Some Things Just Hurt

Sunday, March 13, 2016 - 11:06am
Photo by Paul McGeiver

Some Things Just Hurt

The Buddha pointed out thousands of years ago that suffering is a fact of life. Or, as I sometimes put it:

Some things just hurt.

Our dominant cultural attitude towards pain is that it’s something to be avoided, denied, “treated,” and I’ve found that it can be particularly tough for people — including me — to acknowledge painful emotions in the context of spiritual practice. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the acceptance of suffering, but like many of the misleading expectations we hold about meditation, there is often a lot of self-consciousness about what being “spiritual” should look like. Some of us may feel that the cultivation of compassion should be a practice that keeps us from feeling those “less virtuous” emotions like anger, annoyance, impatience, and disappointment. And, yet, part of the cultivation is simple acceptance, including the acceptance of those things that just hurt.

That’s why the revolutionary statement that there is suffering in the world is so liberating. It doesn’t include the idea of how we should feel in relation to those times when we suffer. In fact, the most radical part of this piece of wisdom is its simplicity — the fact that it is merely a recognition of what is. When I first encountered this idea in an Asian philosophy class in college, I felt instantly comforted, and the comfort was unlike anything I’d experienced before. No one was trying to make sense of my pain or to rationalize it; no one was reassuring me that things would get better, or reminding me to look at the bright side — all things we are conditioned to say and believe in the face of suffering. For the first time, I felt a sense of permission and freedom to feel whatever I was going to feel.

When I teach introductory classes to meditation, one of the first topics I like to cover is what I call “distorted thinking,” which almost inevitably happens in response to all of our experiences. When we experience a physical sensation or feeling, we are conditioned to react, identifying the experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. But that’s not all. If we feel pleasure, for instance, we may spin into a whole number of distortions — we may think we don’t deserve pleasure, or we may fear its impermanence. If something feels unpleasant, we may judge ourselves or feel embarrassed, responsible for our own pain.

Some assert that if we didn’t have distorted thinking, or resistance, or a bad attitude, there would be no pain at all. I refute this. What we don’t need is extra suffering, and therein lies our work.

My friend and colleague Sylvia Boorstein tells a funny story about her granddaughter, Honor. While preparing for their Passover Seder, Sylvia asked then-9-year-old Honor to help set the table, and gave her the following instructions:

“Take a teaspoon of horseradish and put it on top of each piece of Gefilte fish.”

Honor agreed to follow the instructions, but didn’t hesitate to offer her personal reaction to the traditional Seder menu:

“I never knew you could take a truly terrible thing and make it even worse!”

If we can put aside the fact that Sylvia makes delicious homemade Gefilte fish and that I love horseradish, Honor’s honest reaction to her grandmother shows a lot about how most of us deal with difficult feelings.

Often, when we feel like we’re experiencing a truly terrible thing, we don’t let the terrible feelings exist on their own. Instead, we usually make it worse for ourselves. Perhaps we judge ourselves for not being able to let go of the bad feeling; perhaps we ruminate extensively about the past and stew in regret or guilt; perhaps we allow ourselves to start projecting into the future, wondering when the pain will go away. Regardless of the details of the terrible situation or the particulars of how we make it worse for ourselves, this is a common reaction to the sheer force of our cultural conditioning.

This is why meditation can be incredibly healing for suffering. Despite popular myths, meditation doesn’t cleanse us of thoughts and feelings, but it does support us in having a more direct relationship to our experiences. For some, meditation is most helpful simply because it helps us become more aware of the source of our pain. As a result, we rely less on things like denial, self-judgment, or precariously looking for happiness in transitory places. By experiencing suffering more directly, we can learn to respond to our situations thoughtfully, rather than react immediately.

Accepting suffering doesn’t mean that it goes away, or even that it gets better. Too often, we conflate the idea of “being spiritual” or the idea of acceptance with the New Age-y cliché that we can simply say no to suffering. We can learn to feel discomfort in a far more pure and direct way, without the additional burden of distorted thinking. But I still maintain that some things just hurt.

A friend of mine once participated in a healing circle during the early days of the AIDS crisis. During the meeting, one of the volunteers insisted to the group,

“No one can make you suffer if you don’t want to.”

In response, a very sick man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions reacted impetuously, and for good reason. He wanted to attend the healing circle simply to feel a sense of solidarity and community. Instead, being told sugar-coated affirmations made him feel isolated and ignored.

This dynamic is something we see a lot, both interpersonally and with ourselves. A woman who recently suffered a major loss once asked me for advice, as she was feeling pressured by her friends to get better, to let go of the suffering, to heal. Their impatience was making her feel entirely separated from them. “My friends have golden lives,” the woman insisted, convinced that her suffering made her fundamentally different and alienated from her friends.

I didn’t believe that for a moment, knowing how much can go on behind closed doors, and how much pressure there is to present as “perfect.” Hearing this woman’s describe her tough situation, I just heard the words come out of my mouth.

“I think you need new friends. Maybe you need to meet my friends. They’re all a wreck!”

I don’t really think my friends are wrecks. I do think, however, that we tend to talk more directly about our suffering, whether it stems from family issues, work stress, or free-floating anxiety… the list goes on. The add-ons we layer onto pain are really what make us struggle in response to tough situations. This perspective makes an enemy of our suffering, when dealing with the pain itself can already feel like quite a lot to deal with. Without sugar-coating terrible experiences, we can remind ourselves of the sheer power of how we choose to relate to them.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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Thank you for a beautiful and wise writing.
It reminded me of a dream I had years ago...

In the dream I invite a woman, a former lover to come and speak with me in my room. She is hesitant but eventually agrees. Then we are sitting on a bed, and referring to a different dream in which I realize the part I played in the failure of our relationship, I say "Shall I tell you my dream?" At this point the woman calls a halt. It's as though she's afraid to let things progress beyond a certain point and doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.

The woman: "I'm OK. I trust that your family is happy. You're happy ..."

The dreamer: "I'm not happy... and life is a struggle in various ways for everyone in my family. Life is a struggle for most of the human race. I'm not saying no one ever finds happiness but it's much harder than people think or admit. It's much more common to achieve a superficial look of happiness than the real thing."

Life is hard, naturally hard. The important thing is not to give up.

I found this article to be just what I needed today. Thank you for putting into words what I have felt. I will be read this article again and is a salve for me.

I enjoyed your column today particularly the part that talked about the woman who was suffering over a loss and whose golden friends were impatient with her suffering. I often feel like I have suddenly moved from the golden group to "She's got issues" group. We do have to remember that those goldens are not always what they seem.

Excellent article Sharon - I'm going through a separation/divorce and there are times when I pressurize myself to 'get better' or 'get over it'. Life doesn't work like that. In the past I've swallowed my feelings of anger or sadness, but they always make an appearance somewhere down the line. The best way is to honour even our most unsavoury thoughts and feelings. Like Mara or the Devil, they have their place in life.

I love your wisdom, and the timing was perfect for me, today. Thank you.

In my family appearance was every thing. Don't you dare cry in public, we don't make a spectacle of our selves and to this day I find it difficult to shed a tear in front of anyone. It was a terrible way to live especially to raise a child in that environment. It has taken a life time trying to shed those chains.

I've been thinking and writing of something similar, here it is for anyone interested.

My Spirit will live

I don't think most people really believe they are going to die, let alone cease to exist or they cope by not thinking about it and blocking it out. Lately I've been suffering anxiety over it. Someone once said to me you are looking at all the possibilities and will have to deal with only one. This helps a bit. What also helps is a thought that came to me: We have no choice about how we die, but we do have a choice about how we live. Christ said "Be not afraid" He also said there would be "Joy afterwards" in my darkest moments I look to this. I do not know what type of existence, but I am comforted by his words and don't believe I will cease to exist. This has helped me live a little better than I would have otherwise. You can't deny the suffering in life and it scares me, but when it's over I believe that my spirit will live.

I'm so sad to see his hurt.

I enjoyed the clarification that meditation does not "cleanse our minds" but rather "it does support us in having a more direct relationship to our experiences." So many of my clients feel like they won't be able to meditate because somehow they got the idea that meditation means having a "blank mind." Thank you Sharon Salzberg for always talking about meditation in simple, accessible terms.

Thank you for this piece, Sharon. I have spent far too many years running away from this stuff and pretending it doesn't exist has been so damaging to my mental health. Several years of therapy later, coming across Parker Palmer and Brene Brown and others has now pointed me in the right direction. Strange, now I am looking for this counsel, I am finding it every where! What you say resonates strongly.

Isn't telling people to meditate just another platitude like saying "get over it?" I have never understood meditation, what it is, what it means. Taking time out if your busy day to just sit? Who can do that when they have a million things to do and have to work ot and are drowning in debt? Clear your mind? My mind has never been clear of terrible, induce, repetitive, negative worry for one minute of my life. How can you control your thoughts? If you are able to stop your thoughts that must be a treat, hard to imagine! And even if you say, I'll try to be positive tomorrow, there's still the eight hours of terrible nightmares to suffer through each night that make you wake up with a mind full of terrible Ness you can't forget. I don't know why I read these articles, just hearing "Buddha says meditate" probably never helped anyone who had real problems in life

Hi - I can see exactly what you're getting at here, and have often felt like that. Sometimes I forget that mindfulness, or meditation, or whatever we call it, isn't about denying thoughts, trying to block them etc. Like (I'm guessing) you, I've got a lot of things in my life that distress me. What helps is when I remember to slow down, acknowledge the thoughts (I'm having the thought about x, and I feel y as a result) and remember that I can stand them. They are thoughts. I don't like them, but I don't have to give them much attention. I can focus my attention on other things within my awareness and my life. And the stories the thoughts tell me - my life sucks etc - aren't always true. Sometimes they're true, but not always. And I've survived them before.

Not easy but practice helps. Wishing you peace and health.

Thank you.

Beautifully written piece. Thanks for sharing. Most times, it's o.k. to feel anger or bitterness and make friends with it. Knowing that in the next hour, you will feel a different emotion alltogether.

What is wrong in "really thinking that your friends are in fact wrecks". I sense a kind of sugar coating from the sugar coating. To apprehend reality as it is including our true "wreckness" may be Bhuddist but UnAmerican.

I feel sad to see this. God bless her.