This is a deceptively simple equation that my friend John Carbone, a doctor and meditation teacher, taught me a few months ago. John learned it from his own meditation teacher, Shinzen Young. And I have to admit, it’s a hard lesson to take in. I’m still grappling with it, so see what you think. The equation has everything to do with how we deal with difficulties and how our own responses can get in the way of moving forward. It’s a powerful lesson about taking responsibility for how we experience our own lives.
How willing are you to take a hard look at what may be keeping you from moving forward?
S is for Suffering
In your life and career these, how do you experience suffering? It could be old wounds from childhood, or a setback that we haven’t been able to get past or let go of. A hurt we can’t seem to forgive. Or a longing for something (or someone) we feel is unattainable. Perhaps you’re suffering because you feel unable to get more of your most creative work done.
Feeling trapped is a form of suffering. So is being distracted and busy all the time—if it prevents us from becoming who we are meant to be. Whatever suffering you identify, take note of it. The first step to making change is getting honest with yourself.
To be clear, suffering is a predictable element of the human condition. Some suffering is inevitable: it’s a part of life.
What’s not inevitable is the amount of suffering we actually experience.
Shinzen Young’s equation highlights the fact that the suffering we experience is relative. Meaning, we influence the severity of our own suffering. It isn’t simply the pain we register. There’s more to it . . .
P = Pain
There’s of course physical pain and irritations we’ve all experienced. We sprain an ankle, we bruise a shin. And if we are able to calm down and simply register what we are feeling throughout our body, and breathe with it, we can lessen the suffering.
And there’s also emotional pain. The pain of disappointment, of disillusionment, of rejection and failure. We’ve all had our share, right? Pain is real, whether it’s physical or emotional.
But the amount of suffering we experience is determined by how we respond to the pain.
R = Resistance
Resistance includes all of our defenses and resentments, our disappointment, fear, and embarrassment or shame that we’ve wrapped around the pain we experience.
It’s the sense of life being unfair and that whatever happened to us shouldn’t have happened. That we don’t “deserve” the pain.
Of course life IS unfair. And if we venture outside our comfort zones, we risk disappointment, setbacks, and failure. Unfortunate losses and causes for grief are also just part of life.
We can’t shield or protect ourselves from pain. And the more we resent, deny, or rail against the pain, the more we suffer. If we try to deny or numb ourselves to it, we actually numb ourselves to all the positive emotions as well. And so we simply extend the suffering.
I’ve seen far too many musicians let the experience of one setback or disappointment determine their risk tolerance. It’s as though they revise their internal narrative based on one failure. So now the story they tell themselves about who they really are is “someone who doesn’t audition well,” or “someone who’s too nervous to do any public speaking.” We’ve made the pain into something about our very identity. In that way, the suffering is far more than the pain of the original setback.
S = PxR means that our suffering is the pain we experience compounded by our resistance to it—what we make it mean in our life. Resistance magnifies the pain and suffering.
How do we get past the resistance?
Dealing with pain calls for radical acceptance. Acceptance of the reality in front of us. And acceptance of the fact that we have a choice of how to respond and move forward.
Being a victim is a choice. Just as accepting the reality of our pain and dealing with it head on is also a choice. It’s the one that courageous survivors opt for—so they can move forward in life.
An extreme example of the human ability to deal with pain and suffering comes from Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. He wrote:
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Every setback, every loss, every failure has important lessons for us.
Lessons we can’t learn if we don’t accept the reality of our circumstances and deal with it, learning to let it go.
Frankl also wrote:
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
Think about how you’ve responded to setbacks and failures. Were you able to find meaning in your suffering? To learn from it and then let go of the pain? Have you fully recovered or are you suffering still from the consequences?
Find more about the equation and John Carbone’s teachings HERE.
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