Much of the pain we experience in life is not within our control. Random and unexpected things happen that thwart our best laid plans and threaten our happiness. Because we’re not all-knowing, we make mistakes and pay the price. Fortunately we do have some influence over how we experience life’s slings and arrows. The practice of mindfulness can help us respond to difficulty in a skillful way.
One of the many cycles of suffering goes something like this: hurt → pain → anger → lashing out→ hurt… Humans, like all living beings, posses a survival instinct. We are hard wired to avoid danger, but these self-serving instincts can cause us more trouble than good. We have a strong urge to personalize an experience because this gives us the illusion of control. We feel safer if we think we are in the driver’s seat, so we take even impersonal things personally and we prioritize immediate action in an attempt to steer things in our favor.
One habit we have when we feel threatened is to lash out. If we are experiencing strong emotions, we may not be able to see beyond our own immediate experience. This self-protective lashing out creates collateral damage, including the regret we may later feel because our actions were contrary to our deepest values. Even for the very small portion of our population who are unable to feel empathy (estimated to be less than 3%), consequences are inevitable. When we hurt others, we create more cycles of suffering, the pain becomes exponential, and like a boomerang it returns to us in one form or another.
When we are mindful, we are more likely to acknowledge our pain right away, view it with greater equanimity (mental and emotional balance), and treat ourselves with loving care. With greater awareness of our urges and drives, we are able to make space to wisely consider if and how we wish to respond. Our decision making process is a more objective and compassionate one, recognizing the impersonality of our experience and our profound interconnection with other beings and our environment.
We can learn how to step out of the cycle of suffering with the help of a dedicated mindfulness practice, responding to pain with wisdom. The momentum of our mindfully embodied experience creates an “upward spiral” of increasing peace and wellbeing, with beneficial consequences that ripple out into the world.
…if we’re always trying to banish our pain we don’t learn anything from it, and it can’t help us to serve others, so we have to turn towards it – allow ourselves to touch the pain of our life with some mercy and tenderness. When we realize just how precarious this life is – and it is absolutely precarious – then we don’t want to waste a minute. Then we want to use our lives in a responsible way… It leads to wisdom, to behavior changes, to right relationship with others and the world. – Frank Ostaseski