I often talk with my clients about the fact that so few of us are taught coping skills as children. From the moment we are born, we begin to experience pain and distress but we aren’t taught how to cope with things that hurt – not at home, at school or in religious institutions. Rather, we’re told “It’s okay”, “You’ll be alright” and other well-intentioned but often invalidating platitudes when we’re hurting. It’s very hard for a parent to watch his or her child suffer, especially when he or she can’t fix the problem. So we all rush to make it okay – often because of our own inability to sit with someone else’s suffering (or our own).
So what happens? We grow up and we learn that we must be different in order to fit in or belong. We hide parts of ourselves, or we develop a deep-rooted sense that we’re broken, that something is wrong with us and we feel shame.
The older we get, the more we might experiment with reaching for different things to soothe our pain – technology/distraction, food, work, drugs/drinking, sex – you name it, we try it.
In Buddhist terms, coping is simply a matter of staying. To cope means to stay with the pain, to lean in and say “yes” to whatever painful experience our egos want so desperately to resist or change. When we feel something that hurts, we often find ourselves impulsively (and mindlessly) reaching for something that will soothe the pain. Buddhism – and more specifically, mindfulness and meditation – teaches us how to pause and create space between the hurting and the reaching.
The breath is also a very powerful tool to help us cope with pain and distress. When we bring our awareness to the breath, we are able to disconnect from the incessant mind-chatter in our heads. Inhaling and exhaling deeply is also a great way to calm us down, as doing so activates our parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing also reminds us that our lives are happening in the here and now – and ONLY in the here and now. Rather than living in our heads, escaping this present moment, the breath brings us back to our experience of reality as it unfolds.
Finally, ideas and philosophy from Buddhism are enormously helpful when it comes to coping. Notions of impermanence, understanding that we are not our bodies nor our minds, and learning that all emotions – no matter how pleasant or painful – belong and are merely “waves in our ocean” are all helpful reminders when it comes to coping. Buddhists say that our feelings are like weather – constantly changing and moving through – and that we are sky, infinite, vast and able to contain it all.
So the next time you’re faced with something that hurts, rather than reaching for something external to soothe the pain or running from your distress, try to stay with it, breathe into it, and trust that “this too shall pass”.