How Could Suffering Be Healthy? Part Two

A few weeks ago I had a tremendous opportunity to take Lara Naughton’s “Self-Compassion and Narrative Writing” workshop. This powerful class (sponsored by a wonderful organization called Compassionate St. Augustine) led participants through several exercises geared toward writing about experiences through the lens of compassion—for ourselves as well as for others.

Before we could begin writing, we had to have an understanding of compassion. Naughton explained that compassion is a distinct emotion, different from love or sympathy or empathy or any other emotion. She explained that there are four components that must be present for a person to feel real compassion, and they are:
1. recognizing suffering
2. feeling of concern
3. wishing for the suffering to be relieved
4. willingness to act

One reason why self-compassion is so hard for so many of us, Naughton explained, is that we don’t recognize our own suffering! We tend to want to sugar coat whatever is happening, or look immediately for the silver lining.

It can be very difficult to sit alone with our unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Often we just distract ourselves with TV, shopping, etc. But studies have shown than being mindful—actually staying in the present moment and observing/experiencing whatever is present, even suffering—actually brings more happiness and more peace.

There is a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford University, where scholars study compassion, human behavior, and brain activity. In one study, they compared how mindfulness relates to happiness. They figured out four possible scenarios: doing a pleasant task with mindfulness, doing a pleasant task with mind-wandering, doing an unpleasant task with mindfulness, and doing an unpleasant task with mind-wandering.

As you would expect, people were happiest when they were doing a pleasant task with mindfulness. But they actually found that of the other options, people were happier when they practiced mindfulness—even if they had to do an unpleasant task.

Doing a pleasant task with mind-wandering did not bring happiness. Maybe this has happened to you—maybe there was a time when you got to do something you really wanted to do, but you couldn’t enjoy it because you were so worried about something else. You were preoccupied, your mind was elsewhere, you weren’t really present in the moment experiencing enjoyment.

Has the opposite every been true for you? Was there ever a time when you had to do something you really didn’t want to do—something you felt was unpleasant—but when you finally accepted that fact and focused on the task at hand you found that it really wasn’t so bad after all? Maybe afterward you even felt a tremendous amount of happiness because not only was the task done, but it was more pleasant that you thought it would be? Or something unexpectedly pleasant came out of the experience?

Kristin Neff, a Ph.D. who has written multiple books about self-compassion, includes mindfulness as one of the three components of self-compassion. The first is kindness—being supportive and understanding of yourself, encouraging yourself, being moved by your own suffering.

Which, of course, means you have to recognize and acknowledge your own suffering!

The second is acknowledging common humanity—recognizing that everyone (including you) makes mistakes, that you’re not alone in your imperfection, everyone suffers.

The third is mindfulness—being aware of our thoughts and feelings, being open to the present reality without judgment, avoidance or repression, and being willing to experience whatever is present—even suffering.

So this, ultimately, is how suffering can be healthy. Acknowledging it is the first step toward being compassionate with ourselves or others. Being present with it, rather than avoiding it or pretending it isn’t there, can lead to an opportunity to really process it, which ultimately brings us peace and happiness.
There are many resources to help practice mindfulness. For most people, it’s a lifelong endeavor! But a good way to start, many experts believe, is through the use of our breath. Taking three deep, slow breaths—and focusing on our breath—can bring is mindfully into the present moment.

But remember that the final components of compassion are the desire for suffering to be relieved (because if we were to relish in someone’s suffering, that’s not being compassionate), and a willingness to act.

What Naughton presented in her workshop as a first, simple step in taking action toward self-compassion is practicing gratitude. Sometimes we recognize our suffering so well, that we actually sort of cling to it. It can become so familiar that we can have trouble letting go of it. Even after we think we’ve processed our pain, we can tend to ruminated—replay things over and over in our minds. Like the expression says, “How can we move on to the next chapter when we keep re-reading the last one?”

By practicing the last two aspects of self-compassion! Focus on the breath—at least three deep, slow, cleansing breaths, or as many as it takes to come into the present moment and quiet the “monkey mind.” And then focus on at least one thing for which we are truly grateful. Or count our many blessings! What is going really well for you? What do you appreciate about yourself?

Just as it’s not healthy to deny our suffering, it’s also not healthy to cling to it. We need to give ourselves permission to feel all our feelings—sitting with the unpleasant ones, and celebrating the joyful ones.

Compassion is a powerful force in humanity, and perhaps the best part is that we can learn it and improve our practice of it at any time.

steffyjthomas heart

Photo by Steffy J Thomas/Flickr

Category : Blog Posted on March 1, 2016

Leave a Reply