Finding Meaning and Confronting Suffering: When the Pain Has Nowhere Else to Go
Pain is inevitable. It's only by dwelling in or avoiding our pain that we create suffering. Suffering is a choice. In our culture, it seems the typical go-to response to pain is to run away, take a pill, or somehow numb ourselves to it... We will find any means of avoiding going through the pain. However, sometimes sitting with the pain and letting it flow through us is the only way to heal. One way to allow this process without shutting down into a state of impenetrable denial or sinking into a completely debilitating depression is to find meaning in the pain - to make meaning.
Meaning adds relevance to our lives and spurs us into action because it gives us purpose. It has never helped anyone going through unavoidable pain to say to themselves, "This pain is useless... overcoming this won't make any difference in my life... I have to escape this now, by any means." This only causes further suffering.
Finding meaning can be a spiritual process. However, you don't have to be religious to establish a sense of meaning. This is a truly personal undertaking. Asking yourself how your pain may fit into the universe or the world as a whole is one way to create meaning. Understanding that the pain you're experiencing can improve your compassion for others and help you handle future trials with greater strength and grace can also provide meaning.
Trying to find positive things about our distress is not meant to deny or invalidate the pain. Bad, painful, awful things happen, and I would never wish these events on anyone. Remember, though, that pain is an inevitable part of life and often not within our control, but the power to create meaning out of this darkness is within our control.
Meaning Making Exercises
Try focusing on the positive aspects of your suffering. For example, are you seeing something more clearly? Are you learning something? Are you letting go of painful memories or feelings? Has this brought you closer to friends or family members? Are you preparing for a change in your life? Are you closer to nature? Have you discovered a book or a poem that helped you?
Find something that you can change to something positive. If you feel like yelling, try singing, loudly. Focus your angry energy into art (big splashes of paint on paper), on sculpture (pounding clay), photography (taking pictures of what makes you upset or what reminds you of it). Write about your sad or angry or painful thoughts. If you need company, cook dinner for a friend or go on a picnic. Come up with your own ways to make something positive of your distress or a little piece of it.
Listen to or read about spiritual values. This may be religion - some of you may have a religious background or religious beliefs. These may help you to find some meaning in your distress. Some people find spirituality it in nature. You may be comforted by seeing that the natural world keeps right on going, no matter what happens. Others may connect with a cosmic being, a creative force in the universe, animal spirits, a higher purpose in life. Open yourself to whatever it is you believe and look for the meaning that it gives you, the purpose, the focus and balance.