“Suffering: Undergoing or feeling pain or distress.”
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of The English Language
It is said that to suffer is to be human. In fact, the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism states that the very nature of life results in the experience of suffering. The essence of this statement may be true, however, we don’t have to wallow in it. By doing so, we prolong our pain and prevent ourselves from evolving beyond the point of the experience. The choices we make and the actions we take, directly after a painful experience, increase or dissipate the suffering.
= What Creates The Experience of Suffering? =
Experiencing or “feeling” pain and or distress is a not-so-pleasant part of life. It occurs largely due to the friction that arises between our experience of an event compared to our desire and attachment to a specific outcome.
In Yoga there is a word that embodies the experience of suffering and pain and that word is Duhka. It is said that when one experiences duhka somatically, in the body, it is a pressure or weight in the chest and solar plexus and that it brings about a “feeling” of darkness or an inability to see things, people, situations clearly. The very presence of this experience in your life brings darkness to your understanding of the situation and world around you.
Lets say, for instance, you are applying for the perfect job. You prepare for and nail the interview. You are so confident that the interview went well that you even purchase a new suit, plan the layout of your new office and call potential rentals in the perfect neighborhood. Then you find out that the job was given to someone else, in fact a peer less qualified than you. The impact of an experience like that can be somewhat…unpleasant. The natural result of an experience like this is for the mind to begin to race and question everything. In an instance like this, the mind becomes a distraction unto itself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when we are experiencing some form of suffering. As we have all experienced, suffering can come in many forms, from the minor irritation of confusion and misunderstanding to the deeper pains of trauma, deeply embedded attachments and life-long expectations. When we are attached to anything that doesn’t materialize, for whatever reason, the suffering can be great.
In the moment of suffering, two primary questions arise in the mind that reenforce patterns of thinking that can occlude our deeper awareness. These two simple questions are, “What?” and “Why?” Typically, these two questions manifest as the internal quests to pick apart “What just happened?” and “Why did this happen to me?”
The questions of What and Why are reinforcements of our experience of suffering and stimulate negative self talk, disappointment, self-criticism and judgement. The fixation of our mind on the details of an experience can perpetuate and potentially increase the level of our suffering.3
“Difficulty lies not in the action, but in the mind’s reaction.” – J.M.
It is common for us to think that by answering these questions it will help, perhaps even aid in the healing process. However, these two questions are actually impediments to the kind of healing and self development necessary to preventing the reinforcement of the pain or discomfort. Once we identify what happened and why it occurred, there is always another layer of What and Why. In fact, the deeper, seemingly protective aspects of the mind (Ego) will use this mechanism as a distraction, luring our awareness away from crucial points of understanding with brilliant internal imagery and catchy dialogue. Not to worry, in the moments where our mind begins winding down the rabbit hole of recursive distraction, there are some very simple practices that can have a profound effect on, not only the way we think, but also the structure of our body and the very fabric of our Nervous System.
= The ‘P’ Word – Practice! =
Before we get to a simple practice that can assist in interrupting the cycle of questioning the What and Why, it’s important to understand that this is a PRACTICE. As such it requires you to put in time (I see that glazed over look in your eyes, don’t worry, it’s not a lot of time) in order to embody it and experience the transformation that can come from tasting it’s fruits. By nature, the body adapts to change, this is the foundation of homeostasis. This includes any cognitive changes we may make. In the beginning there may be resistance that arises in the form of our awareness drifting back again and again into the pattern of thinking that we are attempting to alter. The important piece to remember is that eventually the Nervous System will respond and ‘rewire’ those pathways, enabling us to make the practice at hand permanent. It is more important to have a consistent practice, than a perceived perfect practice.
When you’re stuck in a pattern of asking What and Why, and are aware that it’s happening (in powerful, emotional moments the questioning may be automatic), an effective practice to interrupt this is to simply reorient your awareness to the breath and ask another set of questions.
= The Practice – Keep It Simple & Sweet =
In order to effectively reorient your awareness, a practice has to be simple and take only a few moments to implement. The simplest “interruption” that we can use is to take our attention from the nagging questions of What and Why and refocus on the basic sensations of our breath. It is through our continued awareness of the breath that we are able to tap into and effect the deeper impulses of our subconscious and rewire our unconscious reactions.5
= Interrupting The What & Why =
For one to two minutes sit or stand comfortably and pay attention to the sensations of your breathing:
- Focus on the air passing into and out of your nose
- The feeling of the rise and fall of your chest
- The pressure of your diaphragm dropping downward and your belly gently expanding outward as you inhale.
There is no need to control anything, lengthen the breath or alter your natural breathing in any way.
At the conclusion of the two minutes, become aware of the quality of the sensations throughout your entire body and how the mental chatter has shifted.
= Going Deeper =
As your focus drifts to your mental chatter, bring to mind the substitute questions, “How?” and “Where?”
Specifically, “How…Do I feel?”
What are the sensations that you are experiencing in your body at that very moment. Examples may include:
- Increased respiratory rate
- Flushed face and ears
- Increased heat in the body
- Tension in the abdomen
- Sharper vision, hearing, smell etc.
Also, “Where…Am I experiencing these sensations in my body?”
Where exactly in your body are these sensations located.
By focusing on how it feels to breath and asking these two new questions, we create a moment where we can interrupt or disturb the pattern of suffering in our minds and our bodies.
= How Does It Work? =
I’m a big ‘why’ guy, and I feel that by having a basic understanding of how something works or what it does, gives you reason and motivation to invest your time and energy into the process.
The questions What and Why reenforce our experience of suffering by externalizing our awareness and making more acute the patterns of discomfort or pain. The repeated, externalized, re-experiencing of the memory lends itself to inaccurate recall and potential adulteration from our Ego. Remember, negative self talk, disappointment, self criticism and judgement are all side effects of the What and Why.2
Neurologically, when we focus on the questions of What and Why, those areas of the brain associated with vision, waking state consciousness, associative reasoning, the stress response and the externalization of awareness in general are acutely activated.4
When we shift our focus to simple breath awareness and ask How and Where, the more profound, internal structures of the brain light up. These structures are associated with emotional reactivity, clarity of memory, and the down regulation of the stress response. At the same time that these deeper parts of the brain are being activated, the unconscious, automatic physical reactions of the body, connected to and created by each experience of suffering, are being unravelled.1,2,4
Coming Up Next: Step Two: What to do once you’ve interrupted the chatter of the mind, tuned into the body and identified the areas that are holding sensation and/or discomfort.
= Discussion =
What has been your experience of the connection between your breath and your conscious experience?
As you implement the above techniques, what have you experienced?
What does “unconscious, automatic physical reactions of the body” mean to you? Care to share?
1. Streeter, C., Whitfield, T.H., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S.K., Yakhkind, A., Perlmutter, R., Prescot, A., Renshaw, P.F., Ciraulo, D.A., Jensen, J.E. (2010). Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study. Journal of Alternative Complement Medicine, 16(11), 1145–1152.
2. Eagleman, D. (2007, August). 10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The Brain: What we know—and don’t know—about how we think. Discover Science, Technology and the Future, 54-75. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2007/aug/unsolved-brain-mysteries.
3. Linton, S.J., Shaw, W.S. (2011). Impact of Psychological Factors in the Experience of Pain. Physical Therapy, 91, 700-711.
4. Farb, N.A.S., Segal, Z.V., Anderson, A.K. (2013). Attentional Modulation of Primary Interoceptive and Exteroceptive Cortices. Cerebral Cortex 23 (1), 114-126.
5. Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda (2009). Yoga Darshan: Vision of the Yoga Upanishads. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India.