Suffering is Optional

Sep 19, 2018 by Reen Rose

“Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present. We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer. We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering – which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction – is constructed by the brain. It is made up.”

                                                                        Rick Hanson, Ph.D

This is an excerpt from the book Buddha’s Brain. It is one of those passages that comes along every once in awhile and refuses to be forgotten.

You suffer because your mind chooses to suffer.

Think about it for a minute. Reread the excerpt again. Think some more.

My first reaction was disbelief. Why would the brain of a happiness maven choose to suffer? But when I considered that most suffering comes from worrying about the future and replaying negative events from the past, the truth became clear.

I don’t have to spend my time thinking about disastrous events that may never happen, or dwell on past experiences I can do nothing about. They are activities of choice, albeit not necessarily conscious choice.

I can’t count the number of times I have counselled my children to stop worrying about something that may never happen. It is good advice, but easier said than done, especially if you don’t notice you are doing it. Worrying is a natural behavior for many.

I’d like to make a distinction between worrying about something that has happened, versus something that might happen. One is the reality of the present, while the other is the unknown future.

When the recession of the 1980s hit, layoffs were common. I had just started my teaching career and knew I was at risk.

Worrying that I might get laid off, is suffering that I didn’t have to experience. Worrying about how I would pay my bills after the notice arrived was something my brain needed to work through.

Dealing with the present is necessary, worrying about the future is optional.

Why does your brain choose to make you suffer by running through possible negative scenarios that might never happen? This is an evolutionary survival strategy.

As your number one drive is survival, the brain discovered it could gain an advantage by thinking about possible danger scenarios that might arise and then creating ways to deal with them. You would not only have thought of possible solutions if the situation ever arose, you would also have mentally practiced them.

Similarly, the human brain discovered it could reinforce already proven survival strategies, by replaying them over and over. This is the basis of why you dwell on negative events from the past.

You may not enjoy revisiting these experiences, but they are examples of survival techniques that worked. Replaying them is your mind’s way of reinforcing the learning so you can use the strategy again.

There may be no use crying over spilled milk, but your brain encourages you to do it anyway.

These evolutionary survival strategies often run in the background of your life in a similar way that your antivirus software runs on your computer. Unless your attention is drawn to it, you may never know it exists.

The next time you find yourself worrying about the future or reliving painful experiences of the past, be aware of what is happening. Rather than telling yourself to stop being so silly and to get over it, show yourself compassion.

Compassion is defined by the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

When you are suffering, imagine you are helping a child and say something soothing.

“Whatever happens you will find a way to be happy.”

“You did the best you could.”

Physical actions strengthen feelings, so put your hand on your heart or your cheek while you speak to yourself. You don’t have to say the words aloud, saying them in your mind is just as effective.

Now that you know what your mind is up to, you can take steps to lessen the amount of suffering your brain wants you to experience.

If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

                                                Lao Tzu