“The Buddhist tradition distinguishes the pain that is simply a part of life
from the suffering that we ourselves create by our response to that.”
~~ Judith L. Lief
The Buddhist tradition differentiates the pain that is simply part of life from the suffering that we ourselves create by our responses to the pain, as Judith Lief suggestions in the above quote.
From the Buddhist perspective, pain, like loss, comes with our birth. The Buddha came to realize that all human beings will experience old age, illness, and dying. Human life is ultimately fragile, no matter how hardy we may be. These three experiences, (illness, aging, and dying) can be thought of as existential givens that we cannot escape. These givens are also at the most basic level what connects us all to each other.
But what about suffering? Some people would say that suffering and pain are synonymous. I’m sure most people assume, if they think of it at all, that it suffering is a part of living. We see it as unavoidable and some people may even seek it out.
Suffering is our psych-social-spiritual response to pain — in other words, it is how we interact and react to our pain. You could say that it’s all the baggage that we attach to our pain. For example, if I have experiences of pain at the dentist’s office, the next time I have to go, the bad experience will color the current situation. If physical pain was the issue, I will wince at even the slightest nick or sound. We want to protect ourselves from pain. But what about more subtle situations?
One of the reasons why this quote spoke to me today was because of a situation at work. My full time job is not where my passion is. Our jobs are tedious and highly specialized. Like with most professionals in any part of social services or medical services, 50-80% of our job is paper work.
There are observations we do, experiments to try out our theory in action and if it is correct and, of course, if our treatment will have the outcome we are looking for. There are a lot of technical reports, meetings about treatment, medication reviews, staff training, deadlines, etc.
I hated not only writing these reports but the humiliation of reviewing them in a meeting wtih 6-8 peers. But I never sat mindfully with my strong reactions and experience of this situation. I never breathed in the pain and breathed out compassion — not only for myself but for anyone in the world that ever felt ridiculed and incredibly inadequate.
At the same time, I had a lot of physical pain problems and some cognitive dysfunction because of the pain and it was hard to imagine that I could sit and detach from the pain when it felt like that’s all there was.
What I did do was a lot of work on my pain problems and turned my life upside-down in the process. As I slowly felt better physically and mentally, I realized that it wasn’t the meeting, it wasn’t the reports, it wasn’t my peers; it was MY craziness around all of this. It was self-inflicted suffering.
I was the one hurting myself. It was my attachment to my “ego”, my attachment to my pride, and my ideas of what the process should be like that was making me hate life for two days a week. I was living under the suffering that I was creating in my life. I realized I didn’t want to live that way now that I was feeling better. I did a few things that were compassionate to the team and to myself.
It’s still not my favorite day of the week when this meeting rolls around but I don’t suffer nearly as much. Hopefully my team doesn’t either.
I’ve come to have more moments of acceptance for the reports being a part of what I need to do if I am going to work in this position. But, I also don’t have the same level of tragedy attached to it and I know that there is so much more I need to work on accepting at work.
Any time you have strong reactions to something, put both feet on the floor and take a deep breath. Not a heaving chest kind of breath but a slow breath, that moves your belly and creates room and freedom in your core.
Scan your body and ask where are you physically reacting to the situation (or thoughts). Would you want someone else you love to feel this? What are you attaching to? Can you have mercy and compassion for yourself?
Don’t push yourself to change it. Not at first, allow yourself to be open.
Over time, perhaps you will come to see that what you have been “looking for” isn’t as important as learning to accept what is with grace and peace.
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