The first noble truth of Buddhism is suffering exists. Ageing, illness, natural disasters are all part of this world that cause deep pain. But our suffering becomes greater when we resist accepting the pain—when we fail to acknowledge it or we engage one of our tools of distraction to numb or escape from it.
- Solve the problem by changing or leaving the situation
- Change the emotional reaction to the situation
- Radically accept the situation and your reaction just as it is
- Stay miserable—or make things worse
The same responses can be applied to suffering. But before we can respond, we need to acknowledge that we have pain. We have to sit with our wounds—being fully present with them. We have to really examine how the wounds have affected our lives and how our neglect of them has created more suffering for ourselves or others.
Meditation practice can help us be a witness to our own suffering. Given the emotions that might arise during this process, I recommend practicing with a group or therapist. But if you want to start on your own, select a challenging truth in your life that is creating moderate suffering.
- Bring to mind a situation or challenge that is causing you pain
- Breathe deeply and connect to where your body is holding on to that suffering
- What does it feel like? What is the experience for you?
- Observe and describe without judgment. Just the facts—“I notice my breathing becomes shallow” or “I feel a knot in my stomach.”
- Notice any urges to engage in distracting behaviors. Again, with compassion. If your mind wanders away from the suffering, that is not a sign of weakness. Reconnect to your breath and return to the image with gentleness and kindness
- As you observe the wound, offer yourself kind words, as if you were a friend sitting next to yourself: “I see you’re really hurt,” “I’m so sorry this is so hard,” “There is a lot of pain there.”
- Offer yourself compassion through touch. Place your hand on your heart, gently rub your arm—whatever feels right. These small gestures trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain, which creates comfort.
- Continue breathing and notice the waves of emotions. Notice how they rise and fall.
If connecting to any level of pain or suffering becomes overwhelming, it’s OK to back away. Trust yourself. You don’t have to dive head first into the deepest depths of despair. It’s perfectly fine to touch the pain and then back away. This builds mastery and tolerance.
Some resist connecting to pain because they feel underserving. “Others have it much worse,” or “There are people starving in the world. Who cares about my petty problems?” There is not a finite amount of suffering that is doled out according to your life circumstances. Acknowledging the pain of your own experience does not minimize or take away the suffering of a Syrian refugee. On the contrary. Connecting to our own suffering allows us to feel deeper empathy for others.
I know this isn’t an easy task, so take it slow. Suffering is inextricably linked to being human. Acknowledging your suffering and then responding to it with kindness creates the space for joy and love to enter. So take some breaths and listen to your heart.
Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and DBT group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.