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.

Days 358 to 365 – What One Freedom Junkie Manifested After a Year of Committing to Living Full-On

Full On 365This is the story of when I faced death one time too many – and the story of where this blog began.

In early 2011 I thought I had cancer – again. I had received an MRI as routine follow-up for my past kidney cancer…during which they also toss in a free check to see if my past melanoma has spread anywhere as well. I received a call from my doctor on a Friday afternoon saying he’d like to talk to me about the results. But since he was leaving town, we could talk about it Monday.

WTF? Who DOES that?! An oncologist is NOT supposed to do that on a Friday afternoon.

After my inner rant about the fu@#ed-up timing of the call, I then thought, “Oh shit. That’s never good.” At least, it never means it is normal. When you have a normal PAP smear, they leave a message (if given permission) that all was normal. They say, “Hello, Ana! This is Merry Mindy from Dr. Good News’ office and I just wanted to let you know your cervix fucking rocks!”

Well, I gave permission for such a message and that is NOT what I was hearing on the answering machine.

I replayed the message over and over, had my friends and boyfriend at the time listen to it to try to decipher the underlying message and, ultimately, to try and decide before freakin’ MONDAY if I was going to receive the news that one of my two cancers had returned – or worse, that they may have spread. All of this based on our highly-attuned voice-interpretation Jedi skills, of course.

We decided it was fine. He sounded mildly cheery and relaxed.

Whatever. The certainty of that conclusion lasted all but five minutes.

Between that moment and Monday, I was going down to San Francisco for a coaching workshop. On the first day, I was selected to be a model client. Well, I raised my hand like that eager kid in the front row, to be honest. I really really wanted to be picked. I had some shit brewing that I wanted to process. My friend and colleague, Sabina, intuitively called my name.

I walked to the front of the room, sat down with her in a chair, looked into her deep brown eyes, and after recounting the story above, I paused, looked up, and said, “I am not ready. I am not ready to die yet. I am NOT DONE.” I cried. Just a little, though.

She then gave me a powerful challenge. I was to look at the room of 15 or so people and know I was going to die in two minutes. What would I want to say to them? I had seconds to think about it and two minutes to say it.

Tick tock.

I didn’t pause. I looked at each one of them directly in the eye (and realized how little I actually did that lately) and I said – no, I shouted – “WAKE THE FUCK UP!” Wake the fuck up and stop wasting this precious life. Is there someone you love but haven’t told them yet? Say it! Is there something you’ve been wanting to do – or BE – your whole life but you keep making excuses? Do it – BE it – now. Is there a way you want to feel? Give yourself fucking permission to be happy, bold, and brave! Refuse to live life with regrets. Say you’re sorry. Get over the stupid grudge. Let go of the bullshit.

Life is shorter than you’ll ever want it to be. YOU WILL DIE – and you don’t know when. So get to the business of living life full-on. NOW.

At this point I was sobbing. And so was half the class. I don’t know if they were sobbing because of me and my predicament, or whether they were sobbing at the realization of all that they weren’t living yet…but I didn’t care. My message was powerful, and I felt it was complete.

Sabina then asked me about how I was living full-out or not (she used the term full-out). I realized that despite what my life looked like on paper – my international travels, my catching babies as a nurse-midwife during that miraculous moment in life that I got to witness on a regular basis, my successful coaching business, my apparent health, my supposedly fun and exciting relationship – despite it all, I wasn’t living what I KNEW was full-out for me.

I committed then and there to live full-out every day for a month. At least I think it was a month. And I decided to say “full-on” instead. It reminded me of the 80’s;)

Within a month I broke up with my boyfriend who, while having good intentions and dashing good looks, fell far short of my version of the man I wanted to spend my life with. I wanted my Noah (yes, that’s a cheesy Hollywood reference from The Notebook). Hollywood fantasy or not, I knew it was possible for me, and I wanted nothing less. I’d rather be alone than living life half-way with someone who couldn’t meet me where I was at.

I wanted my sexy sweet manly man, who was spiritual and had integrity and trust, who was madly in love with me and with whom I knew I would grow old with and have amazing adventures – evolving together and celebrating one another more than hurting one another. I had to admit that if this lil’ lady was going to live full-on, I couldn’t have someone as a partner who didn’t show up the way that I knew would allow me to live to my fullest potential. In my full-on mind, that’s the only kind of relationship to be in. Otherwise, they are way too much work to be worth it!

I knew this man existed out there for me. I had already met him once. I wasn’t going to miss it again.

Leaving a relationship that is a “maybe” can be one of the hardest things to do. It is so much easier to say “Yes” or “No” to the obvious. But when something is a “maybe,” we can waste a lot of freakin’ time. And trust me – if its a maybe, it usually becomes a “Hell No!” at some point. If you’re living full on, you don’t have time to wait. You have to trust your intuition and say “Hell Yes!” to your happiness. I had way too many Maybes that I waited for to become Hell-Nos before I left, and I had finally learned my lesson.

In that month, I also committed to leaving my job and moving to a mountain town within the next year. I had a condo in Telluride, Colorado, and it was high-time I return to the mountains, which is where my soul get filled. I wanted more free time, more adventures, more badassness EVERY DAY.

I went skinny dipping after work at sunset, I danced naked in the rain (yes, I find clothes excessive), I got off my ass when I didn’t feel like it and went out to go night skiing under the moonlight, I looked people in the eye, I connected and focused on being present with friends when they needed me. I didn’t multi-task when on the phone with my mom. Full-on living happens at all levels – not just in the outward adventures, but through inner integrity as well.

Months later, I decided that I had wandered a bit from my full-on commitment. I was getting sucked into my business and focusing so much on work, and less on getting outside. While I love my work and am blessed with beautiful careers, I wasn’t very balanced with taking care of my body and my value of adventure. Yes, we had just gone to Africa for a month, but as soon as we returned I was pretty stressed at work again.

I was proud that I had cut back to part-time at work, but alas, I was still there – hanging on with one arm as I swung above the beautiful but terrifying void below. I had 4 days off in a row twice a month, and 8-10 days off once a month…but it wasn’t enough for the type of adventures I wanted. I wanted time to explore, to have the freedom to be spontaneous, freedom to write when I was inspired…FREEDOM! I chose freedom over security. I still make that choice, every day.

It had felt so good to live full-on for 30 days, and so many good things came of it. I was definitely living full-on a lot of the time, but I didn’t want a slap in the face from the Universe to make me realize that I was stilling falling short of MY version of a Full-On life.

I then wondered, “What would happen if I committed to a full year?”

Here we are backcountry skiing with wigs!
Here we are backcountry skiing with wigs!

With my soul-mate, Thai, sitting at my side, I showed him the blog I just started, (which later migrated over to so I only had to maintain one blog). I said to him, “I am going to commit to living full-on, every day, for a full year. And I’m going to write about it here. What do you think?

Thai looked at me with a smile and said, “I think it’s a great idea! Your blog looks awesome! I think it’s great that you want to help others live like that too, inspiring them” – and this coming from a guy who practically develops a rash when he has to work on or look at a computer. He was into it, and psyched for me. He was also a part of what manifested when I decided to live full-on, and now I could feel it: we were going to manifest some epic shit together, especially once I committed to this full year.

So it began – and here it is ending. Not my living Full-On – that’s not ending. I have learned that it is indeed possible to live full-on every day. But now that I have made it such a habit, I don’t need a blog to hold me accountable anymore. I also noticed that the more full-on I was living (like traveling in Africa again for three months, or being madly in love), I had less time for blogging;) So rather, it’s the FullOn365 blog itself that is ending.

Here I’ve arrived, and in the last 365 days I’ve manifested:

:: my incredibly amazing fiancee Thai (whom I’ve known for 13 years now…and we finally found our way back to each other after meeting in Kathmandu long ago)
:: I quit my job and have a wonderful entrepreneurial career with life, love, and wellness coaching interspersed with catching babies in beautiful places.
:: I moved to Alaska with my partner and get to see majestic mountains daily and play in them too;) I still have my condo in Telluride, but this mountain town in Alaska suits me quite well
:: I live in an awesome yurt with my partner who built it with his own hands, and who finished it the day I arrived to be with him
:: I am experiencing ever-improving levels of health and well-being
:: markedly less stress
:: traveled to at least 14 countries in the past 18 months, including two trips to Africa
:: launched my long-dreamt about and finally-happening-in-an-epic-way Freedom Sessions Mastermind group
:: 5 months vacation a year (and growing!)
:: preparing to start a family – yup, I’m taking prenatal vitamins for more than awesome hair and nails now, amigos!
:: a closer relationship with my mother
:: a tribe of friends who howl at the moon like I do (in fact, I’m flying to meet them at a beach house in Mexico as I write this)
:: a deepening trust that we are here to be happy. This life is meant to be enjoyed. We enjoy it more when we show up with integrity for others and are a good friend and lover and partner and son or daughter. We are meant to have FUN and live our dreams.

We were put here on this beautiful earth to share our gifts with others. Only then is the Universe complete.

I hope that this blog has served its purpose – not just in holding me accountable to you through my updates for living full-on, but in inspiring you to do the same – EVERY DAY.

Wake the fuck up.

That’s all I have to say. Oh, except to add that what the doctor saw was a small “likely” benign area of higher density on my liver that needed no further follow-up except for a repeat in 6 months – which showed no change (and was therefore deemed to be insignificant). Yay!

PPS: Take a look at this picture. I found it our friend’s remote cabin in Alaska. It’s the manifesto for my life. It’s the manifesto for the way I have been living the past 365 days during my FullOn365 challenge. Let me know what you think about it below – and spread the Freedom!