Are you going through a difficult time? Do you wish the pain would stop?
Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart reassures readers that suffering is an emotion everyone feels, but it doesn’t mean we should always have to experience it. She provides four tips for easing suffering so that, the next time you’re challenged, you can easily rise from it.
Keep reading to learn how to stop suffering and start living peacefully.
How to Ease Suffering and Navigate Difficult Times
Chödrön writes that the key to knowing how to stop suffering is to let go of the idea that there’s a cure for pain and uncertainty and recognize these are constant and ever-present parts of life—you will experience constant change, and to live fully, you must stop trying to make things permanently ideal. Learn to relax and accept the instability and the fundamental uncertainty of being alive.
Chödrön also writes that you can turn negative experiences into opportunities for growth. Doing this can help you cultivate more inner peace, which benefits you, those around you, and the whole planet.
You can let go of unhelpful beliefs, relax, and remain steady amidst chaos by learning to stay in the present moment. Chödrön explains that in the present moment, we can drop the painful and unhelpful stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what is happening to us, and what is true about the world. In this state, we can experience more courage, strength, and appreciation for reality. And we can live more fully without constantly seeking pleasure and striving to avoid and eliminate pain.
(Shortform note: Embracing uncertainty, giving up on trying to make our lives permanently ideal, and staying in the present moment are examples of what other Buddhist teachers and mental health professionals call radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a strategy for coping with suffering that involves acknowledging and accepting the reality of a situation rather than trying to resist or avoid it. This means accepting both the positive and negative aspects of life, which can help you break free from negative thought patterns, learn and grow from challenges, cultivate emotional resilience, and develop a more compassionate attitude towards yourself and others.)
According to Chödrön, you can develop the ability to stay present by learning and following the teachings of Buddhism: practicing meditation and mindfulness, cultivating compassion for yourself and others, turning towards fear and releasing hope, and accepting reality as it is.
1. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness
Chödrön asserts that cultivating mindfulness through meditation is the first step in learning how to cope with difficult times. It also allows you to use painful experiences as catalysts for experiencing peace in your life.
In meditation, practice being with your experience in the present moment—whether it’s painful, enjoyable, or a mix of both—and accepting it. Notice without judgment whatever thoughts and feelings come up, then let them go and return to the present moment. The purpose of meditation is not to rid yourself of unpleasant thoughts or feelings, which is impossible. Because mindfulness leads to clarity and spaciousness around your thoughts and feelings, it helps you to not get swept away by your hopes and fears in hard times.
Additionally, you can see your habit of escaping certain emotions because you’re paying attention to your experience. You can then develop the ability to let your emotions be present without indulging them or repressing them. Chödrön explains that this mindful awareness can translate into your daily life if you practice meditation regularly. You’ll develop inner acceptance and peace, despite how your outer life may look.
Chödrön teaches that only the present moment is real—the past and future are illusions. We all think about the past and future to escape the discomfort of everything we don’t know and can’t control. Therefore, as you learn to be more present, you may feel vulnerable because you have nowhere to escape to mentally. And Chödrön explains that when you have nowhere to hide from reality, your heart will open more fully to yourself, others, and the world.
2. Cultivate Compassion For Yourself and Others
Chödrön teaches that one of the most powerful ways to stay afloat during difficult times and transform your pain into a positive force is to cultivate compassion for yourself and others. In Tibetan Buddhism, the path of cultivating compassion for yourself is called maitri, which translates from Sanskrit to loving-kindness. By practicing maitri, you can make friends with yourself—trust and lean on yourself—and feel more connection to and belonging with others.
3. Turn Toward Fear and Let Go of Hope
Chödrön writes that it’s impossible to be liberated from fear without turning toward it, experiencing it fully, and letting go of hope for an ideal life. Avoiding or covering up any negative emotion, including fear, only strengthens it. And grasping onto hope for something better only makes us resist reality.
As you grapple with difficulty and uncertainty, you will inevitably experience longing for things to improve and fear that things will not improve or even worsen. One way to have a relationship with fear is to pause before you distract yourself from it or try to fix it. Instead, become familiar with how fear feels and don’t try to change it. Letting yourself feel your fear is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, become your own friend, be humble, and tap into your courage.
We tend to see hope as the antidote to fear. But Chödrön explains the people of Tibet see fear and hope as two sides of the same coin: They understand that the fear of loss and pain comes from having hope that circumstances can be ideal. The root of hope and fear are the false beliefs we have about reality—we feel we lack something, things are going wrong, suffering is unacceptable, and someone or something is to blame.
Cultivating mindfulness and compassion can help you turn toward fear and release hope. To build compassion for yourself and better understand your emotional responses, accept that fear and hope are natural responses to suffering. When we go through hard times, Chödrön believes there is an enormous possibility for renewal and positive change, but we overlook the potential in hardship because we are too attached to our false beliefs about suffering. Cultivate mindfulness and compassion and you will gain confidence in your ability to embrace reality with acceptance.
4. Accept Reality as It Is
Chödrön’s final recommendation for coping more gracefully with difficulty is to accept reality as it is. When you stop resisting reality, you can relax and accept whatever is happening in your life and experience more peace, even if your circumstances are painful and stressful.
Chödrön says to accept reality, you must acknowledge the limited knowledge and control you have in life. In doing so, you can accept the present moment as it is without trying to predict or control the future. Our minds confidently develop inaccurate ideas about ourselves and reality all the time, and we tend to cling to our ideas, even when they’re negative because they provide us with a sense of familiarity and security. However, this sense of security is false, as everything, including ourselves, is in a constant state of change. Chödrön explains that when you accept how little you know about the present and future, you open more to the possibility that your challenging circumstances may have a positive outcome that you can’t yet imagine.
Develop a regular meditation practice and practice mindfulness in your daily life to learn how to stop resisting reality and fighting with yourself and your circumstances. Every time you acknowledge your thoughts, let them go, and return your attention to your breath, you’re strengthening your ability to compassionately accept yourself and reality. Chödrön argues that there is nothing so big or overwhelming that mindfulness and compassion can’t help.
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Here's what you'll find in our full When Things Fall Apart summary:
- How to find courage and compassion amid pain, loss, and uncertainty
- How to use pain and suffering to grow and transform your life
- Buddhist methods for easing suffering and finding inner peace