The one distinction that changes everything

Sometimes one insight can change everything. 

Today I am going to share with you one such insight. It’s a distinction that can move the needle on your ability to be mentally strong, in a big way.

It’s knowing the difference between pain and suffering. 

Sounds simple right? But read on because this one insight has BIG implications.

In order to be mentally strong, we first need to get clear about the difference between the two. Read on below, or hit play on the podcast episode to understand how we can take this insight and use it to massively reduce the stress, anxiety, reactivity and negativity in your life.

Our experience has two dimensions

At any given moment of our lives, there are two dimensions of our present moment experience. First, we have primary experience. Primary experience is our sense perceptions, what we can feel, see, hear, smell, and taste. 

Then we also have secondary experience. That’s all the thoughts we have about our primary experience. All the meanings, stories, judgments, and viewpoints that we have in our minds. 

For example, let’s say you’re driving in a car. Primary experience is the feeling of your hands on the wheel. The seeing of the other cars, the road and the trees and other objects – the colours, the shapes, the shadows. It’s hearing the sounds around you. The sound of the car engines, maybe the music on the radio. 

Then, in this particular example, lets say you see the cars around you start to slow down and then stop. You’re now in what we could call a traffic jam. That’s your primary experience. 

In a situation like that, what kind of thoughts tend to come in? If you’re in a traffic jam, you might have thoughts such as “Oh, this is horrible, I hate traffic jams.“ Or “Why am I such an idiot? Why did I come this way?”. These thoughts are your secondary experience.

When we think these kinds of thoughts, they trigger off different responses in our bodies – emotional responses and physiological responses. We get stressed, we get irritated, we get anxious, we get angry. All of these are forms of psychological suffering.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

There’s an old saying, “pain in life is inevitable, but suffering – that is optional.” This is true. In our primary experience, we can’t help that unpleasant, painful, or unwanted things happen sometimes. Traffic jams happen. Big line-ups happen. Being on hold with customer service for a long time happens. All kinds of things in relationships happen that we don’t want to happen. We also experience stormy weather, aging, sickness, loss, misfortunes.

The thing is, while we can take action on some of those things to change them, we can’t control everything in life. Sometimes stuff just happens. We can’t avoid that on the level of primary experience. 

But the psychological suffering that is created by our unhelpful thoughts, that is totally optional. We do actually have a choice to unwind and even completely end that kind of suffering. So, let’s come back to the definitions of pain and suffering, and the differences between them. 

Pain is any unpleasant physical sensation. Any unwanted emotions or experiences we might have. 

Suffering is the unhelpful thoughts that we have about our primary experience. Thoughts that cause us to feel stress, suffering, and struggle. We automatically tend to pile layers of suffering on top of any unpleasant sensation or experience that happens in primary experience. Often in a very dense web of reactivity. And we don’t just pile one small bit of suffering on. Once we get going, we tend to have one unpleasant or unhelpful thought after another. We rev ourselves up into anger, frustration, and irritation. And we can do that all day from one traffic jam!

Suffering doesn’t help

It’s been said by many spiritual teachers, and I believe this to be true from my own personal experience, most of human anguish is created through suffering.

This is not to diminish or downplay any experience that you might be going through that is challenging or painful, not at all. In fact if you’re going through something like that, out of compassion, love, and care for yourself, isn’t it wise not to pile layers of suffering on top of something that’s already really difficult? 

So, if we cannot change our circumstances on the level of primary experience, these thoughts that create suffering don’t help. They may pretend to be helpful, and in the moment we often feel as if revving ourselves up with these kinds of thoughts is helpful. 

However, all they do is cause inner turmoil. We can take effective action without adding suffering on top. And if we can’t take action to change things, then we can accept that fact without adding any suffering.

A traffic jam without suffering

Let’s use the example of being stuck in that traffic jam again. You can sit there cursing the traffic and saying to yourself how much you hate it, how stupid you are, how incompetent the other drivers are, revving yourself into states of suffering. 

Or you could sit and wait patiently, and without resistance. Perhaps even deciding to enjoy a good podcast or piece of music.

If there is something you can do, like turn around and take a different shortcut to work, you can do that too. In any case, whether you do something or you don’t do something, you can do it without going into all those layers of psychological suffering. This way you maintain inner calm and clarity.

Sounds great right? But how do you actually let go of suffering when you find yourself caught up?

Shift your awareness from secondary experience to primary experience

One of the best things you can do when you are caught up in unhelpful thoughts is shift your focus back into your primary experience. So, if we go back to the traffic jam, let’s say you’re getting really stressed and you’re thinking, “Stupid traffic. This is horrible. Uh, I’m such an idiot.” 

As soon as you notice that you are caught up in unhelpful thoughts leading to suffering, bring your focus back to primary experience and connect to your senses. I’m going to give you a mindfulness practice called the Tree Practice to give you some support in being able to do this.

The Tree Practice

This practice will help you focus your attention back to primary experience by focusing on three simple things.

  1. Your feet. First thing you’ll focus on is the feeling of your feet against the floor. And you can do this now, just feeling the sensation of your feet against the floor           
  2. Your breath. Next feel the breath moving in your body, just feeling that wave-like movement of the breath
  3. Three things you can see. Now we shift focus to three things you can see. Looking around in your environment. Right now, for me, I can see a plant outside my window, a microphone in front of me, and I can see my cup of tea beside me. When you’re looking at those things, you’re looking at the colours, the shapes, the shadows, and the textures. You’re not thinking about them,  just sensing, just looking. So, if you are in a traffic jam, you might look at the car in front of you, the cloud in the sky, and the bird on the side of the road.

So, your feet on the floor are like the roots of the tree grounding you. The breath in the body connects you to the trunk of the tree, or the trunk of your body. The branches of the tree are like the three things you can see. 

Once you do the Tree Practice, you’ve returned your focus into the present moment. Now you are rooted in the present moment and connected to your senses. You’re grounded in awareness. This is a really easy practice, and it’s easy to remember.

This week’s mental strength practice: Let go of unnecessary suffering

So often we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves. We do it in airports and traffic jams and in the long line-up at the grocery store. We do it at home, at work and even in our relaxation time.

So this week I invite you to focus on choosing to let go of unnecessary suffering. Every time you notice yourself caught up in unhelpful thoughts use the Tree Practice to let it go and ground yourself in the moment.

Then you’ll be able to proceed with whatever you are doing with greater awareness, clarity and inner strength.

If you’re finding these practices beneficial to your life, and you’re ready to take your mental strength to the next level, I invite you to join me in Headstrong. It’s my 8-week intensive mental strength program. Headstrong offers the best of everything I’ve learned in over 2 decades of mental strength training and teaching. It’s designed to get rapid transformational results and arm you with powerful tools and skills that will last a lifetime. This program will help you not only survive, but thrive, even in tough times.

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