One of the most common causes of suffering that I witness as a psychotherapist is the belief that life is supposed to be easy, and that people are supposed to be happy most of the time. When life is hard, or people experience themselves as more identified with feeling hurt, angry, sad, or confused, something must be wrong; they must be wrong. They seek help to fix it, to care less. To feel less.
Buddhist philosophy teaches that the simple act of wishing things were different is the root cause of suffering. If we could just accept things as they are, Buddhists say, our suffering would disappear and we would be essentially content with our lives. Easy, right?
Yet being dissatisfied is a fundamental part of being human. Back when humans either struggled to survive or died, those who made it developed the skills needed to continue, and nature encoded that will to persist– along with what was then a necessary anxiety about succeeding –into our ancestors’ DNA. That ancient drive was fundamental to our evolution, and has roots deep in our subconscious minds.
Today many of us, at least in the Western hemisphere, no longer have to claw our way through existence. We’ re invited to enjoy the comparative ease of 21st Century life. In fact, we’ re taught by the arbiters of modern culture to cultivate a life of happiness and comfort, and we’ re given formulas for the ‘ right’ way to achieve this.
So we unconsciously start to chase this fantasy of happiness and ease, and unconsciously run from pain, discomfort, and suffering. We create a polarity of good and bad and the more energy we put into achieving happiness, the more afraid we grow that we’ ll fail, ending up unhappy, lonely, angry.
Yet we feel dissatisfaction for good reason. Sometimes things need to change; we need to leave unhealthy relationships, ask for a raise, or even demand systemic change.
Unhappiness can actually be a sign of mental and spiritual health. It is sane to feel devastated in a culture that still hurts and kills innocent people because of the color of their skin. It is sane to feel devastated when someone you love leaves you, whether by choice or forces beyond control. It is sane to feel angry, scared, and sad when your basic stability disappears – through job loss or other economic reversal. It is sane to feel lost and confused in a world that idolizes celebrities void of real merit over actual heroes.
More globally, it is sane to feel existential fear when we learn that human garbage is creating islands of plastic strangling the sacred and dwindling life in our oceans and contributing to climate change.
I often encourage my clients to go into the “negative” emotions as a way of dismantling that fear. If we can feel the emotion, we start to learn we are not it: we are bigger, and capable of staying with the sensation, uncomfortable as it may be, without collapsing. Then, a curious thing happens: we begin to identify with the part of us that is strong, capable, and resilient, rather than with the part that feels threatened by the ‘ negative’ experiences. We no longer need to run.
For me, the point is this:
Rather than aiming for a life circumscribed by the very limited ideals that we should be mostly happy and comfortable, we have the opportunity to open to the full spectrum of our life: a full palate of experiences, feelings, and sensations. Not only is the idea that life is supposed to be easy and pain-free a false narrative, it’ s ultimately not very interesting. It’ s natural to want vibrancy without the heat that gets us there. But the truth is, more often than not, life is tough, even harrowing. If we are organized around growth and learning, we must tolerate riding the edge of what we know how to do and what we don’ t. Real change requires enormous commitment, effort, and humility. It requires a willingness to fumble and admit temporary failure in the service of a greater vision; an inner loyalty to wherever it is we are trying to go.
If we can start by simply changing the story, and give ourselves permission to struggle and figure it out as we go, I believe our lives can change dramatically. When we acknowledge the reality of a situation (this is hard) and trust our experience (I feel irritated/ sad) then we can utilize all that we already know -and participate in the situation at hand – rather than avoiding it by falling into habitual patterns. And then, we actually have a shot at real change.