Does being mindful end suffering? Not that I’ve noticed. It can, however, change the nature of suffering.
In The Mindfulness Backlash, I wrote about the speed with which mindfulness is being marketed as a cure-all, which it is not. Mindfulness will not get you a new car, a better car, or a great relationship.
It also will not erase moments or longer time spans of suffering from your life. This sometimes seems unfair. If you can be serene, accepting each moment as it unfolds, surely, just as correct sanitation creates an environment in which germs don’t thrive, negativity should feel unwelcome in your mind.
However that thought reveals an inherent resistance. When I think it, I’m saying, “I don’t want negativity.” The statement that what we resist persists may be over-used, but that doesn’t make it less true.
It is often said that resistance is the source of all mental and physical pain. Take a moment to check out your body: neck, back, shoulders, wherever you may experience tension and pain. Think about some of the classic phrases related to physical pain and discomfort: “Pain in the neck,” “Don’t expect me to swallow that,” “I can’t stomach it.” Hear the resistance in these statements.
Imagine instead, waking up with a physical pain and surrendering to it, saying, “OK, pain, you win.” Some people ask what the pain wants to tell them, and this is an approach that can work for many varieties of suffering.
That person at work you can’t stand? (And how are your legs and feet doing?) Becoming mindful and going within may bring up a memory of someone of whom that person reminds you. Now you have an opportunity for release.
A situation that frightens you may represent the past intruding into the present moment and projecting into the future. A very common example involves people who are terrified about the idea of public speaking and who remember that when they were children, they suffered a humiliating experience in school. Suffering, when it operates in the background of consciousness, persists.
This is why the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, advises us to make good use of our suffering, to embrace it as a teacher, to understand that in suffering lies the key to its resolution and healing.
Yes, it takes courage and commitment—and mindfulness. When I can allow whatever is happening in the present moment, I may not suddenly become happy, but in the acceptance that I’m not in control of the situation, I can surrender to it and invite it to teach me. It’s not my fault; it’s not anyone’s fault; it is.
And that’s the beginning of peace.