On the IHUK Facebook page, I recently shared a video of Russell Brand talking about how the justification of pain is a way of recommitting to it. Brand said that each time you blame whatever happened to you as a justification for pain or suffering, it's like signing a new contract with it. Yet when you choose to let go of the suffering and can say "this happened to me and I want to move forward" you have the opportunity "to re-imagine your world and your place in it".
I have known this to be true for over 20 years, since I took the Landmark Forum, and started reading personal development texts. I'll admit that I've had varying levels of success applying it at different stages in my life - some things have been easier to let go of than others, and there have also been times when suffering was exactly what I wanted (even though I knew I was doing it to myself). Speaking more generally though, it's still not widely accepted that we are responsible for our suffering, and Brand's video prompted several interesting discussions with people both on- and off-line over the last few days. Those I spoke to were interested in whether we really do have a choice in these matters, and if so, how to let go of suffering to choose peace.
In this post, I'll be discussing this and offering some practical steps and additional resources you can use to help let go of the things you've been 'recommitting' to and which are cutting you off from peace. (If you'd prefer to listen to it, click here.)
It takes a certain level of self-awareness or consciousness to recognise that we are responsible for our experience of life and we have a CHOICE about it. It's a challenging concept, and one you may not be familiar with already, so let's use an example.
Imagine for a moment that something bad happened to you as a child. Being responsible for your experience isn't saying that you were responsible for what happened to you. Not at all. But it is saying that you are responsible for your relationship with what happened, and whether you are still carrying it with you now. So, if you have acknowledged something happened, and are able to move on knowing it's in the past, and it doesn't affect things that you do now, you've chosen to be at peace with it, even if you would have preferred not to have experienced it. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, only that you are not - in Brand's words - continuing to 'recommit' to it. On the other hand, using it as an excuse or justification for all that's wrong in your life, a persistent bad mood, or anger, is your responsibility. So you can choose not to suffer in this way, even though you can't change the thing that happened.
In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle explains that the greater part of human pain is actually unnecessary. He says it is self-created as long as the unobserved or 'egoic' mind runs your life and resists what is (in other words, what can't be changed):
"The pain that you create now is always some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity." - Eckhart Tolle
While your resistance is unconscious, automatic or 'egoic' responses will continue to run your thoughts and therefore will continue to shape your experience of life, just as they have been doing since you were a child and perceived yourself as separate from 'others'. In A Course in Miracles Made Easy, Alan Cohen explains that upset is merely a lens we choose to filter experiences and because the ego's world is built on grievance, it uses everything it can as a grounds for grievance, which only serves to justify it's grievances further. It's a vicious circle!
The good news is that through awareness you can start to make conscious (grievance-free) choices. Here are a few tried and tested techniques you can use to make a start on this:
1. NOTICE YOUR THOUGHTS, WORDS & FEELINGS
A great first step to being conscious of the choice you have over your pain and suffering, is recognising when you are acting or thinking in a way that is automatic and driven by that pesky egoic aspect of your self. The easiest way I have found to do this is to actively observe my grievances as they come up. This means recognising when I am moaning, complaining, blaming, being judgmental, or otherwise feeling aggrieved. Each time I notice myself doing these things, I have a choice - to continue with my suffering, or to get over it and choose peace instead!
If you can become the observer of your mind in this way, you might be shocked at how much of your mental chatter, words and feelings revolve around this kind of negativity. Make a list of some of them on a piece of paper or in your journal - there are probably too many to list them all, so just choose a few. At first, you might find it a bit challenging or upsetting. You might even get knee-deep in self-pity before you realise you've done it again. Stick with it.
As you continue to bring your awareness to the level of control the ego has over your thoughts and actions, there is likely to come a point where you can truly detach yourself from it, and you might even find it so ludicrous it becomes funny! (I often laugh when I catch myself at it again, and notice the more regularly I use this technique the quicker I am at noticing when such things arise.)
When you first try this, you'll probably find it's easier to observe the level of grievance in others than in yourself, so you might like to silently notice how often the people around you are moaning, whining and complaining. As you are only responsible for your own thoughts, and this exercise is about YOUR awareness not theirs, remember they might not like it if you point these things out to them! However, if these tips work for you, you could always tell them about this post (or the podcast episode), how it helped you, and then share it with them. If they are ready to end their own suffering, it might be just what they need. (And if you've been referred to these tips by a friend or loved one, see how your ego reacts to that! Then remind yourself they are just trying to help, and stop whining! 😉)
"The ego believes that whining is winning, where you are really losing." - Alan Cohen
2. CONSIDER THE PAYOFF FOR YOUR SUFFERING
Earlier, I said there have been times when I wanted to suffer, and you may have wondered why on earth someone would do that. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but every time I did that, it was for the same very reason you choose to suffer - there is always a payoff! I've mentioned this a few times in earlier blog posts and podcast episodes because it is one of the most powerful practices I use myself, and you can too.
Take a look at your list of grievances, and consider what you are getting out of the things you resist and complain about. Hate your boss? Does that make you fit in at work? Feeling unwell? What do you get to avoid doing? Or maybe you get lots of care and attention you wouldn't otherwise. Stressed? Does that justify being rude to others, or drinking/eating/shopping more than is healthy? Think your brother is lazy because he never helps your parents? Does that make you the righteous hero and him the selfish loser? How does that feel for you?
Be honest with yourself, however uncomfortable it might feel. Remember that you most likely made all these decisions unconsciously, and you don't have to continue to do so. Have compassion for yourself as a human being, doing what humans do.
If you're struggling to identify the payoffs this list should help. Consider whether you are:
- being 'right', or making others 'wrong' about something,
- dominating someone, or avoiding being dominated,
- justifying yourself, or invalidating others,
- winning, or making someone else lose.
3. CONSIDER THE COST OF CONTINUING TO CHOOSE SUFFERING
Those payoffs might get you out of responsibilities, or make you feel justifiably righteous, but they are not without their costs. Take a look at your list again, and note down the costs associated with each of them. Here are some of the most common things you're likely to see:
- A loss of love and affinity with others
- An impact on your health, vitality and wellbeing
- Loss of authenticity and self-expression
- Lack of satisfaction and fulfilment
When you begin to look at things this way, you might decide that the payoff is worth it - after all it's easier to be judgemental / lazy / not to have to do things, than it is to change. But you might also find the price is too high. I see this a lot with people who suffer (with different ailments, complaints, or mind-sets) for years, until something happens which tips the scale and the cost suddenly becomes too high. The tipping point is often when someone close to them dies, or is diagnosed with a serious illness, and they suddenly realise life is too short for being petty. Importantly, you needn't wait for something like that to happen - you can let go of suffering at any time.
4. CHANGE YOUR STORY
When you are in conflict with the way things are, and you want to choose peace, you really only have two choices. Change the way things are, or accept them as they are. I've talked about both change and acceptance in earlier posts/episodes so I won't go over that again, except to point out that armed with awareness of your grievances, their payoffs and what they are costing you, you'll be in a much better place to consciously participate in the process of change or acceptance.
One note of caution: if you do choose peace, be aware that your ego-mind will try to prevent you from making changes, and this is also perfectly normal.
"As long as you are identified with your mind, the ego runs your life... Because of its phantom nature, and desperate elaborate defence mechanisms, the ego is very vulnerable and insecure, and it sees itself constantly under threat. This, by the way, is the case even if the ego is outwardly very confident. Now remember that an emotion is the body's reaction to your mind. What message is the body receiving continuously from the ego, the false, mind-made self? Danger, I am under threat. And what is the emotion generated by this continuous message? Fear, of course."
- Eckhart Tolle
Don't let the ego-mind scare you into recommitting to your pain, as it is used to doing. Witnessing the patterns which cause your suffering enables you to disidentify with them, and you will no longer need to feel afraid and defend yourself. Tolle says that when you have disidentified from your mind, being right or wrong is no longer important. All those other payoffs will be equally unimportant, leaving you free to choose peace!
If you'd like to read more about this topic, The Power of Now is an excellent place to start and if you want more more practical help to work through everyday grievances, I'd highly recommend The Work of Byron Katie, which is available free of charge online.