Using unhappiness as a mindfulness bell
I’ve noticed that I have a tendency not to notice that I’m suffering, and I suspect that a lot of other people do this too.
When I get annoyed with someone, I’m suffering. When I crave an experience, I’m suffering. When I’m anxious, I’m suffering, and so on. In a way this may seem obvious, but actually very rarely do we find ourselves annoyed or craving or anxious and say to ourselves “I’m suffering right now.” We tend to focus more on the thing that’s annoying us, or that we want, or that we’re anxious about.
And so a lot of our suffering is “under the radar” and doesn’t get dealt with very skillfully. Our suffering, when it’s not attended to mindfully, becomes be a catalyst for creating further suffering. We create stories, which simply entrench craving, aversion, fear, and delusion even more deeply in our minds.
I suggest that it’s beneficial to train ourselves to notice when we’re suffering. Just keep checking in with yourself throughout the day, noticing whether or not you feel unhappy. I’ve been doing this and finding it helpful.
We can let our unhappiness be a “mindfulness bell.” It’s a sign that we’re responding to our experience in a less than skillful way. It’s a wake up call. It’s a call to pay attention to the workings of the mind.
The presence of suffering in our experience can be a reminder to drop our storytelling. And we can choose, instead of spinning tales, simply to be with our suffering, mindfully and compassionately.
When you’re unhappy, don’t wallow or let it spiral out of control. Note, “Suffering is present” and see it as an interesting challenge to simply notice this suffering without reacting.
Here’s something you can try right now, or sometime that you’re able to turn inwards for ten minutes or so:
- For a few minutes, make your happiness or unhappiness — however subtle they may be — into the focus of your meditation practice. Keep your attention on the inner space where happiness and unhappiness arise.
- If you notice either happiness or unhappiness, simply allow those experiences to be there. If stories arise, simply let go of them.
- See if you can simply accept any experiences of unhappiness that arise. Think in terms of relaxing with your unhappiness. Say to yourself “It’s OK to feel this.”
- Smile with your discomfort. Your smiling is an embodied way of saying “It’s OK to feel this.”
- Notice how the quality of your discomfort changes as you do this. Does it become lighter, easier to bear? Does it vanish altogether?
Increasingly I find that by relaxing with my suffering, I move through it quickly and find myself on the other side, in a state of peace, calm, and joy. It reminds me of the river I live beside, which on certain mornings is shrouded in mist — until the sun comes over the trees and shines on the mind, dispelling it. Relaxing with suffering is like shining the sun on the mist. The suffering quickly thins and dissipates.
But unless we see suffering as suffering, and stand back from our stories, we can’t make this transformation.