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  • Tara Ferguson, PhD

Learning to “Suffer Well,” Part 3

Welcome back to the multi-part blog series about learning to suffer with skill. Today, we explore step 3, 4 and 5 of using your suffering to move to higher levels of development that will leave you feeling empowered, fulfilled and yearning for more challenges so you can master those as well.

3) Re-orient to what’s in front of you

When the grieving time is over, typically we have become more present-focused, because we have to pay attention to what is happening in the moment in order to grieve. I’m a freak about efficiency so, when needing to process sadness, I chose to feel it all throughout my days WHILE accomplishing tasks, etc. (Multi-tasking at its finest, LOL.) So when grieving, I became present-focused almost all the time. I felt the pain in my body while I lived my life. Sounds fun, right? But the happy surprise was that, when the sadness was gone, I had been practicing being in the present moment so much that that’s where my attention stayed. Because of that, I began to tune into my experiences in a different way. It was like I was “born again.” I was rediscovering my life, my sense of purpose, meaning and what I enjoyed all over again.

When we can stop clinging to our expectations or what is in the past, we can discover that what we have right now is not so bad. As far as physical comforts, financial options, informational resources and the variety of mating and social connection opportunities, our situation is better than it’s ever been in human history. Here, in any present moment, there is always something to be enjoyed, whether it be the cup of tea I am drinking, the soft sweater I am wearing, my cat on my lap or even the gentle hum of the refrigerator preserving my food. We just have to get out of our thoughts, where we get stuck engaging in problem solving about the past or the future and we feel miserable as a result. Then, when we have a moment, given the momentum of our problem-solving activities of the day, we go straight to racking our brain for unsolved problems. Sometimes this leads us to create problems that are not there. And we get stuck in that cycle. The opportunity contained in grief is that of being jerked out of that cycle, forced to be present in order to grieve and move on, and therefore able to rediscover our world with fresh eyes and start a new adventure.

4) Make the best of new/remaining “opportunities” to find new joy

After a loss and the accompanying withdrawal, we must find new sources of reward. It’s a requirement to the brain. The brain was “made” in such a way to have a certain amount of reward receptors to fill every day. If we can’t figure out how to fill them or don’t take the time to, we will extend the suffering into chronic mental health problems or disorders. The good news is that after a period of reward starvation, we have some “hungry” little receptors that will respond to most anything. Kind of like how we have no tolerance for alcohol after a period of abstinence or we get full really easily after going without food. Suddenly, a butterfly passing by is interesting, when before we wouldn’t have even noticed it. There is the smell of tea olives blooming and it is intoxicating. After my body forced me to quit coffee, I noticed the subtle deliciousness of my vanilla caramel tea, which I used to have to add sugar and milk to to find it acceptable. Suddenly, in the dearth of socializing during the pandemic, I began to find spending time with my child more enjoyable. (Don’t judge me!)

I found this happening with so many of my friends, colleagues and clients after a brief period of adjustment to the pandemic as well. So many of my colleagues have acclimated so much to working from home that they don’t want to go back into the office. People are cozy at home with their families now and they are nervous about “re-entry.” A few people that I know who engaged in indoor swimming for exercise were super bummed when public swimming pools were closed. However, after a short regroup, they took to the ocean for swimming. It was their new favorite thing. Then, of course, when the weather got cold, they were depressed again… but I digress to #5.

5) Repeat

So now that I’m addicted to butterflies, tea olive trees, vanilla caramel tea and spending Saturdays with my child, what will happen when it is winter and the flowers aren’t blooming, they don’t carry the tea I like at the store anymore and my precious baby boy becomes a teenager? You know what will happen! I’ll be suffering again. Now isn’t that ironic? I don’t know about you but I swear my Disney movie education taught me that after a period of struggle I will reach eternal happiness and never have to suffer again. Are you telling me that life is a series of struggles and challenges to overcome, interspersed with periods of rest and consolidation, instead of the other way around?

I guess the Buddha was right. He said “Life is suffering.” I think that was a little extreme and I’ll go with my saying instead – “Life is composed of periods of struggle and challenges to overcome, interspersed with periods of rest and consolidation.”

We have all suffered greatly during the past year and in some ways, it has shaped us positively. In other areas, we have added new problems to our lives in the forms of addictions, mental and physical health problems, fears and rituals, and other new unhealthy patterns. It’s our resistance to discomfort that keeps us stuck and buries us under mountains of problems. To suffer with skill is the answer. To know there is a process end endpoint at play gives us the roadmap. If we can learn to suffer skillfully, we can always be moving forward in our life to greater things without wasting time on fighting the changes that are inevitable anyways.

If suffering skillfully sounds intimidating to you, we can help. Don’t hesitate to reach out and elicit the help of one of our therapists in helping you to use mindfulness to process what you are feeling and find your peaceful place inside.

Thank you for suffering through this blog post with me! It was a long one :)

*The author would like to acknowledge that in some cases seeking medication and/or mental help treatment is more appropriate than skillful suffering, such as for mental health issues that are organic/biological in nature, those that cause one to be a danger to self or others or those that cause impairment to the point that there are difficulties completing one’s roles and responsibilities. Never hesitate to seek help for symptoms and feelings that you don’t understand or that feel overwhelming in nature.

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