How To Let go of Suffering
“If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three (rational) options: remove yourself from the situation, change it or accept it totally.” - Eckhart Tolle
Around 2,500 years ago, Gautama Buddha taught that much of the pain and suffering we experience in our lives are self-created.
But what if there was a way to let go of this pain and suffering? Now that is exactly what acceptance and surrender can do for you.
But before I get into that, I’d first like to explain how we create pain and suffering for ourselves through resistance.
The default and almost automatic reaction of our minds to events and situations we don’t like is resistance.
Resistance is non-acceptance of what is occurring in the present moment or what has already occurred.
Being in a state of resistance includes being frustrated, angry, complaining, blaming, arguing, or fighting our thoughts and feelings.
We resist because we hold the unconscious belief that life should conform to our wishes and desires, and so we become easily upset when that isn’t the case. We then think thoughts like – this shouldn’t be happening, things shouldn’t be this way or this shouldn’t have happened.
But as we all know, all of this, does nothing whatsoever to better our state of mind but simply spoils our mood and makes things worse.
Note: In this article, I talk about acceptance mainly in the context of when there is nothing you can do to remove yourself from an unpleasant situation, or to change it.
The analogy of the river
The situation and events in your life that are beyond your control is akin to you being on a boat, paddling through a river that is flowing downstream.
When we accept and surrender to the events and situation in our lives we feel relaxed and at peace similar to when we are going with the natural flow of the river.
Whereas when we try to resist the flow, we become frustrated because we are helpless to counter the powerful and enduring force of the river.
This is similar to resisting the natural flow of life by complaining, arguing or wishing that something shouldn’t be happening doesn’t change what has already occured, but it only makes things harder for us.
So the only rational and sensible choice is to stop resisting and flow with the natural course of the river.
What surrender means and what it isn’t
Surrender or acceptance is simply a state of non-resistance, and it means to drop the negative mental and verbal commentary about a situation, event or circumstance.
To quote Eckhart Tolle,
“Surrender is a purely inner phenomenon. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it. Nor does it mean to cease making plans or initiating positive action.”
Do not resist your pain. Surrender to the grief, despair, fear, loneliness, or whatever form the suffering takes. Witness it without labelling it mentally. Allow it to be there."
Surrender does not mean you even need to like what is happening, but it is accepting that this is what life is bringing you right now, with the understanding that resistance doesn’t make the situation better.
My story with Acceptance and how I learned about the futility of resistance
The power of acceptance was something I had first heard about through the renowned spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.
While it sounded very sensible to me, for the longest time, I never knew how powerful it could be because I didn’t practically apply it in my life.
A couple of years ago, I was solo travelling around India for three months, and about halfway into my trip, I was feeling frustrated about how my trip was turning out.
There were plenty of reasons for these feelings of frustration and discontent. I was disappointed that I was no longer having as much fun and meaningful interactions with people as I did at the start of my trip.
I was also constantly comparing it to my previous solo trip and wondering why this wasn’t matching up to the wonderful experience I had the last time. I was stubborn and had certain fixed ideas about how I wanted the trip to turn out, but life had other plans for me and was certainly not conforming to my wishes and desires.
And to make matters worse, I also started having travel fatigue, something that I would have never imagined could happen to me.
After a couple of weeks of being stuck in this phase, I realised that fighting my thoughts and feelings was not making my situation any better.
I decided to accept my feelings of frustration and discontent instead of thinking that I shouldn’t be feeling this way or this wasn’t supposed to be happening to me.
A couple of days later, my situation radically changed and took a complete U-turn. The following seven days was the best week of my life, and that wouldn’t have been possible if I was stuck trying to fight and resist my feelings. (read more about his here)
Only in hindsight I realised, that I had made myself miserable because I was holding on to the thought that this shouldn’t be happening and that life should conform to my desire.
When I stopped clinging on to these thoughts, I became at peace, and I was no longer making myself miserable by resisting emotions which were feeding them with more energy.
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How to practice acceptance /surrender/ non-resistance
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy.” – Eckhart Tolle
In life, the bad news is that we can’t control our external circumstances to always conform to our wishes and desires.
But the good news is that we always have the choice to choose our attitude and response to a given situation, though most of the time, we let our subconscious mind choose it automatically for us.
The first step to practice acceptance and surrender is to accept the responsibility that our attitude and mental state is always under our control irrespective of what occurs externally.
Spiritual teachings place great emphasis on being present and conscious and this is the key to let go of being in a state of resistance when something occurs that we neither like nor want.
When you find yourself in a state of resistance, consciously be present and direct your mind instead of letting your mind run on autopilot.
You don’t need to agree or accept the automatic negative interpretation of your mind on something (an event, situation, life circumstance).
As I have mentioned in a previous article, our thoughts on what a situation, event or your life circumstance means, is nothing more than a point of view. It is just one of the many perspectives with which you can see the situation.
Be intensely present whenever you feel resistance and observe the negative judgements that your mind makes about a given situation.
Instead of being consumed and sucked in by these thoughts, pay attention to something else that is always present.
Shift your attention to your breath and become aware of your belly rising and falling as you breathe in and out.
Paying attention to your breathing will bring you into the present moment, and disrupt the automatic negative thinking that occurs and help you detach from these thoughts.
To quote Tolle once again,
“Start by acknowledging that there is resistance. Be there when it happens, when the resistance arises. Observe how your mind creates it, how it labels the situation... Look at the thought process involved. By witnessing the resistance, you will see that it serves no purpose. By focusing all your attention on the Now, the unconscious resistance is made conscious, and that is the end of it.
You cannot be conscious and unhappy, conscious and in negativity. Negativity, unhappiness, or suffering in whatever form means that there is resistance, and resistance is always unconscious.”
Now I won’t say that practising acceptance will always be easy, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is always sensible and rational to accept what is happening than to resist it.
Acceptance is something that will need to be practiced again and again before it can become a habit.
Therefore to make this a part of your life, I’d encourage you to start off by practising acceptance to whatever shows up (feelings, events, circumstances) in your life over the next week.
If you do this, you may start to realise the truth that Buddha taught – Much of the pain and suffering we experience in our lives is self-created and therefore it is avoidable, not inevitable.
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