How to Practice Sympathetic Joy

How to Practice Sympathetic Joy

Christiane Wolf on how to multiply the joy in your life with mudita — delight in the happiness of others. Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.

Imagine you have just received wonderful news. What’s one of your very first thoughts? Probably you’re thinking about whom to call to share your joy with.

Knowing that your loved ones will be happy for you and with you makes the joy even greater and more real. As the German proverb says, “Shared pain is half the pain, and shared joy is twice the joy.” So when you share your joy, it doubles for you—and you also give happiness to another! It’s a win-win in every way.

How can we invite more joy into our lives?

In the Buddha’s teachings, sympathetic joy or being happy for another’s happiness (Pali: mudita) is one of the four brahmaviharas, the four highest qualities of the heart. In recent years, the other three—loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity—have received quite a lot of attention from practitioners, researchers, and the press alike. But sympathetic joy has gotten little attention. How can that be? Shouldn’t joy be the most appealing of the heart qualities? Not necessarily. Traditionally it is often referred to as the most difficult of the four. Sympathetic joy is complicated.

Who hasn’t had the unpleasant feeling of not being able to fully enjoy the happiness or success of a family member or colleague? Why did he win the great trip and not me? Or, Why is the boss praising her over the moon in front of the whole team and not me… Since we are good people, we feel ashamed of our feelings and maybe we feign happiness a little bit. Honestly, I’m so happy for you! No wonder we are not eager to deal with sympathetic joy.

Why is being happy for another often so challenging? It might be that we feel we’re already somehow missing out on life. So if someone else has good news, we may reflexively compare ourselves to them and feel envious, no matter how sincere our intentions are.

In addition, our feelings are often based on the belief that there is only a limited amount of happiness to go around and, therefore, when something good happens to another, there is less left for us. Although this argument has no rational foundation, it is surprisingly persistent.

How can we invite more joy into our lives? It is important to remember that we cannot make ourselves feel joy. We can, however, set the intention to be more open to joy and to cultivate it through repeated and patient practice. Here’s how:

Rejoice in Your Own Good Qualities

Many people are familiar with how in the practice of metta or loving-kindness, we begin with ourselves. In the practice of joy, we also begin with ourselves. If it is challenging to jump straight to joy, begin with just perceiving what’s there and what’s not, then gradually moving on to appreciation and joy.

Many of us find it hard to admit that we have good qualities, but this often makes it hard for us to see and rejoice in the goodness of others. So it’s important to learn to appreciate our own strengths, kindnesses, and generous actions. These don’t need to be big. It may seem like nothing special to us when we encourage or support someone in a difficult situation, for example, but it can become a source of joy if we allow ourselves to become aware of the goodness of our actions and feel that awareness in our body.

Rejoice in Your Life

Take in the good in your own life. Start with small things such as your beautiful teacup or the view outside your window, and expand to big things such as your health or your friends and family. As the poet Mark Nepo says: “The key to knowing joy is being easily pleased.”

Rejoice in the Happiness of Others

After experiencing joy for yourself, you can begin connecting with other people’s joy and allowing yourself to really feel it. Maybe you want to use a silent wish or blessing phrase such as, “May your happiness and good fortune grow and never leave.” Find your own words.

First, invite in joy for the happiness of a friend, a loved one, or a teacher—someone you really love. For most of us, it is a fairly easy step to feeling sympathetic joy for our very inner circle. If my child is successful in school, it really makes me happy. If it’s someone else’s child, not so much. While there is nothing wrong with rejoicing in the good fortune of our loved ones, we limit ourselves massively if our joy ends there.

So move on to inviting in joy for somebody you don’t really know, then eventually expand the circle to somebody you find challenging. This expanding circle of joy can be done either as part of a formal meditation practice or here and there during the day, as you think of people or maybe encounter them in person.

Be gentle and patient with yourself as this practice often feels unfamiliar in the beginning

Finding a Better Balance

Finding a Better Balance

Equanimity protects us from emotional overreaction and allows us to rest in a bigger perspective. Christiane Wolf on how to cultivate it.


“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

With this sentence, the German-American writer Max Ehrmann began “Desiderata.” My mother appreciated this poem so much that she hung a framed copy across from the toilet in our bathroom, and for years I found myself reflecting on it several times a day in a contemplative position. Was this the origin of my quest for equanimity? The idea makes me smile.

Equanimity is like the eye of the storm, the calm center grounded in the knowledge that everything is constantly changing.

What is equanimity, and how can we invite more of it into our lives? Equanimity is being willing and able to accept things as they are in this moment—whether they’re challenging, boring, exciting, disappointing, painful, or exactly what we want. Equanimity brings calmness and balance to moments of joy as well as difficulty. It protects us from an emotional overreaction, allows us to rest in a bigger perspective, and contains a basic trust in the course of things.

Equanimity is like the eye of the storm, the calm center, that is grounded in the knowledge that everything is constantly changing and much of it is out of our control. The mature oak tree is another symbol of equanimity. Firmly rooted in the earth, it’s not moved by the changing seasons and weather patterns. The tree owes this stability to its taproots, which anchor it securely so that it’s stable but not rigid, even in strong storms.

We can ask ourselves: What are our taproots? What helps us withstand the inevitable storms of life? The Buddha warned against being taken in by the “eight worldly winds,” which today, 2,600 years later, still blowback and forth: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, success and failure, profit and loss. Of course, we’d prefer to experience only one side of the winds, the side we see as positive, but the more we see that they shift again and again, the more deeply we can connect with our taproot.

Equanimity (Pali: upekkha) plays a central role in Buddhist teachings. Along with loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and joy (mudita), equanimity is one of the brahmaviharas, the four core qualities of the heart. Upekkha is a compound word in Pali, which can be translated as “calmly observing” or “viewing with patience and wisdom. Equanimity supports the other brahmaviharas. Without equanimity, we’d be overwhelmed by the suffering in the world and we’d shut down or turn away. Without equanimity, the immense beauty and joy of the world, which are also part of reality, could seduce us into a Pollyannaish worldview. Equanimity is vast enough to hold all sides of life in a caring embrace.

Equanimity should not be confused with indifference. From the outside, these two conditions look confusingly similar, which is why in Buddhist literature indifference is referred to as the “close enemy” of equanimity. Equanimity isn’t gritting your teeth or white-knuckling it. Rather, it’s caring deeply but with a sense of ease. Equanimity can only arise through the embodied acceptance of the fact that we don’t have complete control over any given situation.

Equanimity is sometimes referred to as the “grandparent feeling.” Grandparents often have the same love for their grandchildren that they had for their own children, but with more ease and perspective around expectations and difficulties. As one grandma expressed it, “All these troubles will come out with the wash.”

Equanimity and mindfulness are closely interwoven and mutually reinforcing, but they’re two distinct skills that develop at different speeds. We can experience mindfulness from the beginning of our meditation practice, while equanimity often takes a little longer.

Being nonjudgmental is part of the definition of mindfulness. Yet when we begin to practice mindfulness, we become aware of how irritated, judgmental, unfriendly, and lacking in equanimity we often are. Ironically, it’s the presence of mindfulness that makes us see this lack of equanimity clearly!

Through mindfulness, we can observe the flow of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body without having a knee-jerk reaction. By repeatedly doing this practice, insights arise into the complex, often impersonal causal chains of experiences. These insights give us a greater perspective and lead to more equanimity. We can trust that if we regularly practice mindfulness and insight meditation, we’ll naturally be more at ease.

Living life in a conscious way will make us more equanimous over time but we don’t have to leave that up to the worldly winds. We can practice it deliberately. Ultimately, our equanimity isn’t only good for us, but also for everyone we encounter.

Photo courtesy of NASA

3 Equanimity Exercises


Reflect on a situation in your life that you initially viewed as negative, but which then led to a much better situation you couldn’t have foreseen at the time. For example, perhaps a painful breakup made it possible to find your true love, or a rejection after a job interview ultimately led to better employment. Invite this perspective into a current situation where you can only see the negative side.


It’s difficult to endure when someone we love suffers. Often, we take on their suffering as our own. We get caught up in feelings of guilt that we cannot help more, or we believe we need to feel bad, too, out of a sense of solidarity.

This exercise, which was inspired by the psychologist Kristin Neff, helps us find equanimity when a loved one is suffering. The essence of it is the insight that ultimately we cannot make someone else happy. We can only work with our own minds and reactions and make our own decisions.

Repeat the following sentences quietly during meditation and also during the day:

“Everyone is on their own life’s journey.”

“I am not the cause of your suffering (or not the exclusive cause).”

“It isn’t in my power to end your suffering, although I would like to if I could.”

“Moments like this are hard to endure and yet I will continue to try to help where I can.”


After an initial focus on the breath in our meditation, we can open our awareness like a camera lens until the difference between foreground (breath) and background (everything else, such as thoughts, feelings, sounds, body sensations, etc.) dissolves. We sit back and watch the constant arising and passing away of experience at the moment without getting caught in the details. We rest in the perspective of the vast blue sky and let all of the experience pass through like clouds or flocks of birds.






Take a Mindful Approach to COVID-19

Take a Mindful Approach to COVID-19


From NPR to CNN, we’re hearing calls for us to bring mindfulness to bear to avoid the risk of infection with COVID-19.

Mindfulness is the practice to intentionally bring awareness to the present moment so we can choose our response to what is happening, instead of acting on autopilot. For example, we are being counseled to not habitually touch our face, in order to avoid contamination. But that’s easier said than done, as it is such an automatic habit.

It’s paramount that we use — and deepen — our practice to help ourselves and the world.

The great news is that this is exactly one of the things mindfulness practice teaches: to become aware of automatic patterns, to stop them and to instead choose a new response. Mindfulness acts here like a flashlight; we point it at our habitual behaviors so that we can reconsider them and act in a different way. Without awareness, we can’t change what we’re doing. Awareness is always the first step.

For example, we all have learned to not pick the nose in public. It’s probably still done in private, but we have pretty much automated the pattern of becoming aware when we are about to pick it in public and then to stop the impulse.

Let’s look at the four main ways that mindfulness helps us with preventing infection. They are:

  1. It helps us stop from engaging in automatic behavior
  2. It creates the awareness that we can undertake a better behavior
  3. Regular mindfulness meditation boosts the immune system
  4. Through mindful media practice, we can stay informed — but not panic

1. Stopping automatic behavior

What are the behaviors that we are being asked to stop to avoid infection or its spread?

  • avoid touching the face, especially the mouth, nose and eyes
  • cough and sneeze into the elbow or a tissue, not the bare hand
  • avoid shaking hands or hugging

The impulse to touch one’s face often comes from an itch in that area. People familiar with mindfulness practice will recognize the practice of “not scratching the itch” during meditation, which is training in exactly what’s called for here: to become aware of an impulse before the hands move and to let the impulse to itch be there and not act on it.

Here is an exercise on how to practice this with the example of not touching your face:

  • Take a minute or two to notice every impulse to touch your face. Can you just observe the impulses and not act on them? What happens to the impulses when you don’t do anything? If it’s hard to not follow an impulse, imagine that you will leave a black marker-dot or glue on your face where you touch it.  Feeling your breath like an anchor might be helpful to hold steady with the attention through the exercise.
  • Try to remember the exercise and what it feels like to not act on an impulse throughout the day.
  • Often you will only become aware while you touch your face. That is more awareness over not even being aware of touching the face and a sign of progress! Keep going!
  • Repeat Step 1 several times until you become more aware of the impulses during the day and it becomes more natural.

2. Choose a better behavior

Positive behavior patterns such as washing hands often and longer (about 20 seconds), to practice social distancing (6 feet if in public or work from home!) if possible or at least stay home with cold and flu symptoms, have been shown to decrease the risk of contamination and spread of viral infections.

Mindful hand washing

Mindful hand washing is a practice introduced into hospitals and other medical settings many years ago. It’s used as a kind of mindful break, a moment when one is fully present with all the senses that involve the washing of the hands, like feeling the warm water and the slipperiness of the soap, or smelling the scents. This serves the double purpose of A) getting the time in needed to clean the hands not only of dirt but also of bacteria and viruses, and, B) it serves as a mindful mini-break to reset the nervous-system during a stressful day.

Social distancing

Staying away from crowds and people as much as possible seems to be the most promising behavior to slow down the spread of the pandemic in order to not overwhelm the medical system for the people who need it. Practice this as much as possible but stay connected with friends, family and your meditation community through online offerings and platforms like Zoom, Skype or Facetime. We need mutual support now more than ever. Don’t isolate! Reach out to a fellow meditator and practice together while on the phone or zoom.

Staying home with cold and flu symptoms

Not going to work with cold or flu-like symptoms can feel like a difficult choice when workplace demands are high and while paid sick days are often absent or very few. With COVID-19 in the mix, it (hopefully) becomes an easier choice to stay home and rest and recover, which is as good for the sick person as it is for the co-workers who have less of an exposure risk to infection. Maybe the government will step in to offer help to workers that don’t have paid sick days? Being given the option of staying home and giving the body what it needs — rest — also reinforces the important principles of self-care and self-kindness.

3. Regular mindfulness meditation boosts the immune system

Several studies show that regular mindfulness meditation practice lower overall stress levels, enhance quality of life, and boost the immune system. COVID-19 has a higher risk of complications for people with compromised immune systems. So while it might be too much of a claim to say that meditation saves us from getting infected or, once infected, lowers the risk of complications, many longtime meditators will claim that they get less cold and flu infections or that they have lowered the frequency and intensity of flare-ups of chronic ailment and diseases.

4. Mindful media practice: Stay informed but don’t panic

Mindfulness practice also has a proven track record of lowering anxiety and worry. With all the media coverage of the coronavirus from around the world, it’s easy to fall into worry or even panic.

Mindfulness helps us be aware of the presence of anxiety or worry in the form of thoughts and as sensations in the body, and to observe them with friendliness instead of trying to push them away. Repeatedly returning to the sensations of the breath or the grounding feeling of the feet on the floor help us reorient to the present moment instead of racing toward some anticipated future. As the slogan goes: Keep Calm and Carry On. (It’s worth nothing that that slogan, was designed and made popular during World War II to instruct British citizens how to behave in the face of threatened massive air attack.)

Using the principles of mindfulness,  we can practice this and help us all to move through the epidemic with all its unpredictability, doing our part to lower the spread and impact of COVID-19, physically and emotionally. It’s paramount that we use — and deepen — our practice to help ourselves and the world to stay calm and get through this together.


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Stay sane, centered and kind during the holidays

Stay sane, centered and kind during the holidays

Happy Solstice!

What an interesting time of year. The days are so short and the nights long so that it feels like a natural time for rest, reflection and introspection. At the same time many of us are pretty stressed around the holidays with preparation and maybe one too many social gathering.

I want to share some pointers that I find helpful myself to stay more sane, centered and kind:

Go outside every day

We need natural light, fresh air and to move the body. Even if the weather is more for cuddling up and staying inside, go out at least for a short time every day. Make it a walk, take a friend and don’t look at your phone for the time.

Find a brief time to meditate every day

You might think that you don’t even find the time for daily meditation when things are less hectic but here is the thing: Pausing for a moment will give you the sense of more time and a chance for your system to reset. Don’t be too proud to meditate even for one minute! If you like streaks, use the Insight Timer app to count the days you have meditated in a row.

Check in with yourself several times per day and ask: What do I need right now?

This can be as part of a meditation or just a real check-in: How are you feeling right now? How does the body feel? What does it need? What do you need right now? While you can not always do that, you can more often than you think: Like stand up, not eating another piece of candy, go pee, etc. The body’s needs are mostly quite simple.

Move your body: Every bit counts

If you can’t make it to the gym these days and the weather doesn’t allow for runs or even walks, take the stairs whenever you can, stand up during phone calls, stretch while you wait for the tea kettle to boil, park your car a little further away or walk one extra metro or bus stop. Many apps offer all kind of audio workouts of any lengths if you like somebody to coax you a session with nice music (I use Aaptiv).

Have your cookie

Don’t deny yourself eating the yummy (and probably not so healthy) holiday food but eat it in moderation – if possible (and if you end up overeating go to the next pointer). Have one cookie (instead of four) and eat it mindfully. Try to not have conversations while snacking, as chances are that you don’t taste your food and you might end up eating more than is good for you.

Practice self-compassion and non-judging

Holiday times are ripe for falling off your wagon. Instead of being hard on yourself, expect it, acknowledge that you are doing the best you can at this time (no, you really do!), give yourself some love and move on. Knowing that others are feeling the same way helps to be kinder and more understanding with others who might also be over-sugared, under-exercised and stressed out.

Remember that the holiday time will pass and that January is just around the corner!



Don’t B*tch – Mindfulness, Reactivity and Social Media

Don’t B*tch – Mindfulness, Reactivity and Social Media

We can use social media to connect and support each other. Or be reactive. We get to choose.

If you are active on any social media platform you are very aware how crazy, heated and hyperbole things have gotten. It’s understandable that people feel passionate about their views and that they share that with their followers but it feels to me like things are getting more than a little out of hand at times.

Whether it’s politics or other topics emotions are flying extra high these days. And that is very obvious on the social media platforms. Everything goes now and it’s often done in order to get the greatest public exposure possible. More media coverage, more tweets, more posts. And the one with the most retweets and comments wins. It’s no surprise that “post-truth” has been chosen the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary.

What we share on social media can have a big ripple effect. We are not just saying something to an individual or a group of friends. Things can spread easily to hundreds or even thousands of people in a short time. The average social media user in the US spends 1 hour and 40min every day checking and posting. That’s a lot of time to posts, comment and share.

The combination of being emotionally activated, not being face-to-face with people plus the rush of excitement to get a lot of likes and comments is a dangerous mix.

Mindfulness gives us tools to help us navigate these perilous waters.

Aligning with our intention and guidelines for sharing

You might want to take a step back and ask yourself why you are on social media in the first place? What is your intention? What do you value? Do you want to bring those values to how you show up?

My intention is to connect with like-minded people, to share what I like and what inspires me. My guidelines for posting are the same as the ones I practice for speaking and interacting with people in general.

5 questions to ask before sharing:

mindfulness social media

Piecing together social media

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Is it beneficial?

Is it appropriate and timely?

Is it deepening or healing a rift in our community or society?


Applying these 5 questions doesn’t mean we have to be all nice and agreeable. Not at all. Express yourself, be firm, stand your ground. But using the questions as a filter can go a long way in being in alignment with your values while being authentic. For me it’s a great safeguard especially on social media.

Practicing awareness of being reactive

But what if someone pushes your buttons? What if someone provokes you with their comment, hurts your feelings or if you feel challenged in your opinion?

Bringing awareness to how we feel goes a long way in practicing mindful social media habits. When we are feeling reactive we are so much more likely to respond or to post something that is out of alignment with what we value.

How do we know we are being reactive? This is a great mindfulness practice right there, whether it’s around social media or other areas of life. For me, my shoulders tighten and I feel a pressure on my chest. My thoughts around the topic speed up and are usually not kind. I might feel defensive energy rising up from my belly into my chest. I feel ready to pounce, literally and figuratively.

Practice STOP

You might have heard of one our favorite acronyms to support being in the present moment:

Practicing S-T-O-P  or simply taking one or two deep breaths in moments like that can help to break the reactivity cycle.

S – Stop, T- Take a breath, O- Observe, P- Proceed.

Maybe say it out loud or just to yourself: “Reactivity. This is what being reactive feels like.” Create a little space with your breath and then return to your intentions.

Want some help dealing with provocative posts?

Here is a decision tree with a few questions that I find helpful.

Question: Am I feeling reactive?

A little: I start with taking a couple of breaths and then proceed with caution. Very: I try postponing my reply for a while.

Am I ready to reply?

Question: Do I have something valuable to contribute (using the 5 questions above)?

If no: I don’t respond.

If yes: I ask the next question:

Question: Is there a chance that the other person can actually take in what I’m saying or if others on the thread can? Because if they are triggered they probably can’t hear what I want to share with them and opposing might just fan the flames of their anger.

If no: If I suspect they can’t hear me, I don’t respond.

If yes: I will post.

If my decision tree ended up at “don’t respond” there is one more question I ask myself.

Question: Is the post disrespectful or harmful or do I suspect the poster is a troll?

If not: I leave the post sitting. I think that not responding is a powerful answer in itself.

If yes: I will unfriend, unfollow, or block the person. And I delete their post if it’s on my timeline. I don’t allow people to poison my space.

In a nutshell: I try not to b*tch.

Happy posting! Let’s make social media part of our mindfulness practice and be the good change we are looking for on social media.

I would love to hear from you in the comments below how you are practicing social media these days?

Transforming Chronic Pain with Mindfulness and Compassion

Transforming Chronic Pain with Mindfulness and Compassion

Without it, we wouldn’t know we’re alive and we couldn’t tell if we’ve been hurt. But too much of it can become an all-consuming drain on our attention. What can we do when we find ourselves…

Trapped In the Box We Call Pain 

When Josie walked through the door to class her face showed the pain she was in. She lay down for the guided meditation that started the class. The meditation slowed down her fast and shallow breathing some, but the pained expression on her face stayed.

Josie suffers from IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a chronic intermittent pain syndrome that manifests in painful spasms of the gut.

After the meditation we went around the circle and shared how the week had been with the pain levels and the mindfulness practices we were learning. When it was Josie’s turn, she shared that a new flare up had just started last night, and she couldn’t sleep because she had such a full workweek ahead and worried how she’d make it through. She was also scared it would get as bad as it had been a couple of months ago, when she had to be hospitalized and put on much stronger medication with heavy side effects.

Chronic pain in the US

Chronic pain affects more people in the US than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined: more than 100 million adults. More than half of them feel that they have little or no control over the pain. It often negatively affects concentration, energy level, sleep and overall quality of life. More than 80% report feeling depressed because of the pain. And let’s not even mention related health-care costs and overall costs for society including number of sick days, prescription drug abuse and other forms of self-medication.

While pain medication is a blessing, it often doesn’t relieve all of the pain, and it also comes with serious short- and long-term side effects.

One student told me: “Living with chronic pain is like having another full-time job. The extra time it takes me to just get out of the house in the morning, the doctor and chiropractor visits, the extra time I need for soothing and self-care, just so I can still work my regular job. And let’s not mention the extra money I need to spend.”

What is pain?

Let’s start with a simple question: What is pain? We could say that pain is the body’s way to tell the brain “Pay attention! There is something wrong.” And, as such, the pain response is immensely helpful. We actually couldn’t have survived as a species without this mechanism. In some rare cases people are born with an inability to feel pain. They might step on a nail and not notice it. They suffer from many infections and often untreated fractures of the bones, because the system to alert them to pain just isn’t functioning.

Acute versus chronic pain

What about chronic pain? My personal theory is that chronic pain could be seen as a malfunctioning side effect of evolution. Think about it: Let’s say you tear your meniscus, the cartilage in your knee. It’s painful. After a while you get surgery because it’s not healing. But after the surgery and the healing phase your knee is still in pain. Your doctor says, “Well, there isn’t really anything I can do now. I can give you another description for your meds but otherwise you have learn how to live with that.” Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to switch off the pain at this point? You know everything you need to know, so now pain’s job to alert you is done. But no such luck. Instead the pain keeps telling you over and over: “Pay attention! There is something wrong.” This constant alerting is exhausting to the nervous system, as any person suffering from chronic pain will tell you. And if that’s not enough, research shows that the pain threshold is lowered over time: At the extreme, even slight touch can be felt by the alerted brain as pain. Pain doesn’t seem to be something we can get used to, allowing it to fade into deep background, like sounds or sights.

Learning how to live with it

Instead we have to learn “how to live with it.” And mindfulness practice is a wonderful opportunity to do just that. It helps to shift the locus of control from the outside (“this is happening to me and there is nothing I can do about it”) to the inside (“this is happening to me but I can choose how I relate to it”). We learn to attend to our experience in a kind, curious manner instead of fighting or denying it. We learn to cope with the pain in new way. Some studies on pain suggest that the greatest benefit from learning mindfulness meditation is the coping. For example, studies show that the reported quality of life goes up while the “objective” pain ratings might not change much.

A regular meditation practice (which can include short and long sessions and everything in between) is the best ongoing foundation for working with pain. It helps us to hone the skills we need to attend to pain — or any challenging experience we encounter for that matter.

Suffering is optional

Before we look at working with pain in more detail, let’s start out with a bigger picture perspective. You might have heard the saying “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” While this is an easy to remember phrase, most people still wonder, “How exactly does that work?”

Let me explain. Insight meditation teacher Shinzen Young came up with the following equation:

Suffering = Pain x Resistance/Worry

We can safely say that pain is a constant in life, whether it is physical or emotional pain. And during moments when it’s not affecting you, then for sure somebody you care about is in pain.

When you’re in pain and you really hate it, what happens to your suffering? It goes up, doesn’t it? And yet, at another time when you have the same or a similar pain but you don’t resist it or you don’t worry about it so much, what happens to suffering? Doesn’t it go down? Of course is does. That is common sense.

At this point I love to be a little provocative to really make the point: According to this equation, if there is zero resistance, what happens to suffering?…Right?? Suffering would turn out to be zero as well!

Do you believe that?

Can you give me an example where you had pain but zero suffering? When you were ok with it, even though it did hurt?

When I ask this question in a class people are often stunned at first but then they do come up with great examples:

“When I had my baby, it hurt like hell, but I didn’t care, I was so excited to be a mom soon.”

“When I lift weights that often really hurts, but it’s ok. That’s how I grow stronger.”

“I recently got a new tattoo on the inside of my arm. Super painful, but zero suffering, that’s what it takes.”

And even people with chronic pain have told me: “I can be in severe pain, but if my mind is not worried and I don’t fight it, I can feel deeply ok in that moment.”

It is normal to resist pain or to worry about what’s wrong. It is normal to suffer when we are in pain. But it feels so normal that we forget that pain and suffering are NOT the same. We could say that pain and suffering are like twins — fraternal twins, not identical ones. Armed with this equation one can move into the exploration of pain in a very different manner.

pain-box-2The box we call PAIN

What we call pain is actually a conglomerate of three components: the actual physical sensations, the emotions we have about the pain and the meaning the pain has for us and our life, which we call “the story”. They are lumped together in our experience as if they only coexisted together in a box labeled PAIN.

Let’s imagine we would give the sensations, the emotions and the story each the value of 10. This box and its confinement would be like multiplying the power of its content: 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000. Of course this is easily overwhelming and many people will try to never look into the box anymore. They just try to avoid the box at all costs.

Mindfulness is an open field

Mindfulness – which you could also call loving awareness — gives us a different approach to work with the content of the box. It helps us to open it up and take what’s in there out into the light. We take the contents of the box out into the open field that mindfulness provides. We turn toward the pain instead of away. We stop either running away or fighting it. We open the door to acceptance in a kind and accessible way.

We can now look at each of the three components of pain separately: The physical sensations are different from the emotions I have about the pain, which is different from the story I tell myself about it. Of course they all intimately influence each other. But once I know that they’re not the same I can start working with them separately and they become much more manageable. I can simply feel into the sensations for what they are. How strong are the sensations? What are the main qualities right now? Stabbing? Tearing? Pressure? Heat?

I can feel what emotions I have about the pain in this moment, and once again in the next moment. Is it sadness or more frustration? Anger? Fear?

And I can see how the story, the meaning, deeply influences both how I feel about the pain and how I actually experience the unpleasant sensations.

Breaking down decreases the ping-ponging back and forth, with its dangerous potential to spiral out of control. It becomes more like a 10 + 10 + 10, which equals 30. I might not be able to handle 1000, but I can handle 30.

What would this pain be without the story?

I asked Josie to place attention (or feel into) the unpleasant sensations in her belly and asked, “If somebody who never had this pain before would feel what you feel right now, what would they make out of it?” She closed her eyes and felt into her belly. She was silent for some time. Then we could see something change in her face and she started to softly cry. She said, “They would think they have an upset stomach.” In that moment Josie could see that the actual pain was just that: unpleasant, but not overwhelming. And that the overwhelm she had felt came from her worries about what might happen in the next couple of days and even months ahead. Her suffering was mostly from her fear, not from the pain in her belly. And with mindfulness and compassion, she was able to stay in the present moment. One moment at a time.

Vidyamala Burch, author of the books Living Well with Pain and Illness, and You Are Not Your Pain, has a history of multiple broken vertebrae after a car accident. After a very long period of struggling and fighting with the pain before starting a dedicated mindfulness practice, she reports, “For many years I saw my back pain as a sign of failure and tried unrealistically to find cures instead of taking responsibilities for my reactions to the pain. When I saw that the pain was a natural part of life I felt relief. I realized that my lack of acceptance was far more painful than the back pain itself.”

Harnessing the power of self-compassion with the wisdom of mindfulness practice we can approach pain in a new way and get to know it and to befriend it in ways never thought possible. Suffering really can become optional. More and more moments at a time.


Practice: Working With Your Pain

1) Practice Self-Compassion

  1. Ask yourself: what would the kindest response to this level of pain be right in this moment under these circumstances?
  1. Try this simple practice (courtesy of Kristin Neff):
  • Acknowledge the pain: “Yes, this hurts right now.”
  • Emotionally and mentally connect to the brother- or sisterhood of people with (your kind of) pain. Specific example: “This is what is feels like for a young man to have lower back pain.”
  • Offer kindness to yourself: “May I be kind to myself,” “May I not close down my heart,” or a similar phrase.
  1. If you are feeling low on resources – maybe tired or stressed out from work — and it feels like way too much, why not distract yourself? Watch a movie, read a novel, call a friend. In short: use the self-medication that works the best for you – and hopefully is not illegal. These activities can also help to recharge you.

2) Turn Toward the Pain and Break it Down

If you feel like you can work with the pain, do a quick inventory: How strong are the sensations? The emotions? The story (mental worry)? Which of the three is predominant? If the image works for you picture a pie chart. Right now, which part has the biggest slice of pie? Work with that one.

Sensations: Place attention on, or “feel into” the physical pain. Does imagining breathing into it help? Be curious and specific. Stay with what’s there now, not what was there last time or five minutes ago.

What is the exact size of the pain? How much of the body is NOT in pain? (I once worked with a student with severe back pain who realized that the pain he experienced as debilitating was just the size of a quarter coin – while the rest of his body was pain free. That was a big breakthrough for him.)

Where is it located? What are its qualities? Is it sharp, rough, dull, burning, pressing, flashing, undulating, stabbing, tearing? If you relate to scales: What intensity does it have on a scale from zero to 10 — zero being no pain and 10 the strongest pain you can imagine?

Stay with the sensation in this way as long as you find it helpful. Experiment with softly naming to yourself what you find. Pay particular attention to change over time. Unexamined pain often feels it’s unchanging or always present. Prove that wrong by paying attention.

Emotions: What are the emotions related to the pain? Work with the most obvious ones but be open to allowing them to shift and change. Feel them in your body and softly name them. Allow them to be here –not because you like them, but because they are here.

If you know the practice, work with the RAIN acronym:

  • R- Recognize
  • A – Acknowledge, Allow
  • I – Investigate with kindness
  • N- Non-identify 

It can be very helpful to use the sentence: “This is what anger feels like, “…what fear feels like,” “…what sadness feels like.” It’s just an emotion that every human being feels at times. It is not who you are.

Thoughts or “The Story”: What is the story you are believing right now? That it will never get better? That you won’t be able to do x? To be y? To become z?

Recognize it as just that: A thought. It’s not who you are and we don’t really care much about the content at this point. We can just let the story be and drop into the background, because we choose a different focus, like the breath.

I would love to hear from you. What works best for you when you are in pain? Please share in the comments below.

Published first in Mindful Magazine, April 2015.

Graphic courtesy of Mindful Magazine, picture by Jesse Orrico