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"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Really? October 5, 2015

The other morning while driving to the YMCA for my daily gym routine I saw a bumper sticker on the car in front of me which read: "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Sure, I thought to myself, tell that to the millions of people suffering from starvation all around the globe. Well, then again, perhaps they aren't suffering. Or maybe they are just in pain. Or maybe both. As I contemplated these distinctions my head started to spin (not a good thing when you are driving). I wondered, " IS there a Real difference between pain and suffering or are we just playing semantic games?"  As a psychotherapist who meets daily with people coming into my office burdened with very real problems and who are, at times, obviously in a great deal emotional pain, this was more than just a intellectual question. If indeed it were true that we cannot avoid pain, but that somewhere we can come to understand that suffering is, to a large extent, a choice, it would follow that we could choose not to suffer. And if we don't have to suffer, we might go through life a little lighter, a bit more resilient, and with a greater sense of control over our emotional responses to troubling events. So let's look at this question more closely.

I once read a story where this very wise man was giving advice to a younger man about how he could manage his pain associated with walking on a bum ankle. "When you walk", he said, "simply place your attention on the foot that is healthy. The pain from the other foot will still be present, but not as noticeable, and thus not so intense". The young man followed the older and wiser man's advice and, lo and behold, he did notice that when he now walked, while focusing on his good foot, he managed the painful foot more easily. In other words, he still felt pain, but he suffered less when he walked. Is the degree to which we suffer merely a matter of attention?

It is obvious that Life itself will bring us ample opportunities for us to experience pain. Both physical and emotional pain are part and parcel of our human experience and simply cannot be escaped. We stub a toe, a tree falls on us, our spouse suddenly announces that they want a divorce, or we unexpectedly lose our jobs. It seems that the possibilities for pain are myriad. But it is also an interesting fact that two people may seem to experience the same event, and yet respond to that event in very different ways. While Person A crumbles under the loss of a job, Person B seems to handle it while whistling Dixie. Both feel the initial pain and disappointment that came with the loss of work, but Person A seems to continue to suffer, while Person B seems to manage it with greater ease and peace of mind. What's the difference?

The difference, I believe,  is the difference between accepting what has happened as opposed to resisting what has happened. It is the difference between accepting Reality as opposed to continuing to argue with that same Reality. As the teacher Byron Katie states, "when we resist Reality we always lose...but only 100% of the time." We stub our toe and then, after the initial pain, we continue to focus on that toe, telling the story of our stupid stubbed toe to everyone we meet that day.We extend the initial pain into a day long experience of suffering. Or we don't get the job for which we had so diligently applied. We receive the rejection letter and the feel the initial, and expected disappointment. We then, however, prolong that normal painful experience into a week long drama by creating this colorful story in our heads about how the company didn't care about my financial situation, how they were so unfair, or how we will never get a good job, or even, on a more cosmic level, how even the Almighty has it in for us. In this instance, what was once a simple rejection letter event now has morphed into a drama of cosmological significance. We have succeeded into turning a normal painful experience into an unnecessary experience of suffering.

Unfortunately, we will experience pain in Life because we cannot choose and often have little control over what Life will bring us: whether in terms of minor setbacks or major catastrophic events (and not to mention everything in between!). There exists, to be sure, a certain amount of painful randomness in Life that we simply cannot avoid. We can, however, choose our response. We can choose to argue in our heads with what has happened, how unfair it was, how it shouldn't have happened, how it should have gone the other way etc. Such resistance, however, will only result in our losing the argument in terms of lost sleep, racing thoughts, irritability, anger, sadness, anxiety, and even deep depression.

On the other hand, we may choose to bring ourselves to a place of acceptance of our stubbed toe, our lost job, or a failed relationship. And as we practice choosing to embrace and accept whatever our particular circumstance might be at this moment, we may find ourselves finding a peace we had not thought possible. As we stop arguing with Reality, and learn to embrace whatever it is that is actually, going on in our lives, we notice that our emotions begin to soften, we less stressed, less angry, more content. We become "lovers of Reality" (Katie), not because we are wimps, but because we have grown weary of our self-imposed emotional suffering.

Hmmmm.. perhaps that bumper sticker wasn't as silly as I first thought. 

Mark Rossano, MS, LPC, SAC      

 

Staying in your Own Business

Last week I suggested that much of our emotional dis-ease stems from our refusal to accept what Reality was presenting us in the moment. Our mentally arguing with situations, people, and events that we simply cannot change or influence ultimately leads to needless anxiety, frustration, obssessing, and depression. In short, we expend a lot of useless energy, energy that might be put to more constructive and satisfying use, on situations which only rob us of our peace. Learning to accept and embrace what otherwise cannot be changed restores our peace and frees us up to focus our attention and efforts in a more fruitful and satisfying manner. 

For example, let's say we lost our job. It would certainly be appropriate after such an event to feel a bit lost, angry, upset, and even disoriented. However, if after a month you still find yourself bitter, angry, and resentful over a situation that is now past and cannot be changed (you are not going to get your old job back), such feelings might begin to interfere with your ability to even look for a new position. How? We can become so focused on the past (what cannot be changed) that we fail to see any new possibilities for the future (which will move you forward).  Our resentment over our lost employ even blinds us to the blessings that are still present in our lives: a healthy body, a loving wife, faithful long-suffering friends, a roof over our  head etc. When we are able to move from a place of resentment to a place of acceptance, we not only free up our energy, but we remove the blindfolds that prevent us from seeing with clarity not only present blessings but potential new possibiities.

Indeed, acceptance is not to be equated with passivity. When I truly and open-heartedly accept a situation I am by no means being a doormat. Rather, by practicing acceptance I am like a general withdrawing his troops from an otherwise futile assault on an immovable  fortress. Like the general, I am retrieving my mental and emotional energies to a place of rest and refreshment. Now, situated in this oasis of quiet centerness, I can purposefully and thoughtfully respond to the current troubling circumstance. How too often we react emotionally to a situation only to make matters worse.  It is a well known fact that under stress, the part of the human brain which governs our ability to make wise choices essentially freezes and shuts down. It is this phenomena that gives rise to behaviors that have given birth to such phrases as "she was blinded by rage" or "he was blinded by desire" as well as "he was beside himself" (literally standing outside himself). 

If then non-acceptance "blinds us", it is acceptance which enables the scales to fall from our eyes. The genuine embrace of a seemingly intolerable circumstance brings a peace that now allows a clear-eyed view of the situation. A  more honest and realistic view I would venture.  We now "see" that it is not the situation itself that was causing our distress but our struggle against it. As our vision clears, we begin to notice that we are still breathing, that are bodies are strong, that our friends still love us (God bless them!), and that our spouse is supportive. We begin to notice how, despite the lost job, we are still blessed in so many and varied ways.  Oh indeed, we cannot appreciate what we cannot see. And as our appreciation and gratitude grow, our resentment and anger begin to recede.For it  is impossible to both grateful and resentful at the same time.  And as our gratitude and appreciation for present blessings flourishes, it becomes a soft warm welcome rain that allows an even deeper practice of acceptance to blossom.

We might sum it up this way: Practicing acceptance brings peace. Peace brings with it clarity of vision. Clarity of vision brings forth appreciation and gratitude. Gratitude for gifts given and received becomes a life of acceptance in action. Acceptance brings peace. And thus and so forth... :)


Mark Rossano, MS, LPC, SAC  

 

Acceptance, Gratitude and Peace

Last week I suggested that much of our emotional dis-ease stems from our refusal to accept what Reality was presenting us in the moment. Our mentally arguing with situations, people, and events that we simply cannot change or influence ultimately leads to needless anxiety, frustration, obssessing, and depression. In short, we expend a lot of useless energy, energy that might be put to more constructive and satisfying use, on situations which only rob us of our peace. Learning to accept and embrace what otherwise cannot be changed restores our peace and frees us up to focus our attention and efforts in a more fruitful and satisfying manner. 

For example, let's say we lost our job. It would certainly be appropriate after such an event to feel a bit lost, angry, upset, and even disoriented. However, if after a month you still find yourself bitter, angry, and resentful over a situation that is now past and cannot be changed (you are not going to get your old job back), such feelings might begin to interfere with your ability to even look for a new position. How? We can become so focused on the past (what cannot be changed) that we fail to see any new possibilities for the future (which will move you forward).  Our resentment over our lost employ even blinds us to the blessings that are still present in our lives: a healthy body, a loving wife, faithful long-suffering friends, a roof over our  head etc. When we are able to move from a place of resentment to a place of acceptance, we not only free up our energy, but we remove the blindfolds that prevent us from seeing with clarity not only present blessings but potential new possibiities.

Indeed, acceptance is not to be equated with passivity. When I truly and open-heartedly accept a situation I am by no means being a doormat. Rather, by practicing acceptance I am like a general withdrawing his troops from an otherwise futile assault on an immovable  fortress. Like the general, I am retrieving my mental and emotional energies to a place of rest and refreshment. Now, situated in this oasis of quiet centerness, I can purposefully and thoughtfully respond to the current troubling circumstance. How too often we react emotionally to a situation only to make matters worse.  It is a well known fact that under stress, the part of the human brain which governs our ability to make wise choices essentially freezes and shuts down. It is this phenomena that gives rise to behaviors that have given birth to such phrases as "she was blinded by rage" or "he was blinded by desire" as well as "he was beside himself" (literally standing outside himself). 

If then non-acceptance "blinds us", it is acceptance which enables the scales to fall from our eyes. The genuine embrace of a seemingly intolerable circumstance brings a peace that now allows a clear-eyed view of the situation. A  more honest and realistic view I would venture.  We now "see" that it is not the situation itself that was causing our distress but our struggle against it. As our vision clears, we begin to notice that we are still breathing, that are bodies are strong, that our friends still love us (God bless them!), and that our spouse is supportive. We begin to notice how, despite the lost job, we are still blessed in so many and varied ways.  Oh indeed, we cannot appreciate what we cannot see. And as our appreciation and gratitude grow, our resentment and anger begin to recede.For it  is impossible to both grateful and resentful at the same time.  And as our gratitude and appreciation for present blessings flourishes, it becomes a soft warm welcome rain that allows an even deeper practice of acceptance to blossom.

We might sum it up this way: Practicing acceptance brings peace. Peace brings with it clarity of vision. Clarity of vision brings forth appreciation and gratitude. Gratitude for gifts given and received becomes a life of acceptance in action. Acceptance brings peace. And thus and so forth... :)


Mark Rossano, MS, LPC, SAC

 

Want to be Happier? Begin a Gratitude Practice Today!

There are no shortcuts to happiness. However, as millions of people have discovered through the years, cultivating a more deliberate “attitude of gratitude” can be just the recipe for a richer, healthier, and more meaningful life.  In fact, many contemporary  studies, including the work of Dr. Robert Emmons and Professor Sonja Lubirmorsky, have  suggested  that grateful people are more emotionally resilient, healthier, less apt to become ill, and just all around feel better about their lives.

Becoming a more grateful person is more than just positive thinking. Why is this? You  might have heard people say, when you are feeling low,  “Hey, just be more positive”, as if one were able to create positive vibes right out of thin air. Fact of the matter is, it is tough to be “positive” when life is really beating you down. The whole effort just seems well, all so fake, especially when you are really down and depressed. During those times, one can’t just “feel” positive.

What is even more depressing is that, we as human beings do seem to possess an innate tendency to notice the negative  in our lives.  We therapists call it the negativity bias.  This bias is frequently evidenced  by the fact that people will more readily be able to tell you what went wrong with their day than what went right. In fact, I would go as far to say that if a person had ten things that went well for him during a day and one significant thing that went wrong: guess which he would mention first if you asked him about his day.  It really is a matter of attention and focus. And we humans tend to pay more attention to and focus on life ‘s  disappointments rather than rewards.

And this is where the practice of being grateful comes in.

See, what I have come to realize is that being grateful is not about simply creating good feelings willy-nilly out of the  blue. However,  possessing a   grateful  spirit  has everything to do with  developing a more deliberate,  intentional, and conscious  daily  practice  of noticing how life is working for  and supporting us each and every day. A grateful person makes the connection between noticing, attending to, and dwelling on how life is  working for them and the positive emotions that flow from that practice.

Consequently, we create “positive emotions” not out of thin air, but through  being attentive to real helpful “facts” about our  life, facts that otherwise go unnoticed because we take them for granted. And guess what? What we do not notice, we cannot appreciate.  And what we do not bring our attention to, we cannot feel gratitude. Gratitude and appreciation are both positive emotions. The more often we attend to what is working in our lives, it follows then that more frequently we will experience a life filled with appreciation and gratitude.

And what are these “facts” of which I am speaking? Well, did your alarm go off this morning on time? And when you got out of bed was there hot coffee waiting? And that shower you took, did you have hot water? Did the toilet work when you flushed it? And did your car engine turn over when you turned the ignition key? And when you got safely to the job you have because your  car didn’t have a flat, did you actually notice that and give  yourself an opportunity to feel grateful? Do you see where I am going with this?

 Each and every day is filled with endless opportunities to experience the emotional uplift of being appreciative and grateful. All we have to do is begin working with our attention. All we have to do is begin actively noticing all the gifts along the way. All we have to do is come out of our dream and wake up.

A teacher of mine, Gregg Kreech, says that how we experience our lives has less to do with what happens to us than to what we pay attention. If we focus more on the crap, then we tend to experience a more crap-filled life. If, however, we spend more time focusing on how life supports us each day in very real specific ways,  we begin to notice that while the “bad stuff” doesn’t go away, the latter  doesn’t carry so much emotional freight, because our attention is now also focused on how our  life is also blessed and we “feel” more grateful and appreciative in spite of our challenges. So, practicing gratitude not only not only helps us feel better, the practice also allows us to experience our lives in a more honest and balanced way.

 

What a gift!


 

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