31 Aug 4 ways to Avoid suffering
Disclaimer: It’s important to note that the failure to have basic needs met (food, water, shelter) and clinical mental illness cause very real psychological harm, and four quick tips from a random blog will not solve those harms.
1.) Realize That Pain And Suffering Are On Different Axes
When we ask questions about the quality of a person’s life, our questions are almost always pointed towards the external world. How much money do you make? How many hours do you work per week? Have you gotten to travel at all? Do you have any hobbies? This implies that if we want to live a better life we must change the external world, but peace and joy are independent from the physical world. Across the world, across different socioeconomic classes, across different life situations, there will always be people who are content and at peace with their lives. On the flip side, plenty of people suffer despite the various circumstances they experience. I’ve seen wealthy people who are deeply unhappy, have horrible marriages, and constantly stressed by work, and I’ve seen people working lower income jobs that seem to emanate sunshine. Our physical circumstances do not determine whether or not we find joy in our lives because pain and suffering exist on different axes.
In order to understand what this means, we have to separate the physical sensation of feeling and the mental framework that shapes our experience of those sensations. Commonly, feeling sad is understood as a “bad” thing and feeling happy is a “good” thing, but this isn’t true. There’s a reason people love sad movies that make them cry. It’s the same reason everyone has a Spotify playlist reserved for those quiet hours of the night when we want our lingering feelings to surface. We enjoy feeling sad, sometimes. Other times, we’re sad because of unrequited love or failed ambitions, and those are times we don’t want to be sad. That sadness can feel unbearable. It chokes us from the inside and scratches at our chest until it’s hollow. The thing that separates these two situations is our acceptance of sadness. When we allow ourselves to sit in sadness and pain, it exposes them for what they really are–physical sensations that occur in the body and mind.
Realizing that not all unpleasant feelings are “bad” has allowed me to sit through and even appreciate uncomfortable or painful feelings. A while ago, I got into a romantic entanglement, and like many teenage relationships, it ended quickly. Even though it hadn’t been that long, I had become emotionally attached to this girl, and when it ended, I couldn’t help but miss her. I remember laying in my bed and realizing, “Wow, I really miss her…” For a while, I just lay in my bed, letting myself feel my emotions. It felt like I was reaching out into the darkness for the familiar touch of a light switch, only to be met with the cold touch of a stone wall. That hollowness inside my chest came from forming a connection with someone and having that connection be severed. It was a natural byproduct of caring, so I didn’t push the feeling away. I let it rattle around the inside of my body, feeling it push against every bone in my body. That realization didn’t make me happy to be feeling that way, and that’s okay. The goal isn’t to never experience unpleasant feelings; it’s to find peace in those feelings.
In the later half of high school, I got pretty into running. I wasn’t on the cross country team or anything (I was quite slow), but I consistently ran a couple days a week. Running is an extremely physically uncomfortable activity. At the time I didn’t think running was any less uncomfortable, but I embraced the pain, which made running vastly more bearable, sometimes even enjoyable. The acceptance came when I realized that if I was told I would lose my legs the next day I would spend the next twenty-four hours running. I would run until my legs bled and fell off on their own, and I would do it voluntarily because I would just want to savor the experience of using my legs, experiencing the impact of my shoe hitting the pavement and the sight of the ground being pulled out from under me. Running felt like filling up the pages of a brand new notebook. Notebooks always look better when they’re brand new, devoid of scribbles, creases, and ink that bled through pages, but when I flip through a filled notebook, I’m filled with appreciation for the time and effort that went into each of those pages. The miles I covered were the sentences that got scribbled across that brand new notebook, and when I think of all the distances my legs have crossed, I can’t help but appreciate them even more. So when I run, I embrace the pain with open arms. It still hurts, but I don’t run away from the hurting. I found peace in the sentences written in sweat and gasping breaths.
There’s no running away from unpleasant experiences in life. The best thing that we can do is embrace them and let them be felt. It’s only when we try to force the emotions inside of us away that they make us suffer.
2.) Realize The Impermanence of Emotions
As a society, we’re extremely averse to feeling negative emotions. Whenever we feel sad or in pain, we reach for whatever distraction will take away the unpleasant feelings, but if we understand the nature of emotions, it becomes a lot easier to deal with them when they arise. Emotions fluctuate all the time. Sometimes we feel like we’re on top of the world, but down the line, that elation will fade away and be replaced by a sense of normality. Then, we may begin to have bad days and the world might seem more bleak than it used to. Whether we’re happy or sad, it’s important to understand that our current emotions are not our permanent emotions. Our minds are like the sky. Consciousness, the experience of our emotions, is the deep blue that fills ever corner of the sky, but it is not our emotions. Emotions are like clouds, drifting into and out of our consciousness. For a while, they drift across our minds, making us experience whatever they have to bring, but they will dissipate, revealing the deep blue once again. Sit with your emotions. Let them run their course, and when the emotions begin to choke you and fill your chest with a fist sized hole, take a slow and deep breath and remind yourself: all emotions and physical sensations are impermanent. There was a time before this feeling, and there will be a time after it.
Negative emotions are like beasts. The more we feed them the hungrier they grow, but when we starve them, they wither away naturally. Validation is a prime example of this. A common way of dealing with feelings of low self-worth or insecurity is to seek the validation of others. This takes form in many different ways: wanting others to tell us we’re good looking, wanting more romantic partners, wanting to be more successful. When we get the validation we want from others, in the moment it feels great–the beast inside of us is satiated, but their appetite will only come back stronger. The first time someone gets an A in a class they feel incredible, but eventually, getting an A won’t be enough. They have to be at the top of their class. For a little while, that will satisfy them, but then, being at the top of their class won’t be enough. They have to go to one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. For a little while, they bask in the glory of attending one of those colleges, but then…they need to be at the top of their college class. It never ends.
The key is to realize that the emotional beasts inside of us are impermanent and will go away if left alone. A couple months ago, I sat alone in my room enjoying my daily dose of anime and League of Legends, and I remember scrolling through Snapchat and seeing pictures of my gap year friends hanging out without me. It wasn’t like I’d been purposefully excluded. I knew that they just happened to be in the same area and met up with each other, but regardless of what I understood rationally, my mind raged with FOMO and jealousy. Without realizing, my mind started spinning, churning out ideas of things I needed to do with my time–I’d been spending too much time working! I needed to make more time to hangout with friends! My life needed to be more exciting! For thirty minutes, I sat trying to reconstruct my entire daily schedule to include more activities with other people. I didn’t even realize that I was trying to run away from the feeling of FOMO. In my head, I was taking a rational and objective look at my life, deciding that I should incorporate more recreational activities with other people; however, from an outsider’s perspective, it was clear that I just never wanted to feel FOMO again. Eventually, I managed to reach that same conclusion. Prior to seeing my friends hangout without me, I had been excited to have a relaxing night to myself, but something inside of me screamed that my life should have been better. I took a deep breath and sat with that feeling. It dawned on me that I didn’t have to listen to it, so I did nothing. Then, I resumed the anime I was watching and spent the night alone.
Maybe the next morning I would decide to ask a friend out for dinner or go see a movie with someone, and that would have been perfectly okay. The things we do don’t matter nearly as much as why we do them. That night, FOMO was the driving force of my thoughts, so I let them slowly starve themselves out. It’s been a few months since that night. I’ve seen countless pictures of my friends on Snapchat and Instagram having fun times without me, and now, I smile because I’m happy they’re having a good time. Then, I get back to living my own life.
3.)You Cannot Control Your Life
I love that I carve out the life I want for myself. Whenever I find an interesting opportunity, I seize it and run with it until it bores me, and I make it a point to limit the amount of things I don’t find important–applying to random internships to boost my resume, working more than I need to, putting more effort into school than necessary. For a lot of my life, that has been a great philosophy. A lot of the great experiences I’ve had stem from that philosophy, but I realized that it has also caused me a lot of suffering. I constantly think about what I want my life to look like, and when reality doesn’t pan out the way that I want it to, I get incredibly frustrated.
When I was in high school, I worked at an ice cream store. Standing and scooping ice cream for hours felt exhausting and mind-numbingly boring. Every two weeks, I would work for around 10-20 hours, way less than most of my coworkers. It was enough to cover most of the random things I wanted to buy or do with my friends, so I didn’t find a point of working more than I needed to (I acknowledge that this is really privileged). A lot of my coworkers consistently worked twice as much as me, and I always felt confused by how they were able to work that much without wanting to rip their hair out. Even when I was working a pretty small amount of hours, I hated it. I kept thinking about all of the things I would rather be doing than going to scoop ice cream (even when I was working, I probably ate more ice cream than I scooped), and that was the problem. Some part of me couldn’t get over the fact that I couldn’t do what I wanted all the time. Working was something I had to do, whether or not I wanted to. The more I resisted it the more I suffered. Similar to how resisting emotions causes suffering, resisting the reality of your life also causes suffering.
Back in the fall, when it felt like everyone was moving to college or traveling the country, I was stuck in nail school for 30-40 hours a week. It easily could have been an excruciating experience because that was not at all how I imagined my gap year going, but regardless of what I imagined or wanted, it was what my life was. It was real. I had no choice but to come to terms with my situation, and because of that, I developed a weird sense of appreciation for it. In the mornings as I walked from the parking lot into the building, I would take a deep breath and remind myself that I would never go to cosmetology school again, and even though it’s not where I wanted to be, it’s where I was. Cosmetology school would be a unique and brief blip in my life, so I may as well have appreciated it. The experience didn’t instantly become enjoyable. I found most of it boring, but it was a lot more bearable.
Moving forward, I’m sure that my college life will involve plenty of work that I don’t want to do. I’ll have less time to travel, write, watch anime, play League of Legends (this one is definitely a good thing). When I am in school, I’ll have responsibilities that make my life more boring and tedious than I’d like, and that’s okay.
This is not to say that you should not claim agency over your life. It’s important that people think about the type of life they want to have and carve it out of the life they’re given, but it’s equally important to recognize the things that cannot be changed. I will have to apply to internships that make me do busy work because I need to start somewhere. I will have to take classes that I find boring because I need to fill a requirement. I will have to file taxes because the government loves to rob its citizens (“Taxation is theft.”). These things are a part of life, and once someone accepts that, they suffer less when life doesn’t turn out the way they want it to.
While I am very non-religious, the serenity prayer often comes to mind when I think about this lesson:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
4.) Be Compassionate To Yourself
Comparing ourselves to others is deeply rooted in our minds. Society constantly pits people against each other. It’s near impossible to scroll through the Instagram of a famous influencer without comparing their picturesque life to your own unassuming reality. People who have more, whether that’s money, ambition, attractiveness, romantic partners, or life experiences, have become people who are more. I have seen and experienced the toxicity that comes from comparing myself to every other person in the room, and it leads to an unending cycle of dissatisfaction. There will always be someone smarter than you or better looking than you or more charismatic than you, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Being better at something doesn’t make someone a better person. There’s nothing wrong with not having traveled the world, competed in the Olympics, or made a million dollars, but there’s always so much pressure to be more than we are. The best thing we can do for ourselves is accept who we are for who we are because you need to start where you’re at.
When I was in middle school, I was deeply invested in self-help. I imagined that there was a version of myself that was just better: more productive, more disciplined, more successful, so I tried to chase after that image of myself. At every turn, I was unsatisfied with myself because I could always have been more. All of those things are great, but failing to live up to some superhuman standard of the person we’re supposed to be is only ever going to hurt us. Even when I was in high school, I felt shame or guilt when I would spend my days playing video games or goofing off, like any normal high schooler. Part of me always thought that I should have been working harder or that I needed to do more to boost my resume, but there’s nothing wrong with goofing off. Two days ago (as of writing this), I played League of Legends for 14 hours in a single day. I woke up at noon and immediately started playing, and I only stopped to eat and squeeze in an episode of anime. Fourteen hours is really extreme, but the point is that it’s okay to make time for leisure. It’s okay to not want to work all the time, it’s okay to not be the most successful person in the room, and it’s okay to be a little lazy. Don’t get sucked up in hustle culture where you’re working for the sake of working or grinding to feel like you’re keeping up with everyone else. There’s no standard that you have to live up to.
Accepting yourself is more than just allowing yourself to be lazy sometimes. It requires us to look at ourselves honestly and confront our own mistakes. In almost all of my blog posts, I say something negative about myself. I make an effort to be open and honest about my flaws: I’m not even close to the perfect son, I have a small superiority complex, and I haven’t always been the nicest person. The reason I am so open about my flaws is because I don’t judge myself for them. Yes, I’ve messed up, but messing up isn’t a defining characteristic for any single person–it’s the defining characteristic for humans. Even when we mess up, we deserve empathy and understanding. When I was younger, I teased other kids because I wanted to feel special. It was the only way I knew how to feel good about myself, and it came from a place of hurt. That doesn’t excuse my actions. What I did was bad, but I don’t need to constantly shame myself for that. Shame never encourages healthy growth. Learn from your mistakes, try to right your wrongs, and forgive yourself for not being a saint.
A phrase I hear tossed around a lot is “You’re enough.” That phrase can give off the impression that people are perfect the way they are and never need to change, but that’s not healthy. One of the growing misconceptions about self-acceptance is that we need to delude ourselves into thinking we’re perfect in order to accept ourselves. Compassion is rooted in reality. It requires us to acknowledge our flaws or shortcomings. When we think we’re perfect, there’s no need for compassion–the delusion takes up too much space. Believing “you’re enough” isn’t the same as believing you’re perfect. It’s an acknowledgement that you can’t be anyone other than who you are right now. Unfortunately, people don’t decide to change their lives and suddenly grow a six-pack or become a morning person. Change takes time, but more importantly, it requires us to start where we’re at. By default, you have to be enough because there’s nothing else you could be at this moment. There’s no other starting point that you get to start with. Maybe you’re out of shape, extremely unproductive, and an asshole to the people around you. That’s okay. Start there. Set the bar low–go on a twenty minute walk a day or try to study for thirty minutes or try not to say any mean things to people. You have to meet yourself where you are. Over time, the things you’re capable of doing will continue to increase.
When we give ourselves the space to see ourselves without judgement, we’re able to decide what we really want–not what we think we should want–and move forward in that direction. I used to think that I wanted to be known as the hardest worker in the room or the most successful guy in school, but that’s just not who I am or what I want. That was a byproduct of ego and the insane amount of self-help I’d crammed down my throat. To this day, I don’t think I’m capable of working as much or as hard as some of my friends do. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with wanting leisure to be a staple of your life. I consciously construct a routine where I focus for a couple hours a day on important things that I need to do and leave nights open to hanging out with friends or playing video games. You get to decide who you want to be and the life you want to have. Don’t let the judgement of others or yourself stop you from making the life you want.