THE BLOG

Making Good Use of Your Suffering

11/12/2013 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

If you take a look at any social media feed, you will most likely be met with an abundance of posts detailing daily successes and photos of smiling faces. There's nothing wrong with sharing good times and happy moments, but social media has allowed us to portray our lives devoid of nearly any negativity -- almost as if we are afraid of acknowledging the normal human condition of suffering.

Even the default vocabulary for dealing with hardship searches for an instant-fix. If you're feeling down, you are often instantly met with responses like: "It will get better," "Keep calm and carry on," or "Just brush it off your shoulder." These pacifiers perpetuate the idea that what you are feeling is wrong or misplaced. Even if these condolences help you find some temporary solace, they are just that -- quick and temporary. They focus on the future rather than acknowledging the issue at hand. While it's true that everything is impermanent, sometimes to really move on, we need to take the time and space to be fully present with our suffering.

When you suffer, instead of blocking out the pain or turning a blind eye, try looking at your situation as a whole to find within it a glimpse of meaning, insight, or peace. At any point in time, there are many conditions of happiness available to us to help embrace and transform our suffering. Think about this transformation as a composting process: sadness, fear, despair, or anger are the unwanted "scraps" of suffering. Rather than simply discarding them or digging into a bag of chips in search of temporary comfort, composting these scraps will transform the negative energy into the nourishing, healing energy of peace and joy.

This process might be easier said than done, especially since we know that suffering comes in many different degrees. Tapping into happiness during a "bad" day when we spill hot coffee on our lap while stuck in morning commute traffic is on a whole different level than finding peace when faced with the sudden loss of a loved one or the news of a severe illness. However, in those moments when pain and suffering is so overwhelming and even the kindest words fail to help, we can do more than simply endure or "wait it out" -- the transformation just may take a little longer. Both suffering and happiness are part of life. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you will suffer less.

It's important to realize that regardless of the form your suffering takes, your mind will most likely be bouncing from past, to present, to future: "What went wrong?" "How can this be happening?" or "What is going to happen?" In order to begin to transform your suffering you need to allow yourself the space and time to suffer -- you need to calm down your mind. Focus on your breath and realize that you can only control the present moment. It is only when you are calm that you are ready to begin the process of transforming your suffering, step by step:

  1. Acknowledge that suffering is part of being human. You are feeling these negative emotions for a reason, and it's OK. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and you shouldn't have to hide or simply grin and bear it. Think of your suffering as a crying baby. Even if a mother doesn't know why her baby is crying, she cradles the baby until it begins to feel better. Approach your suffering with this kind of tenderness and without judgment.
  2. Identify the causes of your suffering. Is it coming from outside or inside yourself? Focus on specifically what is bothering you. Where are your areas of suffering and how do they manifest in your daily life? Are they physical, emotional, psychological? All of the above? Remember that nothing can survive without food. What have you been feeding yourself to make the suffering grow? Being honest with yourself is one of the hardest parts, so don't worry if it takes a few tries. You may even want to have a confidant, support group, or a professional help you discern this.
  3. Realize and confirm that healing is possible. Everything is impermanent and you have the ability to transform your suffering. Remember and affirm: "I am more than my suffering." This is a great time to sit down and make a list of all the conditions of happiness that are available to you, and to plan where you can tap into them.
  4. Follow the plan that will lead you out of suffering. Start the composting process and cultivate compassion from your scraps of suffering. By spending this time with your suffering, you have already created the seeds of compassion. At some point your compassion will grow to overshadow your suffering.

Some prominent figures understand that making good use of suffering is possible. In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, World Bank President, Dr. Jim Kim shared his realization that "one can be mindful and at peace and experience great happiness while at the same time struggle against some of the most difficult problems one can imagine..." Dr. Kim got this insight after reading his favorite book, The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.