I recently encountered two tragic events on the same day during Thanksgiving week, which made celebrating difficult. We are human and during the holiday season we can get wrapped up in expectation of holiday cheer. We forget that life actually happens where there are moments of good, bad, beautiful, and ugly. When a tragedy strikes during the holidays, it is as if we are sucker punched. We spiral into a deep sadness, while the rest of the world seems to celebrate. Holiday cheer can be overwhelming. The Happy Holidays signs posted in town centers, continuous playing of celebration music, glistening neighborhood lights, and marketing of “the happiest time of the year” can lead us feeling a great void. Life is messy. When we think we are traveling on the happy train to wonderland an event can derail us into an unexpected course of disappointment, sadness, and suffering.
I learned an equation in a mindfulness based stress reduction class that transformed my relationship with suffering. It is Suffering = Pain x Resistance. The equation brought forth my patterns and habits of holding onto suffering. Where has this equation been all my life? Pain in life is inevitable. All humans experience pain. It may be physical, as simple as stubbing our toe, or emotional pain of loss, abuse, oppression, injustice, violence, voicelessness, and powerlessness. Emotional pain and physical pain activate the same brain regions, insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, buried in the frontal lobe. When we feel pain, regardless of the source, it has same neural pathway in our brain. The neural pathway has evolved for our protection from danger. What we do with the information matters in how we can access our higher wisdom and learn to acknowledge and live with the pain.
Our resistance to pain directly affects our suffering. The more we resist, according to the equation, the greater we suffer. When we loosen our resistance to pain our actual suffering decreases. For example, say we have a negative emotion like anger or sadness and we force ourselves to repress it. What happens to our physical, mental, and emotional body? The emotion is carried in our thoughts, body, and in our mind. Repressing an emotion does not make it go away. We carry an underlying feeling of anger or sadness in all that we do. Repressing the emotion may cause us to act in ways that are not authentic to our true being. Now, what happens if we acknowledge our anger or sadness and say, YES, I acknowledge my anger, sadness, fear? We gain insight and tune into our being. Even though the emotion may remain, our relationship to the emotion changes. We begin to discover the origin of the emotion. We gain knowledge about the source of the pain. When we define the source of our emotion, we can release our resistance. We can work with our resistance to lessen its grip and release into what actually is by acknowledging our pain, emotions, and fears. This in turn frees us of the burden of suffering by identifying our human limits. A moment of grace and humility arises for what actually is.