On the Benefits of Suffering

If you've seen me speak about mindfulness, you've likely seen this slide, which is animated in my deck. The story of the slide is: Psychologist Rick Hanson has a model for positive psychological development that's illustrated by the two wings of a bird. One wing is being with our experience, and the other wing is working with it. We need equal amounts of both for the bird to soar in a balanced way.

If you're opting out of this scenario (i.e., avoidance), you're forfeiting the opportunity to learn what your life feels like and learn what to do about those sensations (and the thoughts that travel with them). You're forfeiting the opportunity to develop yourself—to evolve.

As it turns out, the more you move toward your experience, even when it's uncomfortable so you don't want to, the more you're creating a brain that predicts you'll move toward your experience. Makes sense, right? This is basic habit creation. Moving toward becomes habitual and the default.

If you're someone who tends to be motivated by avoidance, you can become someone motivated by approach. You can change from avoidance to approach motivation. And that includes approaching the "negative," which is actually neutral but you've judged it as negative. How can you do that? By creating a habit of moving toward . . . everything . . . with your attention.

Although research does support that optimistic people are happier, and approaching something "positive" is more aligned with happiness, I, for one, don't think about happiness much. I think about putting out that welcome mat for the entire range of our human experience. I think about meeting it all with equanimity.

Are We Here To Maximize Happiness?

Here's the rub. How you interact with this question and others determines a lot more than you might think.

Why the heck are we here, anyway?

What does all of this mean?

How is our brief time in this life best-used?

Your answers to these questions inform how you spend your time. What you're doing with your time answers the question: What do I think is important? Remember, if you want to identify your priority at any moment, look at what you're doing. It's that easy.

Furthermore, what is happiness? How do you define it? In my book, I list a handful of definitions of various writers, psychologists, and historians, and the reality is there's no consensus. I enjoy the definition of molecular geneticist-turned-Buddhist monk, Mattieu Ricard:

a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind... . Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it*.

If that's your definition, and you don't fall into the trap of thinking there are intrinsically negative and positive emotions, you realize that how you look at your experience determines your "happiness." Therefore, learning to be with and work with your experience (Hanson's wings of the bird) becomes tantamount to learning how to be happy.

Enter The Benefits of Suffering

Suffering in mindfulness is defined as: wanting things to be different. If you disagree with that initially, I suggest sitting with it for a bit. When you're in pain (which is inevitable in life) and you're suffering (which is optional), that suffering comes from wanting to not be in pain. In other words, you want things to be different. Think about any type of suffering you experience and you'll find that it's in the mind. Your pain is in your body—pain is sensations in the body that are real and in the present. But your suffering about your pain isn't in your body—it's in your mind.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that sometimes your thoughts create sensations in the body or combine with present sensations to form emotions. This is also the operationalizing of what most people would refer to as empathy. You have a thought and sensations (in either order) about someone's circumstances and soon you feel miserable, which ranges from mild unease/discomfort, to intense physical sensations (i.e., you hurt for the person).

Meanwhile, this type of suffering (empathy) is unnecessary. After all, why put yourself through that?

Finally, touching your own suffering by moving toward it with self-compassion isn't masochism; it's getting to know yourself—getting to know your life. And when you've touched your pain and acknowledged how you cause yourself suffering with your mind, two things happen:

  1. You've created a bridge to the humanity of others. You don't need to feel anyone else's pain (besides, you can only feel your own). All you need is to know of your own suffering. And you don't need to feel pain to practice compassion for others. Empathy triggers pain centers in the brain and compassion triggers reward. Empathy is exhausting while compassion is boundless, heartfelt, and heartful. Which do you prefer to spend more time practicing?

  2. You're working your way toward equanimity—toward greater and greater capacity to meet all of your sensations and emotions, with self-compassion and without judgment.

If I had to come up with a definition of happiness, that would be it.

To learn more about mindfulness practices, what they look like in your life, and how you benefit from them join me for a Complimentary Introduction.

*From Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (Little Brown, 2007).