Monday, July 20, 2015

Meditation Monday: How We Make Our Suffering Worse

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC
In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

While on a family road trip, I developed a nasty cough. My husband started the trip with a bad cold and he worried that he had passed it along to me.
            “Are you getting my cold?” he asked.
            “Nope. it’s allergies.” I insisted
            The next day:
            “Are you sure you’re not getting sick.”
            “Positive. Allergies.”
            As you’ve probably guessed, I was getting sick. In fact, when we got home, I was diagnosed with bronchitis. But when the coughing started, I did not want to admit that I was sick. I convinced myself that somehow I could will the sickness away. That almost never works.
            I’m not sure if anything would have turned out differently if I had acknowledged that I was getting sick. Would I have rested more or consumed more fluids? Maybe. Did I make myself sicker by not doing these things? Hard to say. But I certainly did myself no good by denying the reality of the situation.
            We create this sort of secondary suffering with emotional pain as well. Someone hurts our feelings; we deny, resist, or minimize our sadness or anger; the pain only intensifies.
            Everyone experiences pain—physical or mental pain. If you stub your toe, you experience physical pain; if someone says something unkind, you experience mental pain. These are examples of primary suffering. We can get caught up in pushing away or avoiding the pain. Maybe we blame ourselves or others. This makes the pain worse, which is secondary suffering.
            What would happen if we accepted the primary pain when it occurs? What if we didn’t get stuck in avoidance or obsession but instead mindfully accepted the pain that is present for what it is?
            When we engage our tools of distraction to control or avoid pain, we increase our suffering because a habit or unhelpful coping mechanism becomes entrenched. We might then have a third level of suffering to contend with—judgments, shame, or anger about how we’re coping. Turning away from pain offers temporary relief—but the return of the pain in some form or fashion is inevitable.
            But what value is there in leaning into pain and suffering? Why should we subject ourselves to that? Because no matter how long we distract, avoid, or detach, the pain and suffering that is part of human existence will remain.
            Confronting and tolerating pain builds hope.
            To do this, you have to let go of the controls. Take your hands off the steering wheel and let the pain be.
            I could not get adequate treatment for my bronchitis until I stopped resisting and trying to control it. It was only then that I could get relief in the form of medicine, rest, and—most importantly—lots and lots of sympathy. And popsicles. 

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

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