I lived in Casper, Wyoming in the early 1980s. I was married, working as a Geologist, and climbing at the local areas. It may seem like I was living my dream life, but I wasn’t. I wanted to be free—to travel and climb full time; to be, what we referred to at the time, a climbing bum. I was frustrated and felt stuck, unable to escape and live the kind of life I desired. I remember in one moment of desperation saying, “Things are getting really bad. When is somebody going to do something about this?” I was suffering, torn between two realities, and didn’t know how to escape it.
Tara Brach is a psychologist who has blended psychological principles with Buddhist meditation practices. Buddhism teaches that there’s a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable; suffering is caused by our resistance to pain. Tara puts this distinction into interesting equations:
- Pain x Resistance = Suffering
- Pain x Presence = Freedom
I was living the reality of the first equation. I was in pain due to the struggles I experienced. I turned that pain into suffering by resisting it. My resistance created a gap between the pain I was experiencing and being present for it. Suffering filled that gap. Pain, times resistance, equaled suffering.
Tara suggests closing this gap to remove suffering and create freedom. Awareness is key. We accept and pay attention to the pain. Pain is just pain. The mind creates a narrative about the pain that causes suffering. For me, I created a story that my life was really bad. Then, I wondered when someone else would notice my suffering, pity me, and take action to help me. This is a typical ploy of the mind. It looks for the easy way out, turning pain into suffering.
When we accept our lives, then we’re free to shift toward the lives we want to live. We’ll still experience pain, but our attention is freed to take action. Acceptance may seem like giving up, just coping with life, and staying in the same situation. But it isn’t. Acceptance is required before action can take place. By accepting our lives as they are, we’re able to free ourselves from being stuck. Acceptance helps us see what is real so we can begin to work with it.
I needed to accept my life as it was, in all its pain. The first step would be to remove the “bad” label. A life full of struggle isn’t bad; it’s inevitable. Life is difficult. Once we accept that it’s difficult, the fact that it’s difficult no longer matters. We just get down to the business of doing the work. Second, we take personal responsibility for our situations, as much as we can. Instead of waiting for someone else to solve our problems, we look within ourselves. It’s helpful to get advice and support from our friends and family, but ultimately, it’s our responsibility to take action. By accepting that life is a struggle, we willingly engage and take responsibility for it. This frees us to be present, work through our struggles, and enjoy the whole process. Pain, times being present, equals freedom.
Freeing ourselves from the many traps of the mind require us to do exactly the opposite of what we think we should do. I think this speaks to the fundamental paradox of life. We think life should be how we want it to be instead of how it actually is. Much of this paradox is due to the ego’s creation of a separate illusory reality. Our egos reinforce the perception of our separateness, making us feel like the world is paradoxical. We want to be comfortable, yet we achieve comfort by engaging stress. We want to be loved, yet we achieve love by being loving to others. We want a new life, yet we achieve a new life by accepting our current one and taking responsibility for it. The former are examples of a focus on ourselves; the latter are examples of a focus on the world we’re connected to. By shifting our focus away from our separateness and toward connection we move beyond the paradox and live our lives in a truer reality. Doing this shifts our suffering to simply experiencing pain. Most importantly, we don’t seek to escape our lives; we seek to enjoy them in their full presentation of struggle and difficulty.