When Pain Becomes Suffering (aka “Pain is Not the Problem”)

This post is part of a series about “should“: How “should” is often the source of our suffering, how we make ourselves feel worse by telling ourselves we should be feeling better, and how acceptance is the key to dismantling our internal “should”. Here is the short version: An unwanted event (let’s say, being cut off in traffic) doesn’t usually make us upset for very long. What makes us upset is our insistence that things should be different (“that person shouldn’t have cut me off!”). We often make ourselves feel even worse by having reactions to our reactions, which I call “stacking” (for example, feeling stupid about feeling angry about being cut off in traffic). We can escape this cycle of suffering by accepting reality (“I feel stupid about feeling angry about being cut off, and I really do feel angry right now, and that’s the reality”). Accepting reality is not the same thing as becoming passive or fatalistic. We can still strive for a better future while accepting the present reality.

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Listening Is Applied Meditation

Sitting with my eyes closed and trying to focus on my breathing is an opportunity for me to practice acceptance, because I will become distracted. Whenever I realize I’ve become distracted, I bring my attention back to my breathing. I used to give myself a hard time whenever this would happen – I would judge myself pretty harshly for being unable to maintain my concentration on my breath. These days I realize that catching myself when I’ve become distracted is a success – to know that I’ve become distracted is to become aware of myself. I can’t know that I’m distracted while I’m distracted. So that very moment of realizing “Oh! I’m thinking about groceries again!” is the moment that I stopped thinking about groceries, and became aware of myself. And that is success. Not only did I become aware, but I was also able to accept reality without being harsh toward myself. Just noting that I was distracted, and bringing my attention back, that’s all. As I do this again and again, focusing on my breath and waking up to realize I’ve become distracted and bringing my awareness back to my breath without judging myself, I am practicing acceptance.

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