Suffering is unpleasantness. Suffering can involve physical pain and mental distress. In every life, there will be pain, both physical and emotional, that comes from outside of you—the death of a loved one, contracting an illness, a ski accident, or stubbed toe. Even the Dalai Lama has said that he jumps around in distress or pain when he stubs a toe! You don’t stop suffering when you become enlightened. The key to living well is to avoid ruminating on that pain; getting stuck in the suffering makes it worse.
Many spiritual teachers believe that suffering is extended by your experience of impermanence—meaning that this cycle of suffering comes from your desire to control or to know what’s coming. Your experience of suffering can be anything from a faint sense of being unsettled, impatient, or irritated all the way to severe misery or anguish. Franciscan Richard Rohr says, “What we don’t transform, we transmit.”
According to psychologist Gregg Henriques, whose work involves teaching individuals how to understand their emotions and how to adaptively relate to and process them, there is a relatively new phenomenon where people seem hyper-sensitive to negative emotions. Past generations were told to “suck it up” where people today are being prompted to “lean in.”
You Need Both Positive and Negative Emotions
In a nutshell, there are two types of emotion:
From a scientific perspective, positive emotions have an important job. They signal an opportunity to meet a goal or a need and motivate you to approach the goal. They prompt actions. Negative emotions, on the other hand, signal a threat and prompt you to fight or flee. Both positive and negative emotions are necessary, yet society sometimes judges negative emotions harshly.
Often, thanks to judgments you have taken on from your parents, your peers, or the media—like “boys don’t cry” or “anger never gets you anything”—you suppress or inhibit the negative emotions. Holding these emotions back is like having unfinished business. These emotions have a job—to communicate information to you about needs and goals. Since they haven’t had the opportunity to complete their task, they continue to exist in the background of your consciousness. Then, when something that feels similar or seems to have a common thread, these emotions pop back into your focus. It’s common to hear this called a trigger.
Generations have been taught to feel their feelings without teaching them the skills to adapt and regulate these states. They blame them on something external without taking responsibility that could empower them to have a healthier relationship with the full range of emotions.
Psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, uses four key concepts to describe what good emotional practise looks like:
- Show up: Don’t ignore difficult emotions or only express positive ones. Face your full range of feelings head on.
- Step out: Detach and observe your emotions (meditation helps).
- Walk your why: Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction; these values are the true path to willpower, resilience, and effectiveness when emotions threaten to overwhelm you.
- Moving on: Make edits to your mindset in ways that are aligned with your values so you find the balance between challenge and competence.
Meditation and Emotional Agility
Meditation encompasses a variety of experiences including breathing, prayer, reflection, and mantra-based meditation like Primordial Sound Meditation. In meditative practices, the idea is to focus on present-moment awareness. With regular meditation, the brain changes. People who meditate on a regular basis have several positive things happen.
- You no longer assume that a bodily sensation or a momentary feeling means that something is wrong.
- Anxiety decreases and, as a result, you are more able to see those sensations for what they really are.
- There’s a strengthened connection between the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that processes information between others you perceive as different) and the bodily sensations center involved in empathy. When this connection is strengthened, it can increase your connection to other people.
- You also get a stronger connection between the bodily sensation center and the fear center. This means you can watch pain rise without becoming trapped by a story that says this pain will last forever, according to neuroscience experts Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding in their book, You Are Not Your Brain.
Spending time regularly meditating helps you to witness your emotional patterns without getting sucked back into them. Then, with reflection you can edit these patterns to better serve you. Deepak Chopra describes this as SODA:
Like meditation, this SODA process requires practice. Over time it can become part of how your body naturally responds to an emotion—increasing the distance between stimulus and response. Think of it like a seatbelt in a car accident. Without the seatbelt, you might get significant injuries. With the seatbelt, the accident still happens but you don’t get tossed around quite as much so you are less likely to be harmed.
Your life will never be entirely free from suffering, although the degree to which you experience it is unknown. What is known is that meditation is a proven way to help you manage your suffering and move through it.