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. But I don’t notice I’m suffering. I notice that this person is annoying

When I crave an experience, I’m suffering. But I don’t notice I’m suffering. I notice that I want that experience, very, very much.

When I’m anxious, I’m suffering. But I don’t notice I’m suffering. I notice that something bad and scary is in my life.

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.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks Bodhipaksa, I’ll try this.

  • Thank you Bodhipaksa, this is very helpful. I suppose anger – my personal hindrance – also is suffering, and I will try to look at it as such and maybe it will plague me less.
    You mention several times that one should direct metta towards one’s suffering (or anger, or whatever) but I find very difficult to do this, I am more successful (everything’s relative) with the occasional physical pain. Do you have any practical help on this particular point?
    Thank you for everything.

    • The way I think of it is not so much that anger is suffering, but that there is suffering accompanying anger (often triggering it and also, of course, resulting from it). If you drop your mindfulness down, out of the thoughts of anger, and into the body, you’ll find some kind of pain there. Often it’s in the solar plexus. It’s important to locate it as best you can.

      You don’t say in what way you find it hard to have metta for your suffering, but one thing that gets in the way is not accepting our suffering, often because we think we shouldn’t suffer, or that it’s weak to suffer, or it’s a sign of failure, or that there’s something wrong with us. But suffering is just a feeling. It’s a sign of being alive. We all suffer. So we can relax with our suffering, just letting it be there. And then treat it like a good friend who’s showed up on your doorstep in a state of distress. You’d (I’d imagine) invite your friend in in a welcoming way, sit them down, make them feel comfortable, and if the friend didn’t want to talk you’d be with them as a compassionate and friendly presence. So with that in mind, try just being with your suffering — having located it as best you can — in a friendly and compassionate way. You can use the metta phrases: “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering” (or whatever form of words you prefer).

      If this doesn’t address the question you had in mind, do say more and I’ll have another go.

  • I really enjoyed this. Excellent advice, in my opinion. Thanks!

  • My difficulty might be that I cannot really ‘personalize’ my suffering or my anger, seeing the emotion as a sentient being and thus capable of receiving my affection, as in your analogy. Actually I have only just started trying to identify emotions, because they are singularly lacking from my meditations. Yet I know they are there. This is singularly hard work. I will continue trying. Thank you.

    • But the emotion is a sentient being capable of receiving your affection. Your emotion is you, and you are sentient and capable of sending yourself affection [and of receiving it].

      Another way to look at this is that your brain (and therefore your self) is modular. So one part of your brain is sending reassuring and affectionate signals to another part of your brain, which is dealing with pain.

  • Bodhipaksa, this is tough. I thought that part of the purpose of meditation was to stop identifying with one’s emotions (not me, not I, not self), but you say they are me, or part of me. I am confused.
    Confusion, I believe, arises from not knowing enough of what I’m talking about. If there’s one thing I have learned about meditation in the past 2 and a half months (and daily reading of this wonderful site) it is that patience is of the essence – in meditation practice, and even more in everyday life, which is the real practice. So my confusion doesn’t worry me (yet), I’ve such a long way to go! Have a nice weekend, and thank you.

    • Language is confusing.

      Your emotions are part of you in the ordinary sense that when you’re regarding your feelings of hurt with lovingkindness, you’re having lovingkindness toward yourself. You were saying that you couldn’t regard your emotions as sentient, but of course they are sentient, because they are part of a sentient being. That was what I was addressing in that statement.

      At the same time this “self” is not as we commonly take it to be. It’s not one thing; it’s a series of modules and processes and experiences that coexist uneasily. It’s not permanent, and the contents of the “self” are continually changing. [Added: because the “self” isn’t unitary, it can relate to itself. So one part of you can have lovingkindness for another part of you.]

      There’s no one thing (like a particular) emotion that you can say ultimately constitutes the self. Emotions come and go. When we cling to them as part of ourselves, we become unhappier because if we think anger defines our selves then that means we have an angry self that can never stop being angry. So we recognize that hurt or anger (or even happiness) are not ultimately part of ourselves. We notice them arising and passing away, without identifying with them. But while they’re arising, they’re part of this sentient system that we call “me” and they are best dealt with kindly — otherwise “me” is full of conflict and suffering.

  • This makes it a little clearer but I still find it horribly complicated. On the other hand, no-one ever said it would be easy. So a lot metta bhavana on the long road ahead. Thank you.

    • For now, I’d suggest just keeping it simple. Cultivate mindfulness, calm the mind, cultivate lovingkindness. The stuff about the self can take care of, well, itself, at a later time when it’s more appropriate.

  • Very sound advice as is to be expected coming from you, and which I intend to follow. Sometimes the ‘gaining idea’ gets the better of me despite my beingon the lookout for it. Thanks and thanks again.

  • This is very timely advice for me, especially the part about letting go of stories. I am a writer, and my brain needs a bit of gentle coaxing to make it realise that while stories are great when I’m writing fiction, that doesn’t mean I need to make everything I think or feel into a narrative with meaning, cause, effect, action – it’s exhausting! I shall be looking to incorporate this moderation of stories into my practice from now on! (Sometimes I think my mantra should be ‘that’s fascinating, Brain, but not just now!’)


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