by Kate Harper
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. I’ll never forget reading this First Noble Truth in Sylvia Boorstein’s It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness. I was 42 at the time. When I was 12, my father died of malignant melanoma. I felt abandoned, let down by God, alternately mad and sad and numb. Thirty years of suffering.
This Noble Truth resonated deeply. It felt both honest – yes life can be hard and painful, and hopeful – I don’t have to suffer. I began to explore ways to find happiness and lessen suffering: practicing meditation and yoga, focusing on letting in the good, being kind to myself, staying present. How I experience life is forever changed. Thank you Sylvia! Thank you Buddha!
Imagine that each of us has a dial in our brain labeled Suffering that can be turned up or down. I have practiced turning down the dial on suffering. When negative emotions arise, I do my best to not resist and allow the experience. When things don’t go the way I want, I notice when I want to beat myself up and try kindness instead. I have spent a good deal of time and energy tuning my Suffering Dial. So imagine my shock when I read Martha Beck’s blog post on the Willingness Factor. She writes:
In Hayes’s book Get Out of Your Mind & into Your Life, he suggests that we picture our minds as electronic gadgets with dials, like old-fashioned radios. One dial is labeled Emotional Suffering (Hayes actually calls it Discomfort). Naturally, we do everything we can to turn that dial to zero. … There’s another dial on the unit, but it doesn’t look very enticing. This one Hayes calls Willingness, though I think of it as Willingness to Suffer. It’s safe to assume that we start life with that dial set at zero, and we rarely see any reason to change it. Increasing our availability to pain, we think, is just a recipe for anguish soufflé.
This post rocked my world view. My Willingness Dial (Martha calls it willingness to suffer, but I think of it as willingness to experience emotional pain) is set pretty darn low! I have confused my quest to not suffer with a quest to not feel pain. I’ll say that again. Not only do I not want to suffer, I don’t want to feel pain. But pain is inevitable; pain is part of life. When I am avoiding pain, I am not available to experience all life has to offer: both joys and sorrows. When I am avoiding pain, I have less to offer life.
How does this show up? Well for example, I avoid sales conversations. I proudly tell others that I get all my business through word of mouth. The truth is I craftily avoid situations where I might experience the pain of rejection. How many clients have I not served by not talking about my business? What could happen if I turned up my willingness to experience pain?
I also see this in clients. Often leaders know they have someone who is in the wrong job. They avoid giving the person feedback, or letting the person go, because they don’t want to hurt any one’s feelings. What is really going on is they don’t want to experience the potential emotional pain of hurting someone’s feelings. Imagine what is possible if they were willing to experience a bit more pain and discomfort as part of being the best leader they can be?
I am now practicing turning up the Willingness Dial. When I find myself avoiding a possible negative experience, I ask myself, “What would I do if I was willing to experience pain?”
So far I’ve told the truth to a potential business partner – and opened a great conversation. I’ve decided to ask a high profile client for direct feedback to make our relationship stronger at the risk of hearing something I don’t want to hear.
What would you do if you were willing to be emotionally uncomfortable? What is possible? Try it for yourself and let me know what happens!