Every one of us will experience hurt, betrayal and disappointment. What matters is how we deal with these feelings. As the Dalai Lama says, ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’ What he means is that although it’s impossible to avoid upsetting experiences, we do have a say about whether negative events or people continue to affect us.
Interestingly, the word ‘suffer’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘to carry’. Do we continue to carry around with us our bitterness or feelings of being wounded? Or can we let go of these emotions and get on with our lives?
In my time I have been a highly successful sufferer. For years, in my twenties, I carried with me the hurt and loss of rejection by a girlfriend. Although I should have known better – having studied psychology – I didn’t know how to let go of what I believed to be my deep feelings for her, or the desolation that she no longer wanted to be part of my life. My real problem was that I didn’t have the tools to deal with emotional pain.
Many of us don’t. We may find it hard to let go of the bitterness of betrayal. We may feel aggrieved by flagrant injustice. Barely beneath the surface, we seethe with resentment against the person, people or system that has done this to us.
So how do we let go? The practice of mindfulness offers several helpful perspectives.
- It is in our own best interests to let go
We may find it easier to let go – and, where necessary, forgive – when we recognise how much suffering we are causing ourselves by not doing so. On some level we may know that our unhappy thoughts and feelings do not serve us well. They rob us of the capacity to find pleasure in everyday life. They steal our sleep, perhaps even pervade our dreams. On a biological level, negative emotion stimulates all manner of changes to our production of hormones and neurotransmitters – none of them conducive to physical flourishing.
Meantime, the other person, people or system is unaffected by our anger or unhappiness. Chances are, they are getting on with their own life, completely oblivious to our thoughts or feelings.
What’s more, our preoccupation is using up the only commodity that is finite – time – preventing us from focusing on more positive, useful and enjoyable activities.
We are causing only ourselves psychological and physical harm with our ongoing obsession. It is in our own best interests to let go of what happened and move on. This isn’t about winning or losing, or about who was right or wrong. It’s about taking care of our own well-being.
- We are in charge of our own feelings
It is understandable to feel victimised when we are the one who was ruled against, violated, insulted, dumped or had some other bad thing done to us. But it’s important to also recognise that we are the one running our own mind – not the other person. They did what they did. But that was then and this is now. They are not forcing us to keep thinking about it, dwelling on it or obsessing over it. That is our choice.
Stories constantly appear in the media about people who have been offended by slurs against the race, religion or sexual orientation with which they identify. The chorus of outrage and condemnation that follows may be well intentioned, but it seems to me that a subject vital to our wellbeing is often completely ignored – the ownership that the offended person has of their own feelings of offence.
The reaction of two people to exactly the same abuse may be quite different. Much will depend on the thoughts they have about the event, or how they frame it. This will then determine how they feel. We have a choice on how we think about what happened to us – or if we even think about it at all. Cognitive behaviour therapy focuses on the interpretations we give to events, offering more positive, happiness-creating alternatives to the ones that cause us unhappiness.
What’s important is to recognise that we can help the way we feel – in fact, we are the only ones who can. The meaning, importance and impact that any external event has on us is our decision. We are in charge of our own feelings. The last person to whom we should abdicate responsibility for our emotions is the person who inflicted the pain.
- Mindfulness is key to managing our feelings.
You may be thinking “These suggestions are all very well but I have no control over what happens in my mind. Thoughts just come and go without any involvement from me.”
So it may seem. But when we practice mindfulness of mind (you can download both an explanation of this practice as well as a guided meditation free by signing up on the front page of this website) we begin to recognise that what goes on in our mind is not as random as may appear. Thoughts only remain and recur because we energize them with our attention. Our minds are as untainted by the thoughts that pass through them as the sky is by passing clouds. Every thought we’ve ever had is temporary. No matter how obsessed you may have been by a thought, it is not in your mind at this very moment.
The truth is that we can take control of our own mind. Step by step, we can let go of negative cognition and bring our suffering to an end.
Learning to let go of past hurts may be difficult. But not nearly as difficult as not learning to.
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