Most of us think we suffer because of things that happen to us. That isn’t true. We suffer because of how we talk to ourselves about things that happen to us. More specifically, we suffer because we insist that things should be different: People should be treating us differently. We should be acting differently. The world should be different.
But things aren’t different. The world is the way that it is. Resisting this reality is the reason we suffer. Learning to accept this reality is how we stop suffering.
By “accepting”, I don’t mean that we stop caring or that we stop trying to make things better. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to change things, or with striving to effect those changes. I want to be a better person, I want to help others suffer less, and I want the world to be a better place to live in. But it’s very important to accept the fact that I am the way I am right now, that others are the way they are right now, that the world is the way it is right now, while working to bring about the changes I’m aiming for. Resisting the way things are, right now, makes me feel bad and doesn’t change anything.
Here’s a simple example: Your elbow itches, so you scratch it. You don’t sit there thinking “Oh, my elbow shouldn’t be itching, it’s really unfair and not okay that my elbow is itching. This is very upsetting!” Instead, you just scratch your elbow. Thinking about how it shouldn’t be itching won’t do you any good.
Of course, we can make this example more complicated. What if your elbow has a healing wound on it, and it’s better if you don’t scratch the scab? What if your elbow is in a cast, and you can’t scratch it? In those cases, it’s easier to imagine starting to think about how unfair it is that our elbow is itching, about how, if the world were a good and just place, our elbow wouldn’t be itching. But thinking all this, and getting upset about it, literally wouldn’t do us any good. It won’t take the itch away. If we think all this, in addition to feeling itchy, we will also make ourselves upset. We could’ve been just itchy. That would have been less uncomfortable. What is even worse is that by focusing on how there shouldn’t be an itch, we keep ourselves focused on the itch itself. If we could make peace with the fact that we have an itch, without getting upset about it, our attention would shift to something else pretty quickly. We’re very good at shifting attention. But by focusing on how things should be different, we are actually focusing our attention very effectively on something that is only making us upset.
Here are three kinds of things that people are upset about often: They way they behave, the way other people behave, and the way the world is. The reason any of these things are upsetting is because of one word. You guessed it. Should. I should be different. Other people should be different. The world should be different.
For example, let’s say I think it would be good for me to exercise regularly. I manage to get myself out for a run, return home out of breath and feeling triumphant, and then fail to do any exercise for a whole week. I can make myself feel pretty bad, pretty quickly, by focusing on the way I should have acted, on how I should have gone exercising. From there, it’s an easy transition to the self-judging, self-punishing conveyor belt: “Why am I so lazy? I’m weak-willed. I waste all my time. If I don’t start exercising I’ll just keep on gaining weight,” and on and on. By that point, I’m not upset because I didn’t exercise. I’m upset because I’ve been saying mean things to myself.
Beware the should.
In future posts, I will write more about where we learn about shoulds, about why we focus on shoulds even though it brings us such suffering, and about how we can begin to rid ourselves of shoulds without becoming passive or fatalistic (hint: it has to do with listening well and mindfully). Subscribe to future posts by using the box at the top right corner of this page.