What We Get Wrong About Suffering

It’s a fact of life that no one is immune to suffering, and it’s safe to say we each experience it in a variety of ways as we continue to navigate the modern world. Being a mindfulness center, we neither want to brush off that reality nor dwell on it. But we also feel this moment—when many of us are feeling especially unsettled—offers an opportunity to shed some light on this concept of “suffering,” what it really means for us in daily life, and how we can help alleviate it—starting with ourselves.

There’s a great definition of mindfulness attributed to Sharon Salzberg: “Mindfulness is being aware of our direct experience, and the stories we tell ourselves about our experience, and the ability to know the difference.” 

Sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about suffering can keep us from recognizing it. 

What It Means

Most of us, when we think of the word or concept of “suffering,” call to mind something close to a dictionary definition: “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” 

For most of my life, I had connected the word and concept of “suffering” to devastating, even catastrophic experiences. It’s what those in deep grief, or displaced from a natural disaster, experienced. I’ve since learned that these mental pictures of suffering aren’t wrong, but I didn’t have the full picture. I believed that no matter how sad or hurt I felt, I didn’t have it “that bad.” I didn’t know that suffering is not a contest.

It wasn’t until I participated in a Mindful Self-Compassion class that my understanding was expanded. In the class, I was invited to consider a broader definition of suffering that includes not only the deepest loss or the most intense pain, but also those moments when I feel that my experience doesn’t line up with what I want it to be—i.e., a general sense of unsatisfactoriness. It happens when we don’t accept circumstances as they are, thereby causing ourselves additional anguish and stress.

You might have heard of the equation used often in mindfulness, Pain x Resistance = Suffering. Similarly, it is not what happens, but our reaction to it, that causes us to suffer. Some examples of this “unsatisfactoriness” include not getting a job you’d hoped for; the cancellation of an event you’d been looking forward to; stubbing your big toe on the coffee table again; or the weather being too hot, or too cold, or too rainy, or too cloudy. It’s how we feel about these circumstances that causes us to feel unsatisfactorily. A rainy day in itself isn’t “bad.” It just is

It also isn’t “bad” to feel unsatisfactoriness. It’s natural. It’s human! No one likes to feel pain, go through hardship, or lose out on experiences. Resistance is a defense mechanism. Still, this natural response can result in needless suffering when the stakes aren’t all that high. 

The good news is we can learn to ease our unsatisfactoriness—in the “bad weather” times and the “one of the most difficult moments of my life” times. Our work lies in being able to recognize our suffering and effectively respond to it.

How to Recognize and Respond to Suffering

Imagine witnessing a 5-year-old breaking into a tantrum for not getting that ice cream cone they really, really wanted. With our wider understanding, we can recognize that this is a moment of suffering. The average onlooker might not feel sorry for this tearful kiddo, but that doesn’t change the child’s perception of what’s going on; with their limited understanding of the world and their child-sized emotional capacity, having delicious ice cream nearby and not being able to enjoy it is a really hard moment to bear! (Fellow ice cream lovers, I know you get it!)

What does the child need at this moment? A mindful parent might realize the child needs some comfort and reassurance that they are okay. They might offer a hug, or put a soothing hand on the child’s shoulder or cheek, and say, “I’m sorry. I can see that you’re upset. We’re not getting ice cream today, but we will another time.” A calm acknowledgement of the truth about the situation, and the child’s feelings, without getting too involved or enmeshed in the emotional story. 

This response is rooted in compassion and is also a great pattern to follow when responding to our own experiences of unsatisfactoriness!

That moment of awareness that the child needs comfort? That’s a moment of mindfulness—paying attention in the present moment, with acceptance and without judgement—and that’s where compassion starts. Recognizing what is

What It Means When We Recognize and Respond

With this example, I don’t mean to make light of the adversity we witness and experience daily in our communities and around the world. To be sure, degrees of suffering exist on a very wide spectrum.

But if we can acknowledge the sharp sting a small child feels when they don’t get what they want, and console them in that moment, doesn’t that help us build the capacity to recognize and feel compassion for others who are suffering?

If I can identify with a 5-year-old’s disappointment, and agree that it’s valid, I can also see that it is valid to recognize my own suffering and seek my own comfort and healing. 

It’s not a contest; it’s a fact of life.

How much more can we show up for our fellow humans by simply acknowledging the sting of things not being as we’d wish they could be? How much more can we support ourselves?

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