Buddhists say that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Pain is our physiological reaction to distressing and difficult experiences in life such as the death of a loved one, divorce or job loss. It is a physical sensation, an energy, that we experience in our bodies (hence the word “feeling”!) While pain is a bodily sensation, suffering is the result of our minds. Suffering occurs when our minds create stories around the pain. For example, if I’m fired from my job, I’ll feel pain; if I then spiral out of control and tell myself things such as “I’m worthless”, “I’ll never get a job again” and “Now my spouse is going to leave me”, then I suffer. Suffering is our mind’s reaction to pain, and an attempt to avoid feeling our feelings. Our minds perceive that there is a problem and that something is wrong (the pain) and wants to find ways to fix it, explain it or understand it.
Buddhists compare pain and suffering to being shot and wounded by an arrow. When someone fires an arrow at us and we’re wounded, it hurts – just as it hurts when we experience painful life events. If we’re then hit in the exact same spot, immediately after, by a second arrow, our pain is exacerbated and multiplied. This second arrow is suffering, the self-inflicted wound caused by our own minds.
So what are the implications of all this? How do we avoid suffering? The answer lies in presence. Rather than running away from our pain – avoiding, denying, repressing, using drugs or food or any other distraction to numb what we feel – we are taught to sit with our Selves, and to simply be with what hurts. In other words, it’s as simple (and terrifying!) as feeling our feelings.
And now the million dollar question: how do we feel our feelings? We do so by getting curious, leaning in and staying present in our bodies. Feelings are physical sensations, so the curiosity pertains to where and how the feelings physically manifest: if I’m anxious, do I feel a tightness in my chest? Does my heart rate increase? Do I feel a wave of heat through my body? And if I’m experiencing grief or depression, is there an emptiness in my heart, a heaviness on my chest and a pit in my stomach? This is what it means to feel our feelings: to literally experience our emotions as the energy that they are, and to avoid attaching any storylines to them. We try to think our way out of a feeling, and in many ways, thinking is our drug of choice for numbing our feelings. But like all substance abuse, we ultimately learn that not only does this unhealthy coping response not work, but it also makes our pain much worse.
So next time you feel something you’d rather not feel, try to explore the experience from a place of love and compassion and refrain from shooting the second arrow.