flowers or weeds?
This truth speaks to refraining from doing things that make us suffer. But the absence of doing things that make us suffer is not the only thing we must be doing. We must replace our efforts, actions, and thoughts with new ones. We must water the flowers and not the weeds.
Which leads us to the Fourth Noble Truth:
4. The Path
This is where the rubber hits the road.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to turning away from doing things that cause us to suffer and towards things that lead us to peace.
The Buddha called it the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
I know that’s a lot of new concepts to introduce in one article, which is why I’ll be devoting my next article completely to the Eightfold Path.
If you want to learn more about The Path I encourage you to go to your local library or bookstore and grab a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book entitled, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation.
If you truly tap in and experience your suffering, identify and recognize the habits that reinforce it, and make a conscious choice to replace them with new ways of being in the world, huge shifts will happen in your life. Guaranteed.
This is not an easy task, and it can be overwhelming at times, but self love and compassion will emerge as a result of being aware of yourself and making steps to transform your suffering into peace.
Take the first step. Namaste.
Stacey Campbell is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Transpersonal Psychotherapist. Transpersonal psychotherapy can be best understood as the integration of western psychology with eastern spiritual traditions. Stacey specializes in helping clients struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions, life transitions and spiritual growth and development. Stacey facilitates authentic change with clients, helping them transform their sorrows into joy, and darkness into light. If you struggle with suffering and would like to find out more about Stacey and how she works please email her at [email protected] to set up a free 30 minute consult.
For more information about Stacey please visit her website at www.innerlightcounselling.com.
Like elephant journal on Facebook
Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist: Olivia Gray