Is it true that we cause most of our own suffering?
Take a moment to stop and pay attention to what is happening in this moment. Take your time and patiently observe and describe your surroundings. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel? Doing this sensory exercise brings you into the present moment.
When you think about it, the present moment is the only thing that exists. The past does not exist, nor does the future. In principle, the way to eliminate self-suffering is to always live in the present moment. Even if the present moment is disagreeable, the present moment never lasts. Realistically, our minds seem to have a mind of their own, and we cannot always control our unwanted intrusive and iterative thoughts.
Self-suffering primarily comes from living either in the past or the present where neither exist. Intrusive thoughts situated in the past are called rumination. Ruminating is when you replay the negative events from the past. Sometimes they come as thoughts, and sometimes as visions also called flashbacks. When ruminating gets out of control, it can have severe consequences in our daily functioning and in our interpersonal relations.
If our intrusive thoughts are in the future, we are worrying excessively. Worrying is also known as anxiety. And, unfortunately, anxiety and rumination go hand-in-hand. One of the most common types of anxiety that is not well addressed in our culture is social anxiety. Social anxiety is when we are worried about what others are thinking of us. For example, you may have experienced social anxiety going to school, at a job interview, calling, or meeting with your mental health counselor for the first time, even going to the grocery store. For instance, one of my anxieties is when a driver is behind me too close. I am always worried about what they are thinking about my driving. Am I going to fast, to slow, not paying attention? And of course, there are numerous types of generalized anxieties such a relational, finances, health concerns, and not feeling like we belong.
But what can we do with this human suffering state of rumination and anxiety? First, we have to pay attention (nonjudgmentally and compassionately) to when our thoughts are in the past or the present. Next, we have to label it, “hmmm, I notice that I am ruminating.” Then we can make a conscious choice to do one of two things. We either become mindful of the present moment, as discussed earlier or, we can change the story. For example, think of what you are ruminating about as a scene from a movie. Now, use your imagination to recreate the scene to make it whatever you want. If you were the villain in the original scene, you can change the story to where you are the savior or the hero. If you are the victim, you can change the scene to where you are the villain or the hero. These are just examples. It does not matter how you change the scene; you can even change it to where you are on a sunny beach vacation. Whatever you want! Just change the story in your rumination.
The same thing goes with anxiety. How can you reframe your worry? First, pay attention to your anxiety, then you label it (nonjudgmentally and compassionately). For instance, “oh, this is anxiety. I can feel it in my stomach.” Next, be kind to yourself by saying something like, “yeah, you’re [anxiety] here, but I can get through this, just keep going. It won’t last forever, I promise.” You can also rewrite the scenes of your anxiety-based movie.
Remember, not all past and present experiences have to be harmful. At times we can find comfort in reminiscing and planning. Reminiscing is when you are thinking about happy and funny memories of events, friends, and family. Planning is a way to be future-minded and can reduce anxiety. Reminiscing and planning can be fun and productive. However, if we spend too much time reminiscing, it prevents us from making new memories. And, planning must be followed by doing or implementing. If we do not follow through with our plans, we can stagnate, causing regret and rumination.
No matter how we decide to pay attention to our past, present, and future thoughts and behaviors, paying attention is a mindful exercise. Mindfulness always takes practice, just like exercise. You cannot go to the gym and lift one weight and expect results. Mindfulness works the same way. If you want to change your suffering, you must make a conscious daily effort.
Thank you for reading!