OK, so here I am, Mr. or Ms. Beginner Meditator, seeking some relief from my day-to-day stress, looking for a way to deal with grief, wanting to sleep better, etc. etc., and the next thing I know, I’m being told I have to look at my suffering. Feel my pain. Turn toward discomfort.
On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense. We’re used to a take-a-pill-and-feel-better model of healing. How is it that looking at discomfort produces comfort?
When we practice holding our attention on pain (physical, emotional), the natural response is, “I need my coping strategies!” (Food, entertainment, work, substances, mere movement). But at the very same time, we are committing to sit still, say for 10 minutes, deliberately depriving ourselves of those coping strategies. It can be quite unpleasant at first, because the body-mind doesn’t have another way to deal with the situation. So, for a while, we simply suffer—I like to define “suffering” as “resistance to the present moment”. We just sit there resisting the experience, being fidgety, irritable, bored, sleepy, scattered, confused, impatient. But it is in these specific conditions that the body-mind, having no other choice, begins to experiment.
Over the first few weeks or months, we may notice subtle, spontaneous moments where, without changing anything, we are suddenly less affected by the discomfort we are feeling. It just becomes more “ok”. The pain (emotional, physical) hasn’t changed at all, but our suffering (the resistance to that pain) suddenly drops. We have denied our escape strategies for long enough that our system is beginning to give up trying to escape.
Several things are learned in this process (and not in an intellectual way, but in a deep, integrated way):
- “Pain” and “suffering” are two different things.
- Suffering, not pain, is the thing that makes the present moment difficult.
- We can avoid suffering by not resisting pain.
In the conventional search for happiness, we are conditioned (biologically, culturally) to avoid pain. In the deep search for happiness on which we have now embarked, we recondition ourselves to avoid suffering. When we can avoid pain, we do (and should!)—no one is saying keep your hand on a hot stove, or stay with an abusive partner. But when we can’t avoid pain—and inevitably, at some point, we can’t—we become quite skillful at avoiding suffering. We stop resisting. We allow the pain. We allow the present moment to be exactly as it is. This is what is meant by the phrase “letting go.”
FOOTNOTE:It’s important to acknowledge that there are many paths in the spiritual/meditation world which simply do avoid pain. They capitalize on the take-a-pill expectation, and offer the meditative equivalent of Prozac, validating the notion that we don’t have to look at that dark stuff.
Furthermore, it is useful to train in practices that have immediate benefit—techniques that generate positive emotion as needed, when needed (for more about that, check this out). In fact, for most of the people I have supported, this positive emotion path is the best place to start. However, there is a second wing of practice which is less popular but equally valuable, where we train in examining exactly what it is that we are calling “suffering.” To use an old Buddhist analogy: like a bird, our practice needs both wings for balance. It is this second wing which I am discussing here.