When you undertake a course of self-discovery and personal growth, there’s a sneaky idea that can take root and get under your skin.
It’s the idea that once you learn an understanding that helps you connect with your wellbeing, you’re not supposed to feel bad anymore.
I didn’t even notice I was thinking that. A recent realization helped me see through that misconception, and opened me up to a world of greater peace and acceptance.
Seeing the source makes all the difference
I’ve been learning about the Three Principles behind human experience, which describe whence our experience comes. They can have a magical effect on a student. By understanding the source of our happiness, pain, and intuition, we no longer blame things that aren’t the real cause. That allows us to naturally align with that source, and helps problems and pain drop away without exerting effort to make it happen.
This made a major difference for me, and implicitly or explicitly, it’s what I talk about in most of my posts.
However, after some “successes” that came from this unlearning, I noticed that I would start to get nervous when I experienced problems, pain, and confusion.
That’s because unconsciously, I was thinking, “Wait, I know the Three Principles. I’m not supposed to have problems anymore. How can I apply them? How can I use them to make this go away?”
This created a concoction of blame and anxiety, which was what made my experience go from just having a problem to actual suffering.
The promise of learning about our true nature and the source of our experience is not that we’ll stop being human beings who run into challenges. It’s that we’ll stop the thinking, fretting, and fixing that takes that normal experience and makes it dramatic and awful. That’s what I would argue suffering is–not having problems, but being had by our problems.
Even when we learn a philosophy that illuminates this, we’ll still suffer. But the crucial difference is that over time, we suffer less deeply, and not have it last as long.
Breakup → Breakdown →Breakthrough
I am a veteran of serious breakups.
I recently went through a significant breakup of a long and important relationship. In the past, breakups have launched me into bouts of anxiety and depression. This time, I saw the potential for that to happen–but I caught it early.
What made all the difference was when I had some normal, expected feelings of sadness and loneliness, and then started to think, “oh no, what if this turns into a really bad depression? What if everything falls apart? What if I don’t feel OK alone? What if this is a YUGE mistake?”
These were horrible thoughts. For a minute, I believed them. I experienced the scary reality that believing them brought. The situation went from a natural situation to suffering when I started to think that the bad feelings won’t pass, or when I got scared of my bad feelings.
Thankfully, some part of me saw that they were just scary thoughts and not necessarily true, so I didn’t have think them.
That was major. That prevented a natural, healthy mourning, from going into an episode of real suffering.
It’s not what we think but that we think
Having seen the freedom that this consciousness can bring, I noticed myself expecting not to experience internal problems anymore. I would then think about how to wield my understanding as a powerful force to slash down my problems.
Since that’s not how it works, that thought created suffering in the form of blame and anxiety.
And by the way, this applies to everyone, regardless of whether you’re a Three Principles student like me. Any thought that tells you that you’re not supposed to feel what you’re feeling will cause the same tension I experienced.
One recent night, lying in bed before I fell asleep, I noticed that the very thought that I needed to “apply the Three Principles” was an anxious thought. The anxious thought was making me suffer, even though it was disguised as a thought that was supposed to alleviate my suffering.
It’s important not to work with the content of thought but to see the experience that thinking brings.
When I saw this, I caught a glimpse of the real source of my bad experience. Then the troublesome thought that I wasn’t supposed to have problems fell away.
I calmed down and felt peace instantly, because it’s not the problem that’s a problem, but the thinking we create around it.
You can have whatever problem you like, but it does not correlate with suffering.
We’re not supposed to stop having problems. Our consciousness has the potential to rise so that at times, we don’t recognize the things that usually trouble us. We’ll dip back into a lower consciousness again, because that’s the human experience. But when we do, having seen the possibility that our problems aren’t quite as solid and intractable as they seem, we can stop doing the things that keep us stuck in the muck of low moods.
We’ll continue to have challenges, and we’ll even continue to suffer.
And the more we see that challenges do not equal suffering–the more we see that suffering is an experience of our thinking–the more we see that problems come and go as our thinking busies and slows–the more we free ourselves.
We free ourselves to not fear the varied range of human experience, and truly know that we can be OK regardless of what happens.
If I’m honest with myself, I wouldn’t want a life free from negative emotions like sadness or fear. They are a part of the rich tapestry of life as a human. And that’s what’s on offer for us–being able to feel the rainbow of emotions, and know that all of it is OK. It makes the joy, the camaraderie, the intimacy, and the love all the deeper.