Three Surefire Ways to End Suffering
By Matthew Joyce
I know three surefire ways to end suffering.
When I say this in conversation, I typically get one of two reactions: “That’s bull@%&!” or “Tell me more.” Either way, I can be pretty sure that the person I’m talking to has a preconceived notion of what suffering is.
After all, who hasn’t suffered with illness and physical pain, or emotional distress, or even just challenging circumstances like being stuck in a traffic jam with no air conditioning on a hot and humid day. Those are examples of suffering and there are indeed three ways to eliminate it from your life experience.
But to do so the first thing you need to do is change your idea of what suffering is.
Life Is Suffering
Most people think of suffering as enduring something unpleasant, but from a spiritual perspective it has an even broader meaning, and it’s this broader meaning that reveals the secret of how to end suffering.
The Buddha famously said “Life Is Suffering.” This first noble truth of Buddhism doesn’t mean that one of the world’s most influential spiritual teachers was a pessimist. It means that he understood something fundamental to the human condition.
As we live our lives we identify with one life experience after another. Life is a never ending stream of experiences that flow from one moment into the next. Collectively these experiences add up to the sum total of our lives. It’s from these experiences that we create our memories, make plans for the future, shape our relationships, and even form our personalities. In short, our cumulative life experiences contain and represent who we think we are.
The problem with suffering arises when we begin to identify with these life stories rather than identifying with the unending flow of life itself.
Why Suffering Is Fictional
From a spiritual or psychological perspective, suffering is any experience that starts when you feel you are participating in a story.
In fiction, a story requires three primary ingredients: a character, an opponent or event, and a timeline. It’s the same thing with suffering. In order to have suffering you need a main character (you), an opponent (an enemy, obstacle, event, experience), and a timeline of cause and effect (that typically results in discomfort).
If you remove any of these elements, then the story collapses. If I tell you, “There is this guy” and I don’t say any more, then clearly that is not a story. If I tell you “It’s raining” that isn’t a story either. It might be a fact, but it isn’t a story. And if I tell you “It’s happening right now” that’s not a story either. But if we string them together: “There is this guy who gets caught in the rain without an umbrella…” then we have the start of a story.
How to End Suffering
When it comes to fiction it’s easy to see how you can dismantle the story. Without a main character there is no story. Similarly, if nothing happens to the main character, then there is no story.
It’s the same thing with the story you tell yourself about your life. There is this person (you) who has an unpleasant experience (obstacle or event) that must be endured or overcome (for some period of time).
So the surefire way to end suffering is to remove one of the three elements.
How to Remove the Obstacle
The easiest of the three to remove is the obstacle that is causing your pain and suffering. We try to do this all the time by eliminating the source or alleviating the symptom of the problem. If you have a rock in your shoe, you can remove it. If you have a headache, you can take medication.
But suffering tends to be at its worst when you can’t eliminate the source or symptom. How do you eliminate the obstacle then?
For instance, if you are stuck in an interminable traffic jam, you are likely going to remain stuck until the cars in front of you start moving. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eliminate the obstacle.
Since the obstacle is a part of your personal life story, the obstacle doesn’t actually exist in reality. It exists in your mind. I know. I know. The traffic jam may exist in reality, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be an obstacle that causes you to suffer.
You can end your suffering by eliminating the obstacle from your story. If you actually wanted to be in a traffic jam, then you wouldn’t be suffering right now. You probably wouldn’t think you were suffering if you were enjoying a great meal at a four star restaurant or watching the sunset on a tropical beach holiday. You wouldn’t likely consider those events to be sources of suffering, because they are likely to be pleasant.
But pleasant or unpleasant isn’t really the point. The point is that when you feel like you are suffering, you are actively resisting the circumstances that you find yourself in. When you accept those circumstances as if you want them in your life, then your resistance and your suffering ends.
The painful circumstances don’t necessarily change, but your perception of them does because you are shifting your life story from one you don’t want to be participating in to one that you do want to be participating in. In other words, you are eliminating the obstacle.
This approach is well-summarized by the Greek philosopher Epictetus who said, “We are not disturbed by things, but by the view we take of them.”
How to Remove the Time Element of Suffering
Every story takes place over a period of time, and the story of your suffering is no exception. This provides the second clue to eliminate suffering.
You may not be able to stop the flow of time, but, just as you changed your perception of the obstacle, you can change your perception of time. In this case the trick is to shift from thinking that the unpleasant experience is something that you must endure, to instead simply being aware of what is happening in the present moment.
Contrary to many popular strategies that encourage you to distract yourself by focusing your awareness elsewhere, this strategy actually calls for your full and complete attention to the problem filling your awareness, no matter how painful that might be.
When you stop telling yourself that you can’t wait for the experience to be over and instead fully invest your awareness in the experience itself, your perception of the flow of time changes. More typically you are likely to do this when you are having fun. Hence the phrase: Time flies when you’re having fun. But the technique also works for unpleasant experiences.
Pleasant or unpleasant, when you are fully absorbed in the moment your experiences seem to be over much sooner than you might have expected. But that’s not the only reason to use this method.
This Be-Here-Now method of steadily focusing on the present moment has another benefit as well. The purpose of pain is to bring your awareness to something that needs attention. Thus by steadily holding your awareness on that which is causing your pain—without fighting or resisting it—you can often move through it and feel a wonderful release. The method (which we teach in our Attention workshop) works for physical and emotional suffering, as well as for other life circumstances.
How to Remove the Main Character
The most challenging but ultimately most successful method for ending suffering is to remove the main character from the story. Yes, that means you.
And no, that doesn’t mean planning your own demise. It means dissolving your ego-self, or your sense of separate identify. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of many spiritual paths, but you can often enjoy a semblance of this without needing to achieve that ultimate state of Realization.
In this case, the perception that you need to shift is from thinking of yourself as the participant in the story to instead being the observer. When you are the participant in the story you are fully engaged in the situation at hand, seeing things through your own eyes and actively participating in the action.
When you shift your perception from participant to the observer you pull back your awareness so that you feel as if you are watching yourself as a character in a movie. If you’ve ever had a dream in which you watched yourself doing something, then you know what I mean. If you’ve never had a dream like that, then you can think of it as holding a higher mental perspective in which one part of your awareness engages in the activity, while the rest of you looks on with a certain level of detachment.
When you watch a well-made movie, you feel for the character in the story but you don’t actually suffer along with her or him. It’s the same thing when you access your observer awareness. This form of detached observation removes you from the sense of suffering because you are no longer identifying so directly with the main character.
Temporarily removing yourself from the story in this way also helps you to make other decisions to end your suffering, such as deciding to eliminate the obstacle or to remove the time element.
So the next time you feel like you’re suffering:
- Recognize that suffering arises not from circumstances, but from the story you are telling yourself about the circumstances.
- Remind yourself that stories require three things: a character, obstacle, and timeline.
- Identify the three elements in your current story and eliminate one or more of them.
- Eliminate the obstacle by removing the source, erasing the symptom, or embracing the obstacle as if you actually want it in your life.
- Eliminate the timeline by focusing fully on the moment at hand without fighting or resisting it.
- Eliminate the main character by shifting your perception from active participant to detached observer.
Once you understand the three things that cause suffering, you’ll know three surefire ways to end it.
Here’s to your full and joyous life—without any suffering.
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