The Joy of Discovering That Suffering Is Optional

Who you are at your core is aware, alive, completely fresh and entirely at peace — and this has always been so. This is what’s so miraculous! Although you may not yet be aware of it, you’re pure and innocent, untouched, not in resistance to anything — no matter how painful or distressing your life was or continues to be.

So, if this is true, why do you feel unhappy?

When you lose touch with the freedom and openness of your true nature as pure being, personal suffering takes center stage. It starts when you misidentify yourself as a person with feelings and a life story who relates to other people with their feelings and life stories. If this is your reality, you’ll undoubtedly feel dissatisfied and lacking. Do any of these ring a bell?

  • You repeat dramatic stories in your mind.
  • You’re still plagued by what happened in your past.
  • You feel anxious, fearful or depressed.
  • You orient your life around getting approval from others.
  • You distract yourself with compulsions and addictions.
  • You feel like something’s missing — in yourself and your relationships.

Habits like these grab on so tightly that they seem absolutely real. After all, isn’t this how you behave in your life? Isn’t this how you feel?

These patterns bring struggle and confusion to your life experience because you haven’t stopped to investigate them — and you’ve mistakenly taken them to be your identity. Mindlessly putting them on day after day like your favorite pair of slippers, you experience the unsatisfying effects on you and everyone around you. In your heart of hearts, you know that peace is possible, but you can’t seem to find your way there.

Where to look for peace
Unhappiness has nothing to do with the external situations in your life and everything to do with how you react — and how you relate to your inner reactions. Say your partner snaps at you. You might immediately respond, “I didn’t do anything wrong. You have no right to treat me that way.” You feel angry and frustrated, and if you bring your attention into your body, you’ll notice tension and agitation. You’ve been triggered, and your reaction causes you to suffer.

But any time you’re suffering, you have a liberating choice about what to do next. You can blame the situation, yourself, God, bad luck, your partner, and stay attached to your expectations about what he should or shouldn’t do — or you can be curious about your inner experience. In the first option, you ignore or avoid your emotional reaction and instead get lost in a whirlwind of thoughts about it: “He shouldn’t have…I deserve…Why me?” This prolongs your suffering, because you remain trapped in the story of what happened.

The second option opens the doorway to freedom. It’s revolutionary because it invites you to let go of engaging in the story so you can investigate what’s going on inside you — the thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body. This investigation stops the pattern in its tracks, because you’re relating to it in a completely new way. You’re moving with the reality of what’s happening rather than resisting it.

Think of your attention like food. The more you feed agitating thoughts, the more uncomfortable you feel. You start by thinking that your partner shouldn’t have snapped at you. And before you know it, your mind is complaining about every seeming infraction he’s ever committed; you feel depressed and hopeless, and your whole day takes a downward spiral. You might even retort back, which complicates matters even further. This is not a happy situation, and it leaves you feeling like a victim.

The alternative is to lose interest in the story of what happened and become aware of your in-the-moment experience. As you stop feeding the content of the thoughts in your mind, you notice feelings and you let them be present. You’re aware of sensations in your body, and you simply allow them to be as they are.

Experience of Aware Presence
But what does this have to do with happiness? Let these experiences be — without avoiding, justifying, analyzing or ignoring them — and the troubling thoughts and feelings begin to lose their power over you. You see them as just experiences that arise and pass on. Then, you’ll notice that thoughts and feelings seem to appear in the field of awareness. What an insight! Where before you were consumed by the monologue in your head and your emotions, now there is newfound space. This experience of aware presence is free, unglued from the content of these distressing objects.

You see that you don’t have to be angry or sad, you don’t have to be caught in an anxious or unhappy story. You realize the possibility of being peaceful, and maybe even responding to the situation in new ways, once the attachment to these thoughts and feelings dissipates. You’re amazed to see that this possibility has always been here, even while your attention was gripped by the drama of what happened.

Let’s take another example: the need to feel accepted by others. If you experience this need, your internal world will certainly be stressful with thoughts swirling in your mind telling you you’re unworthy or flawed. You live in the hope that others will approve of you — but you have a sneaking suspicion they won’t. And you hesitate to express your opinions or say “no” to people’s requests of you.

Some of us — maybe you — live with this constellation of inner experiences for decades. This very uncomfortable way of thinking, feeling and behaving seems so legitimate. And you feel powerless to do anything about it. Is this the best that life has to offer?

Thankfully, you do have a choice. You can continue to resist by inhabiting the character of the you who is unworthy, hoping your distress will eventually subside. Or you can pause the story playing in your mind and discover your actual experience: feelings and physical sensations arising in awareness. This is the opening into meeting yourself as you are. In any given moment, if you’re not adding fuel to the story that something’s missing, you’re just here as presence, with thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations arising. From this understanding of what’s true, where’s the problem?

It may take time for this pattern to unwind, because the mind tends to hold on tightly. But each time you wake up to realize that you can rest as awareness and not play out the old story — again, your identity that was limited by the story unravels just a little bit more. Each time is a glimpse into the freedom that is possible when you know who you are.

The return home to yourself, where peace is your abiding experience and joy can’t help but bubble over, asks you to stop looking outside yourself for solutions. You’ll reach a turning point when you stop blaming others for your problems or waiting for the right life circumstances to bring you fulfillment. Think of it as making a U-turn with your attention toward yourself. No matter what events happen, here you are, aware of it all.

You’re the awareness experiencing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations — without reacting to them. These are moments filled with grace.



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