“…that moment...when you panic—that means you’re about to figure it out. That means you've let go of what you know and you’re about to grab onto a new thing that you didn’t know yet."
- Louis CK
The human brain is wired for fight or flight. Our evolution has depended on this mentality of survival. We learn from a young age to avoid obstacles. We must "stay strong" and unconcerned with pain. We have to suppress emotion in order to succeed. Particularly in Western societies, we are taught that suffering hinders the pursuit of happiness. However, I believe that suffering is our teacher, not our oppressor. It is not a weight that holds us down; it is one that strengthens us. The avoidance of suffering results in the accumulation of misery, not its cure.
I played the game of unhappiness whack-a-mole in my college years. When I had tendonitis in my arms, I took ibuprofen on a daily basis. When I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I took antidepressants. When I was disappointed with my latest musical performance, I smoked pot. When I felt hurt by someone, I distanced myself from them. I thought that if I just stopped thinking about my ailments and challenges, I would be able to focus on the positive parts of my life. But the more I tried to push these problems away, the more they consumed me.
I have since learned that I was not alone in this practice of counterproductive self-help. Many of us live our lives in a constant state of regret and concern. That is to say, we live in the past and future. We are constantly asking ourselves purposeless questions: “What if I fail my test tomorrow?” “Why did she break up with me?” “How did I miss that field goal?” “Why do I deserve to be in pain?” Instead of focusing on what we can do in the present moment, we ruminate on what has already transpired. We constantly wonder about the worst that could happen in order to brace ourselves for trouble. Instead of learning from our current experience, we remove ourselves from it. We allow life to pass us by because we are scared of living it.
Poor psychiatry perpetuates this debilitating school of thought. Doctors often treat suffering the same way they treat cancer. They see it as something that needs to be medically removed rather than a test of the patient's resilience. They often neglect to look below the surface of anxiety and depression. They treat the symptoms without bothering to investigate the root causes. They numb the pain instead of dealing with it. Of course, medication can be beneficial. It is effectively used to get patients on track towards recovery. When combined with therapy, it can be extremely helpful. And for people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, prescription pills are necessary. But I believe that at a certain point we must take personal responsibility for our own health in order to improve and sustain our wellbeing. We cannot rely solely on pharmaceuticals and psychotherapists.
I was only able to escape this circle of suppression and suffering when I committed to facing my emotions head on. Through the practice of mindfulness, I learned that it was possible to observe my thoughts without becoming a slave to them. Meditation strengthened my ability to recognize thoughts as impermanent and often illogical creations of the brain. Most importantly, this method of contemplation allowed me to achieve empowerment through difficult experiences. Instead of feeling self-pity about my circumstances, I changed my relationship to them. I stopped regretting mistakes and started learning from them. I stopped seeing challenges as inconveniences and began to view them as opportunities for growth. I ceased to worry about the future and decided to love the path to it.
Meditation is not the only method through which one can rewire their thought process*. Many find journaling to be therapeutic. Others paint or compose music or poetry to express their dark thoughts in beautiful ways. Art is an effective medium through which to magnify and understand one’s emotions.
We can also improve our ability to manage our thoughts by adopting a “less is more” philosophy in regards to stimulation of the mind. Studies show that refraining from multitasking results in higher cognitive function. Checking email less frequently has been scientifically proven to reduce stress. Resisting impulses to distract ourselves is essential in developing our introspective capabilities. When sadness or loneliness appears in our consciousness, we should sit in contemplation rather than divert our attention to the latest viral cat video. When we reduce our intake of information, we diminish the useless noise that clutters our minds. As a result, it becomes easier to observe our emotions with clarity and deal with them rationally. Only then will we discover that we are privileged to live sad moments. Times of distress make us more resilient. They give meaning to moments of joy.
Our greatest gains in wisdom and character are achieved when we overcome tribulation. But we can only make these improvements if we are willing to confront suffering without reservation. Every time we suppress sadness with drugs, technology or any other means, it is collected in our mind and body. This avoidance of pain leaves us only superficially content. However, when we choose to tackle all that life throws our way, adversity becomes our most fruitful source of sincere happiness and freedom.
*Note: Meditation may cause negative effects in people with certain psychological conditions. Consult a medical professional if you have any concerns.