How can you stop unnecessary suffering?

Suffering is a universal and perfectly natural quality of life. Eastern cultures seem to be more accepting of this fact, perhaps because people in Asia tend to live in closer proximity to poverty and daily suffering than their Western counterparts. Westerners tend not to understand that suffering is a part of life, and often see themselves as victims of some malign force when something goes wrong.

But suffering is inevitable; for example, all of us will grow old and die. Trying to avoid or ignore this fact is only a temporary solution. When you inevitably do encounter suffering in one form or another, your mental attitude becomes of paramount importance. If you fear suffering as something unnatural and unfair, you will feel like a victim and assign blame when you should be trying to eliminate the mental root causes of suffering.

Suffering may be natural, but we often inadvertently magnify it ourselves by actively subjecting ourselves to unnecessary anguish. Another common source of unnecessary suffering is unnecessarily hanging onto past negative events, mentally replaying them and perpetuating the pain. For example, some divorcees still seethe with anger toward their ex-spouses even decades after their divorce.

By accepting that suffering is natural, you can confront and analyze its causes – including whether you may be partially creating it – and begin to lead a happier life.

Suffering is a natural part of life, but we often increase it unnecessarily.

The Dalai Lama believes that negative states of mind like anger and fear are obstructions that stop us from achieving our natural, happy state. They are poisons. But certain positive states of mind – love, compassion, patience, generosity – can act as antidotes to them, eliminating harmful emotions, attitudes and behaviors. Hence, to eliminate negativity, positive emotions and behaviors should be habitually cultivated.

This resembles the essential ideas behind Western cognitive therapy, where maladaptive behaviors and thinking are identified and, in a sense, corrected. Depressed people, for example, often have a distorted way of thinking: they may focus their thoughts exclusively on negative things, such as trouble at work or financial difficulties, and completely overlook the fact that they have much to be happy about, like good health and a charming family. Studies have proven that correcting these distorted modes of thinking can make people happier.

The process of ridding oneself of negative, destructive emotions and behaviors and replacing them with positive ones is long and gradual. To successfully instill good habits, you must understand why a change is needed and then translate that reason into the conviction and determination to change. Then, through sustained effort, it is possible to implement the change.

The process of habituation can take many years, and expectations of a “quick fix” are unrealistic. We can eliminate negative attitudes, feelings and habits only through sustained effort.

When people encounter a negative situation, they tend to see it, very rigidly, as 100 percent negative. Generally though, most situations contain both positive and negative elements and can be viewed from several alternative angles. For example, you might consider having to sit next to an annoying, flatulent person on a plane as a purely negative situation, or you could see it as an opportunity to practice patience and tolerance.

Such a switch can also help you find meaning in pain and suffering. When you next encounter obstacles in your life, do not wallow in self-pity and cry “Why me?!” but instead consider it a chance to become stronger. Find purpose in suffering, and thrive.

The ability to shift perspectives is facilitated by having a so-called supple mind: a certain mental flexibility. Anyone can develop this flexibility by deliberately trying to shift perspectives as we encounter unpleasant events in life.

People with supple minds are sometimes seen as indecisive and inconsistent. After all, how can you abide by a rigid value system and yet remain flexible? It takes time and effort to learn to see the good in negative events when they occur. Therefore, you should start practicing immediately. Just as a tree cannot grow strong roots at the last minute to survive a storm on the horizon, you cannot suddenly decide to find meaning in a cancer diagnosis you were handed only moments ago.

Of all the negative mental states, anger and hatred are the greatest obstacles to happiness. When a feeling of anger or hatred arises in us, it rapidly destroys our peace of mind. It also obliterates our judgment, often leading us to take actions that only worsen the situation and make us even angrier. Scientific studies have clearly demonstrated that tendencies toward anger, rage and hostility have negative health effects too; for example, they substantially increase a person’s risk of heart disease.

Anger and hatred cannot be overcome by simply suppressing them. On the other hand, venting anger, such as through raging and shouting, tends to increase negative feelings, not reduce them. Hence, the correct response to anger is to learn how to use the antidotes of patience and tolerance against it, and to cultivate them for example through meditative exercises.

Since anger tends to arise from a mind that is discontented, the first step toward dealing with it is to build a mindset of inner contentment. Studies have shown that stress decreases the threshold of feeling anger; hence, reducing stress by cultivating calmness and contentment can help reduce feelings of anger.

When you feel angry, the correct response in the eyes of both the Dalai Lama and Western scientific studies is to simply take a time-out: pause to analyze the situation. Where did the anger come from? What factors created it? Is it destructive or constructive? By applying such a logical appraisal to the anger, and by trying to replace negative feelings with thoughts of patience and tolerance, the anger often dilutes.

Confront and analyze your feelings of anger and hatred, and replace them with patience and tolerance.

Fear, anxiety and worry are things that all people experience from time to time – they are natural responses to certain circumstances – but when they become excessive or constant they can cause serious mental and even physical symptoms, such as weakened immune responses and heart disease.

The sources of anxiety are many, as are the preventative measures that can be applied. Much like the Western psychiatric practice of cognitive intervention, the Dalai Lama favors challenging the thoughts that generate anxiety and replacing them with positive ones.

Sometimes a specific situation may cause anxiety, for example, asking someone you like out on a date. In such a case, it can be helpful to examine the reason you are taking this action. Realizing that your motivation is proper and sincere – for example, that you wish to be kind to the other person – usually reduces fear and anxiety.

Excessive anxiety is often related to poor self-confidence, and the Dalai Lama feels the antidote for this is to be honest with yourself and others about your capabilities and limitations. If you’re comfortable with your own limits, you can confidently admit when you cannot do something or do not know something, and not lose your self-esteem by doing so.

Sometimes low self-esteem can reach the extreme of self-hatred, where a person feels completely unworthy and may even contemplate suicide. The antidote to such an extreme mental state is to remind yourself of the marvelous intellect and potential for development within every single human being, including you. Tibetans contemplate this routinely in their daily meditations, which is perhaps why self-hatred is a virtually unknown concept in their society.

Combat anxiety and low self-confidence by examining your thoughts, motives and capabilities honestly.

You can achieve lasting happiness but only through inner mental discipline – not as a result of external circumstances like wealth or good fortune. Cultivate compassion, spirituality and a supple mind, for they will help you deal with pain and suffering when they arise.

Check out my related post: Can you tackle sins to happiness?

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