All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.
Clearly, the above statement, attributed to the Buddha, indicates he was both a realist and an optimist when he taught that humans will suffer and
that humans can bring an end to their suffering. For some people, the very notion that suffering can be eliminated elevates their skepticism. However, most would agree that suffering can be reduced.
6 Buddhist Ways to Defuse and Disable Suffering
1. Practice better thinking. Along with being a positive thinker, try being a better thinker. After all, the Buddha famously said: “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”
If you’re struggling, try to re-program your thinking. Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who was born in England and embraced Buddhism as a youth, provides an example of how to do this. When Brahm was a novice monk in Thailand, he and a group of monks were assigned to move a huge mound of earth (left over from a construction project) to a less visible area on the monastery grounds. For three days they worked in the Thai heat, from 10 am until after sunset, using only shovels and wheelbarrows to complete the task.
At some point during those three days, the Abbot was called away from the monastery. When the job was finished the deputy gathered the crew of monks, telling them they had moved the earth to the wrong place. Annoyed but obedient, Brahm and the others labored for another three days in the tropical heat to move the mound for a second time. When the abbot returned, he called Brahm and the crew together and demanded to know why the pile of earth was in the wrong location. He ordered them to move it yet again.
Brahm recalls being livid and swearing in English. As he cursed and pushed the wheelbarrow, another monk, sensing his anger and frustration, spoke to him in his limited English, saying: “Pushing a wheelbarrow isn’t hard; how you think about it makes it hard.” That comment resonated with Brahm and empowered him to think better. With the mind shift, even the wheelbarrow load suddenly felt lighter and he felt freer.
Apply this wisdom to any struggles you’re experiencing. Here are some examples:
- Being unemployed isn’t hard; how I think about it makes it hard.
- Being divorced isn’t hard; how I think about it makes it hard.
- Being sick isn’t hard; how I think about it makes it hard.
- Being gossiped about isn’t hard; how I think about it makes it hard.
2. Defuse anger. Sadly, being controlled by anger increases and deepens suffering. To those who recommend “getting the anger out,” Psychology Today Editor at Large Hara Estroff Marano urges caution and reconsideration: “Anger doesn’t automatically dissipate by being unleashed. We rarely experience catharsis. Venting it in words or action doesn’t make anger easier to manage; often it only increases the intensity of the feeling. Anger often feeds on itself. Plus, by furthering aggression it often brings irreversible damage to those in the immediate vicinity.”
Anger Into Spiritual Action.”]
According to the Dalai Lama, anger is self-sabotaging. When asked if he is “angry” at China for invading Tibet and causing unimaginable suffering upon the Tibetan people, he responds this way: “If I were to develop feelings of vindictiveness, anger, or hatred towards the Chinese, who would be the loser? I would, because I would thereby lose my peace of mind, my sleep, and my appetite. At the same time, my bitterness would not affect the Chinese in the least. If I became extremely upset, that would also prevent me from making those around me happy.” Be like the Dalai Lama—when anger emerges, immediately apply its antidotes: patience, tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness.
3. Accelerate impermanence. The Buddha introduced a simple but powerful concept called “impermanence.” It refers to the reality that nothing in life is firm and locked in place but is constantly changing and shifting.
Impermanence is a simple liberation teaching that empowers us to cut through the feeling that any challenging circumstance is permanent. Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh realized this. During the darkest days of the Vietnam War, a group of young people came to him, asking: “Do you have any hope that the war will end soon?”
“At that point, I could not see any sign of the war ending,” Nhat Hanh recalls with remarkable candor. “But I did not want either of them or myself to drown in an ocean of despair.” He remained silent for some time before responding: “The Buddha said that everything is impermanent. The war has to end one day. The question is, what can we do to accelerate the impermanence?”
Apply Buddhist impermanence to your life anytime you are suffering. Gently but firmly remind yourself that the situation will inevitably change, that the way you currently feel is not how you will feel in a few weeks or months. Add to that your own creative intelligence by reviewing all possible steps you could take to take to shift and shape the event toward a more positive direction.
4. Shift from the negative to the positive. “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better,” is the straightforward but profound advice from the Dalai Lama. Much of the suffering we experience is the result of our own negative thinking. The fact is that maintaining a positive frame of mind reduces anxiety and suffering while raising happiness and joy. And, it’s surprisingly easy to retrain a mind which is habitually negative.
[Read: “Build Resilience by Creating an Upward Emotional Spiral.”]
The ancient yogic sage Patanjali makes this suggestion: “When presented with negative, disquieting thoughts or feelings, cultivate an opposite, elevated attitude.” An almost identical approach is offered by twentieth-century writer Norman Vincent Peale (The Power Of Positive Thinking). Whenever a negative thought comes to mind, he writes, "deliberately voice a positive thought to cancel it out.”
5. Cultivate gratitude. Suffering can be significantly reduced and downsized through gratitude. This is what guides Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron. In her eighth decade, she candidly admits that aging has prompted her to complain, from time to time, about her appearance and aches. However, she quickly shifts from what’s wrong to what’s right. In her case, the ability to go for long walks while in her eighties is a source of gratitude.
“My older sister, who used to be a big hiker, has arthritic feet and can no longer walk far,” she explains, adding that “her arthritis makes me realize, every time I go for a walk, how grateful I am for my legs and feet and hips. How wonderful that they all work, and I can be refreshed and invigorated by my walks, rather than end up in so much pain that I don’t want to do it anymore.”
6. Drop perfectionism and pessimism. A common teaching image used to establish whether one is a negative or positive thinker involves a sheet of paper with one small black dot on it. When people are asked what they see, the majority point to the dot—the flaw—rather than seeing a blank sheet of paper. This reveals that people tend to focus on imperfections and issues.
If you’re a perfectionist, a pessimist, or both, the result is more anguish and suffering. An example of this everyday issue emerges in the life of actor Kirk Douglas. Early in his career when he was unknown and performing in plays, a New York Times
theater critic wrote this review of his performance in The Wind is Ninety: “Kirk Douglas is nothing short of superb.” Obviously, it was a glowing endorsement of his acting skill. Yet, as Douglas told it, as he lay in bed that evening, he was repeatedly saying to himself one word from the review: “Nothing … nothing,” and thought, “why couldn’t they just say ‘Kirk Douglas is superb’?”
When you are struggling, try applying this seventh-century Indian Buddhist proverb to your life: “Look carefully at suffering itself to see whether it can be corrected or not. If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy? The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.”
Discover more with "6 Tools for More Freedom—the Buddhist Way."