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Do We Cause Our Own Emotional Suffering?

Letting go of the thoughts that make us stressed or worried.

A few years ago, I submitted an article to a large online magazine. I was friends with one of the editors and thought it would be a great piece for them to publish. Before I submitted it, I spoke to my friend and she seemed a little resistant to the idea of a self-help piece running in the magazine. I told her not to worry about it if it wasn't a good fit. After I submitted it through my friend, I did not hear from anyone from the magazine for weeks. When I saw my friend, she did not mention it to me and seemed distant and cold. Every time I saw her after I submitted the article she continued to be aloof and I started to be anxious and worried that I had done something to offend her. I went over it in my mind again and again trying to remember what I said and what I did that could have upset her. I was left with the uncertainty of never hearing back from the magazine and my friend avoiding me.

After weeks of suffering with these thoughts I remembered the following Buddhist story:

A hunter is trying to catch a monkey that is stealing food from his town. Even after a very long time of chasing after the monkey, he still had no luck. The monkey was quite clever and would run fast, climb, and jump from tree to tree. The hunter began to feel it was nearly impossible to capture the monkey. Just as the hunter was about to give up, a wise old man gave him some instructions on how to accomplish the task. He was told to get a rope, a coconut, some sugar and some peanuts. Following the old man’s instructions, the hunter cut a portion off the top of the coconut, leaving a small hole in the center just big enough to fit a monkey's hand. He then placed peanuts with sugar inside the hole and tied the coconut to a tree with the rope. Since it was getting late, he then called it a night and went home to get some rest. The next morning when the hunter woke up, he went to check on his coconut. Just as the old wise man had advised him, the monkey was there, still running around the tree in a circle with his hand stuck inside of the coconut. The monkey had stuck his hand in the coconut to retrieve the sugary peanuts and held them in his fist. Since his fist with the peanuts was bigger than the hole in the coconut, he could not get his hand out and was stuck. If the monkey had been willing to let go of the sweet peanuts and open his hand, then he would’ve been able to remove it from the coconut and run free. The hunter was not actually the one that caught the monkey, because he had been sleeping the whole night. In the end, it was the monkey that imprisoned himself to the tree due to his unwillingness to let go.

The minute I remembered this story I realized it was ME causing all of my suffering—not my friend. I had been feeling emotionally trapped because I never heard back from the online magazine and I perceived my friend as not acting kind and friendly to me. I had wasted hours worrying about it and not being present to the life in front of me. I realized I really could not know what happened with my friend or the magazine and I had no idea what the future had in store. As I let go of what was “in the coconut” I was able to see that Maybe this was for the best, Maybe something else would happen, and Maybe I did nothing wrong and my friend was going through a hard time or was uncomfortable about my having submitted the piece. All I knew is that I had acted professionally and the rest was out of my control.

Sure enough, some time after I let it go, I was at a function and ran into an old friend who asked me to write a piece about my work with Maybe for his online publication which had a huge readership and eventually, my book, The Gift of Maybe, was purchased by Penguin Random House. This experience really highlighted for me even more that all of my suffering had been just my mind holding on to how I thought life should unfold. I find that as I am able to let go of those kinds of pain-inducing thoughts, I open up to all that life has to offer. Interestingly, when my editor friend heard about the new book deal, she called me immediately, offering good wishes. It made me realize that Maybe she had been going through a hard time and her behavior may have had nothing to do with me at all!

So what thoughts are you holding on to that are keeping you stuck with your hand in the coconut? Are you constantly worrying about what your boss or friend thinks about you or how you will become successful in your line of work? How might it feel if you were to just loosen your grasp on whatever is the root of your suffering? It actually will really help if you are able to visualize yourself letting go of what you were grasping for and imagine you are freeing your hand from the proverbial coconut. Or if you are stuck, just say to yourself, "Let go of what is in the coconut." Either way, the more you do this exercise or mantra, the deeper your understanding will be of the source of your suffering and how to let it go.

You will find that letting go of even one painful thought makes all the difference. Try to remember that there is always Maybe at every turn and there is more than one way to obtain the sweetness of life!

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