We can limit the amount of pain we create for ourselves by selecting better coping tools.
Most of us are simply not comfortable being uncomfortable. How often have we popped pain pills at the slightest headache or got shot up with anesthesia at the dentist? It can be almost a reflex: “Dope me up, doc!” In some cases, of course, this choice makes perfect sense. But it contributes to the modern-day assumption that we should be able to numb all pain—whether physical or emotional—immediately.
What’s fascinating is that other cultures make room for a greater range of painful emotions. For example, research by Birgit Koopman and Jeanne Tsai of Stanford University shows that American condolence cards are more likely to say something like get better soon, while German condolence cards tend to acknowledge the inevitable grief and the pain that follows loss. The German cards may seem less comforting to us, but they are more real.
There will always be pain. It can’t be helped. But we can limit the amount of pain we create for ourselves by selecting better coping tools. There are much healthier ways to handle our painful emotions that also help them move along faster.
There will always be pain. It can’t be helped.
But we can limit the amount of pain we create for ourselves by selecting better coping tools.
I was introduced to this concept as a freshman in college. I had a problem with emotional eating and couldn’t help myself. Yale was a stressful environment. I was 17 and away from my home country, family, and friends for the first time. Everyone around me was stressed. It took all the self-control I had to keep my grades up without also having to exert control over other things such as eating. I would often eat without hunger and continue until my stomach hurt—and I would then end up crying with a sadness I did not understand.
Looking for answers, I went to various spiritual talks on campus, including a talk by a Native American medicine man. While I didn’t find answers that night, I saw a cute student sitting in the front row and asked around to find out who he was. It turned out that he practiced meditation and was part of a Korean Buddhist Zen group that organized weekly hour-long silent sessions. Well, I was going to have to try that.
The following Monday, I dragged my roommate to meditation. Meditation may be commonplace now, but back then it was downright weird. And this experience was weird. I sat cross-legged on a Persian carpet next to the young man—which, though pleasant at first, soon got excruciating. The instructions were to remain immobile, keep our eyes partly closed, and look at the ground. Well, I did that. For one hour. I got to know every inch of the carpet, growing more and more determined to never, ever come back—if I could even walk again. And I didn’t even get a date.
The following day, when I came back to my dorm room, I saw a giant leftover pizza sitting on the table. And of course, the urge to binge took me over as it often did when I was feeling emotional and down. I was ready to jump right into my usual binge-and-cry. But something different happened. A realization dawned: “Every time you binge, you cry. Today, why don’t you try crying first?” And so—I did. I lay on my bed and sobbed and heaved. Until the tears stopped. And then I got up, thinking, OK, now I can eat.
But when I looked at the pizza, I no longer wanted to eat it. Ironically, by surrendering to my feelings and letting myself experience them completely, the tension and stress were relieved. I had made space for them to be. And, acknowledged and expressed, they then went on their way. The miracle was this: I didn’t have to exert control in order not to eat the pizza. The desire to do so had simply vanished.
Why am I sharing this story? Not to guarantee you that meditation is the answer to all compulsive behavior. However, it is a great way to cultivate self-awareness and the power of surrender. That one-hour-long meditation taught me what freedom really meant: the ability to make constructive choices based on self-awareness rather than be a slave to impulses. That day represented the end of my eating disorder. It also represented the beginning of a lifelong romance with meditation. S&H