When something goes wrong, most people resist it.
“This shouldn’t be happening!” Goes the inner dialogue.
The resistance comes from a good place—a wish for things to be going “right,” and for you to be okay.
But it’s not actually doing you any good. Because resistance is the main thing that causes us to suffer when we feel pain.
Resistance: The Suffering Multiplier
As psychologist Kristin Neff puts it, “Suffering equals pain times resistance.”
The amount we suffer in life is the product of the pain itself, multiplied by the amount we resist it.
Suffering = Pain * Resistance.
Which leads to a peculiar paradox:
- Something tiny can cause massive.
- We can feel a ton of pain without actually suffering.
It all depends on how we relate to the experience at hand.
Little Pain, Big Resistance
Take, for example, when your flight gets delayed. Or when you get stuck in traffic.
These can create incredible negative reactions in the mind. Like it’s the end of the world.
But really, it’s not that bad. Sitting in an airport, or in a car, is a relatively comfortable experience.
There’s a little bit of pain. But when the resistance to that change is huge (“This shouldn’t be happening!”) it amplifies our suffering grow.
Small Pain * Big Resistance = Lots of suffering.
But…the inverse is also true: Just because we feel pain doesn’t mean we need to suffer.
The Power of Acceptance
Acceptance is the antidote to resistance.
If instead of resisting something, we accept it, the pain melts away.
It works in trivial situations, like a flight delay. Once you accept the change of events, there’s nothing to be upset about. It just is what it is. You get present where you are, and move forward from there.
But is it possible to feel at peace—even happy—when in the presence of significant physical pain?
I found out my answer to this first-hand.
I was going on a rock-climbing trip with a close friend. It ended up being a nightmare travel day. Multiple delays. A canceled flight. A re-routed flight that doubled my time in the air.
And as soon as I got off the plane, I had a splitting headache.
The back of my head throbbed with pain. I was nauseous. And we still had a multi-hour car ride to get to the camp.
As I sat in the passenger seat of the car, head pounding with pain, I wondered aloud…
“Is it possible to feel a ton of physical discomfort, yet still be happy?”
A moment later, I answered my own question.
“Yeah. It definitely is.”
I was in a ton of physical pain. And had a “horrible” day of travel. But I had a smile on my face. I was happy.
Yeah, the pain kinda sucked. (I even threw-up on the side of the road.) But I found joy within it by letting go of any resistance.
Big Pain * Small Resistance = Little to no suffering
(Note: Letting go of resistance doesn’t mean resigning to it. It’s about accepting that not everything is in your control. On my trip, I was doing what was in my control to feel better. But I only had so much control over how my body actually felt.)
Finding Joy Within Discomfort
We all face our unexpected and uncomfortable obstacles in life.
What dictates our experience of these obstacles is how we manage our attention during the experience.
Again…Suffering = Pain * Resistance.
When we let go of our resistance, any discomfort is immediately manageable.
So…the next time you find yourself in a painful experience—whether a change of plans, physical pain, or life not going as you hoped—play with the practice of acceptance.
- Notice when something painful or uncomfortable arises.
- Observe thoughts of resistance as they arise (e.g. “This shouldn’t be happening!” / “Why me?!”) and let them pass by.
- Regain your center by accepting the new circumstances. Allow yourself to arrive fully in this new situation.
- Bring mindfulness to the physical sensations of the experience. Notice that they’re temporary and will pass on.
- Continue the practice as life continues to change. Whenever you find yourself holding onto some resistant thought, let it go.
Here’s to you, gracefully navigating all the obstacles and challenges that come your way.