Pain is Inevitable. Suffering is Optional. Here is How to Unlock Your Freedom


“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ~ Haruki Murakami

“Freedom” is a word we often toss around a lot these days: “I want more Freedom,” “Create More Freedom In Your Life!” yada yada. But freedom implies freedom from something. What do you seek freedom from? Financial burdens? Controlling or unfulfilling relationships? Clutter? Incapacitating negative self-talk? An oppressive boss?

My guess is that ultimately, you are seeking freedom from some sort of suffering. But here’s the thing: while many people want to be free from the things that cause suffering in their lives, very few people want to actually change.

This be a wee bit of a problem, sistah.

You see, if we don’t do things differently, we can’t expect things to change. And in order to become free of suffering, we need things to change.

One of the most skillful tools I have found for helping to move away from suffering and towards happiness is to drive the blame of all your suffering into one cause – the root cause being inside of you. Not YOU yourself – no, that’s what we tend to do when self-blame is more comfortable than doing the hard work of getting to the root. What I mean by the root cause being inside of you is that it is your default mode that causes suffering. And the cool thing is, that is changeable.

Pema Chodron explained this in a really accessible way when she said that the triggers of our suffering are different from the causes. Often we think that the triggers of our suffering – like traffic, or friends being late, or someone giving us some negative feedback – are the true causes. We feel that if they didn’t happen, we would be happy.

Well, perhaps that is true – except for the fact that shit does happen (that’s why there’s so many bumper stickers with that on it) and we might as well learn to deal with it instead of running from it. Haven’t you noticed that running from it is just as exhausting anyway?

In any event, the guy that stands you up, or the boss that skipped the Zen of Leadership course…they are triggers of a deeper, natural default mode you have.

It is also true that this default is unique to you. Do you notice how some people are bothered by something and another person could care less? Like me, I don’t generally mind when my man goes out skiing for the weekend with the boys and I have no idea when he’ll be back. Unless I am ovulating and we are supposed to do the deed. But that level of unknowing and lack of proximity for days on end would drive some of my friends absolutely batshit crazy! Yet they tolerate their boyfriends being consistently late or not returning their calls and that, my friends, is a no-can-do in my book.

The question is, “What does the trigger bring up in you?” Is it a sense of loneliness? Of not being loved? Of being disrespected? Or a sense of anger or fear?

Each time we strengthen that natural propensity/default and get engaged by it, or start feeling bad about yourself, we enforce it. We dig the groove in our brain deeper that tells it this is the path we want to take whenever we encounter that trigger.

What would benefit us more is to skip over the story of the trigger and drive all the attention and focus (aka “blame”) into our default mode. By doing this, you’ll feel more motivated to work with it because you’ll start to associate the correct cause – your default mode – with suffering. It’s not the trigger, it’s the default. And try as we might to control the triggers, we will fail. But we can control our default mode.

How can we start to do this?

First we must let go of the story behind the triggers. Often it isn’t the negative feedback per se that leads to suffering, but rather that story that follows. For example, if your colleague says, “Hey Jane, I thought the chart you showed us was really confusing. Maybe next time use bullet points,” you can start to spiral into a line of thinking such as: “Man, they are about to discover what an idiot I really am. I knew I shouldn’t be in this position. I am not smart enough. That person was such a bitch for saying that to me. I’m going to try to avoid them (or look for flaws in their next presentation).” Let the suffering begin.

Alternately, you can think, “Ick. That felt shitty. I wonder what’s going on inside of me to take that so personally. I better not respond yet. I’ll sit on it and see if I think it’s valid feedback or not. If it is, I’ll change my presentation. If not, I’ll let it go.”

The challenge is that it takes time to create the space between the emotion that gets triggered and the creative response. An uncontrolled emotional reaction is quick and effortless because it is our default. If it weren’t so damaging to us most of the time, it would be awesome! However, in order to do things differently – and thus create change and therefore move us away from suffering and towards happiness – we need to create space between the trigger and our response.

How do we create that space?

Sorry if you’re not fond of it, but meditation is essential in letting the storyline go. The thing is, you don’t have to do the sitting-on-a-cushion type of meditation. You can do walking meditation, or running meditation, or hiking through the park meditation for that matter. Whatever you choose, just make sure it is conducive to calming your thoughts.

When you meditate and focus on your breath or another point of concentration, you will have thoughts pop up. When this happens, you train in a technique to notice your thinking and label the thoughts as thoughts. That’s it. Simply label them as thoughts. You label the thought then go back to the breath/object of your meditation.

Essentially, by doing this, you train in letting thoughts go. And as a result, you train in letting the story go. When you see a thought as a thought, you let go of the story that follows when you would have mistaken it for a bona fide truth in the past (instead of merely a thought).

The storyline of a thought is like pouring kerosine on fire. In the quote from Haruki Murakami, he says, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” It’s OK to feel pain! Pain is a part of life, a part of loving and of being in a body that gets sick or injured and grows old. The problem is that we pour kerosine over the fire and turn the pain into this disproportionate, long-lasting suffering.

It is better to keep the hurt as an ember – not a bonfire of suffering! Discover where it is that your pain turns into rage or self-deprication or self-blame. That’s where you defaults lie.

Then, now that you’ve targeted the root cause, start to send unconditional love to that place rather than blaming them. Don’t be harsh with yourself or try to repress your feelings. Be present, allow the pain to be there, and send it unconditional love. Send loving kindness to this default you have that’s ultimately fear-based. These defaults are indeed afraid and based on fear of danger, so the way to work with them is to help them relax by sending unconditional love. Try this Tong Len Meditation audio to start.

As we get better at seeing the true causes of our suffering, and the difference between the triggers and our pre-existing defaults, we can start to appreciate our triggers as a chance to grow. As long as we have the defaults, the triggers will affect us. Since we can’t get rid of the triggers, we can work with sending loving compassion to our fear-based default modes.

This path is not for the faint of heart, but it IS a path to take when ultimate freedom is your goal. Share some of your triggers below, and let’s start addressing our suffering at the root cause – the fear that those triggers bring up. This is a life lesson, and process that gets easier and easier the more you practice.