Stop Suffering and Start Living

Our stories keep us from experiencing the present moment.

Posted Apr 25, 2012

The Buddha once said, “Life is suffering; suffering is just part of life.” No doubt that if we live long enough, sooner or later tragedy will strike. The negative experiences that come our way are just part of life. I’m sure that in the span of human civilization there’s been at least one person who was born happy, lived a pleasant life, and died a painless death with a content heart. But, with the exception of this exceptional soul, most of us will experience tragedies—great and small—throughout our lifetimes. In this blog post, I’ll provide insight into how we can embrace life no matter what challenges come our way.

We all have the ability to thrive no matter what

When tragedy strikes, the world may seem like a dark and cruel place. During these difficult times, we are presented with two paths: We can become mired in our suffering and allow the feelings to last for months, years, and even decades. Or, we can experience the suffering, heal from it, and move on to lead happy, healthy lives. 

First, let’s explore the bad response. In a previous blog post, I shared about my first love. I was in high school when we began dating, and I was convinced that we would spend our lives together. But events didn’t turn out as I had hoped. We broke up, got back together, and then broke up for good. The initial sadness I felt was an appropriate response to the break up. But I increased my suffering by adding thoughts like, “I’ll never be happy again,” “She’s the only person in the world who was meant for me,” and “My life is over.” Thankfully, the stories subsided, and I was able to move on. I eventually found the love of my life, and we’ve been happily married for years.

No doubt that breakups in our youth can seem as dramatic as Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. In my case, I made a stressful situation far worse through the stories I repeated over and over in my head. The result was that I prolonged the suffering for much longer than I needed to. Had I not created multiple “What if” and other hopeless scenarios I would have spared myself unnecessary heartache.

Although suffering is inevitable for all of us, our negative mental stories can transform even the smallest events into dramas of Shakespearian magnitude. As a therapist in private practice, I see this all the time. I recall a client who was fighting with her sister over a piece of jewelry that had been part of her parent’s estate. Had I not intervened and come up with a solution that satisfied both of them, I have no doubt that they’d still be arguing about it today, all of that stress and anger over a silly bracelet. Thankfully, there is another way to live.

The alternative approach to the prolonged suffering we experience when we let stories play out over and over again has two steps. First, we accept and feel our feelings. These are healthy and absolutely necessary, no suppressing allowed! Second, we move on. Young children are perfect examples of this method. When children are upset, they cry, and then they move on. They don’t get stuck in the cycle of generating multiple storylines that could last months and years, and they don't surpress their feelings. The bottom line is that the tragic events in our lives, such as sickness, old age, and death, are already difficult enough to work through, let alone when we add mental commentary to our experiences.

Meditate more, suffer less

If we learn to quiet our minds and witness the thoughts that appear, we suffer less. When thoughts arise, we observe them, and then return to the here-and-now. This is the secret to decreasing the suffering, and meditation gives us the opportunity to put this approach into practice. When we sit, we give ourselves the opportunity to witness the thoughts that appear, and by letting them go, they lose their ability to consume our lives. 

When my mother died nearly a decade ago, I was very sad. We were very close, and she was one of the most positive influences in my life. After she passed, I remember one instance when I spontaneously burst out into tears. I allowed the sadness to flow out of me, and it felt so freeing. After that experience, I continued to feel sad when I thought about her, but for the most part my memories of my mom are happy ones. I still miss her deeply, but I don’t fall into the cycle of creating stories such as, “Why did she have to die so early?” “If she were here today, she’d be such a great influence on my kids,” and more. Rather than fall prey to mental commentary, I choose to live in the present. Which means that when thoughts of my mother arise, I witness them (which usually puts a smile on my face), and then I return to the world that's unfolding in the here-and-now.

Most of our suffering is in our deads

When we stop the mental commentary about the suffering that we’re experiencing, we suffer less. Following this approach, when tragedy strikes it doesn't hit as hard and the pain doesn’t last as long.

When you’re experiencing extended periods of suffering and you recognize that the mental commentary is fueling the misery, remind yourself that life doesn't have to be this way. When you’re going through hard times, observe how much of the difficulty is rooted in the actual events and how much you can attribute to the stories about the events. If you’re not sure, take time to meditate. By sitting quietly and observing the movements of your mind, you’ll be able to separate reality from the mental commentary. No matter how tragic or awful things may be, if you stop the stories, you invite healing and happiness into your life.

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