May 8, 2009

Suffering is in the Mind

We can learn lessons from exhaustion and pain.

Pain by itself is manageable, to a point. If it lasts long enough, and isn’t blindingly severe, it can be coaxed through awareness into the texture of life.

And we can learn from it.

Exhaustion can steal serenity, reason, and composure. It can create pain, and bring us close to the edge. It is an unforgiving teacher.

Sometimes pain is a fact of life. I’ve been reminded of that these past few years. I still find myself challenged by it, especially when coupled with exhaustion from lack of sleep.

Pain and exhaustion draw my attention to the animal part of me. And they teach me that suffering is in the mind.

We Are Animals

It’s easy to forget we humans are also animals. I’ve actually witnessed people react in anger when I make that observation. But there’s nothing wrong with remembering and acknowledging all of what we are. And in the midst of pain, exhaustion, or anxiety, our animal sides can teach us important things.

Animals do not suffer. Because suffering is a thought, not a physical state. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying they do not experience pleasure, pain, or exhaustion. They do.

But we anthropomorphize animals, especially our pets. We interpret their behaviors through the lens of our human perceptions. But they are not human, and they do not think in any way we can understand.

Pure Awareness

Animals are pure awareness. When hungry, they eat. When you give them love, they purr or wag their tails. When they are in pain, they often go off by themselves, seeking what safety and comfort can be found in solitude and darkness.

Animals experience fear, too. They can be conditioned to be, well, anxious if they’ve been frequently threatened or left in dire circumstances for long periods.

You can see this wariness in animals that have been traumatized or mistreated. Sometimes the environment has been so unsafe that they react to us by snarling, hissing, or growling. It can be that bad.

Retraining an animal that has been traumatized requires compassion and a calming environment.

So it is with us human animals, too. But because we think, there’s an additional layer of complexity our animals friends do not experience.

When we are traumatized, we not only react as our fellow animals do, but with thought as well. Some event (real or perceived) triggers our animal defenses, and we create a story of anxiety or depression to go with the that sensation and event combination.

The Gift and Curse of Language

We are animals with the gift of language. Sometimes, we use it against ourselves.

That’s why the first step in overcoming anxiety is to separate physical sensations from our interpretation of them. The anxiety, the suffering we believe we experience, is only in the mind.

What that means is we can shift our perspective about anxiety by learning how to observe our physical sensations and the thoughts about them as separate states.

Short-Circuiting the Anxiety Cycle

One of the most powerful ways to short-circuit the anxiety cycle is the practice of acceptance. When I notice my mind shifting into the state I label “anxiety,” I immediately check in with my body. I accept the sensations as they are, without wishing them to go away or be any different.

Then I get to see the separation between the physical state and my thoughts about it. I can observe that the animal me is preparing to defend itself against a threat perceived by a part of my brain that is pre-conscious. In that moment, I get to choose what to do.

I get to decide what I’m going to tell myself about those physical sensations — assuming I even choose to tell myself a story at all.

What I’ve come to understand is that I can allow myself to experience the physical feelings without having to explain or worry over them.

I get to choose suffering or acceptance.

I get to struggle or relax.

It’s up to me, my thoughts, and my animal side.

What does your animal say today?

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