Suffering is Optional

“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” The accuracy of this truism with ancient roots depends on how one defines “suffering.” I find it useful to think of “suffering” as meaning “the distress that flows from from my attitude toward my experience.” Common attitudes seem to be responsible for a great deal of distress. Yet, attitude is something we have the potential to change. We can discover ways of relating to our experience that make it easier to enjoy life.

Buddhism talks about suffering as arising from “clinging” and “aversion.” Nonviolent Communication (NVC) talks about the cost of approaching things with an attitude of “demand.” Ultimately, I think these conceptual frameworks are pointing at the same thing.

A “demand” comes with a belief, an energetic stance, and an automatic response when the demand is not satisfied. The belief has the form of “I HAVE TO have this for things to be okay.” The energetic stance has a quality of urgency and contraction and “grabbing” or “pushing away.” And the automatic response involves stimulating distress. Because we grew up in a culture that suggested “punishment” was an “appropriate” response to “misbehavior,” the stimulation of distress might spring from an intention to “punish” whoever or whatever is regarded as “willfully refusing” to satisfy the demand. Or, the response of stimulating distress might simply be an unintended side effect, as we further contract and try harder to “grab” or “push away.”

NVC talks about the cost of approaching other people with demands: Offering a demand tends to stimulate resistance, resentment, and disconnection, and repeatedly using demands over time tends to make a relationship more difficult and painful. Even so, we use demands out of a belief that there is “no other way” to achieve some things that are important to us. NVC offers us a different way, one that over time typically yields more mutually satisfying outcomes.

What may be less appreciated is the cost to us of making internal demands about our own behavior, or even our experience. Such demands might take to form of believing we “should” be doing something that some part of us doesn’t want to do. Or, they may take the form of noticing a sensation that we interpret as “unpleasant” and subtly rejecting it, trying to push it away, telling ourselves that we “shouldn’t have to feel that.”

Either form of internal demand is an act of tearing ourself apart, or disintegration of our wholeness. It pits one part of us against another. The natural relationship of one part to another is unbalanced and disrupted. Each part of us has a function and is essential to our wholeness.Yet, an internal demand amounts to trying to “get rid of” a part of us. This attempt stimulates suffering, and repeated use of internal demands over time tends to reduce our well-being. Even so, we continue to make internal demands out of a belief that there is “no other way.”

Fortunately, there are other ways. Following them will over time tend to reduce suffering and increase well-being.

There are lots of entry points into living without internal demands. Different ways of thinking about the situation might be more or less helpful, for different people or at different times. I’ll offer few things I have found personally helpful in moving into a different way of being.

  • notice what sensations for you signal the presence of inner demands (e.g., tightness, a sense of urgency or condemnation, pushing away, grasping);
  • notice what emotions for you tend to indicate the presence of inner demands (e.g., distaste, resentment , embarrassment, shame, depression, anger, despair);
  • when I’m you’re rejecting something, try to “allow” it, give it permission to be there, offer space to it;
  • connect to the need I have been trying to meet through pushing part of me away;
  • connect to the need the part I have been pushing away is trying to meet;
  • intend to hold with kindness everything I am experiencing;
  • offer friendliness to whatever I encounter, e.g., “Hello fear, my old friend. Welcome. How are you today?”
  • notice any secondary inner demands, perhaps demands that the signs of inner demands should go away, and offer these the same consideration I would offer any other internal demands.

Another entry point is to notice if I’m telling myself a story that there is something “wrong” or there is a “problem.” If so, I might ask, “What would happen if didn’t believe of that story?” Just dropping a question like that into our unconscious, without trying to consciously answer it, can help loosen a story’s grip.

If we want to, we can also engage the intellect. The intellect might rebel, saying “Of course there is a problem. I need to believe that so that I can change what is happening and feel better.” The dilemma is that for many of us, the idea of something being “wrong” or a “problem” carries with it such a strong impulse to move into demand energy that holding these ideas becomes useless as a vehicles for increasing well-being. Whenever we think there is a “problem,” perhaps something that ought to be “fixed,” we instantly feel worse, and little action occurs that is effective in increasing well-being. If the way we hold these words has progressed to that point, it might be more useful to think that, “There is no such thing as a problem (as I’ve understood the word).”

If let go of the idea that “problem” is a useful concept, how can we think about situations that we previously would have labeled that way? Won’t letting go of that concept lead us to complacency, and staying in situations that could be improved? I believe the answer is “no.” Letting go of the story that there is a “problem” doesn’t change that we want what we want. It simply takes the painful edge off that desire. Instead of telling ourselves, “This is unbearable, and I HAVE TO change this NOW even if I don’t know how,” we move into a place of “Oh, this is the way it is, how interesting it is that life is configuring itself in this way, and oh, I notice some mourning, acknowledging that I’d value things being different, but that’s not about experiencing the way things are as ‘wrong’ — and I’m open to making things more wonderful if an opportunity presents itself.” Or something like that.

There are lots of nuances to investigate here. I don’t know just what way of holding your experience will work for you. I invite you to explore.

May you be free from suffering.

(I welcome feedback on this essay.)