Evolution of Suffering
There are many wonderful things about life, but it’s also painful and difficult by its very nature. Through hundreds of millions of years of evolution, our ancestors developed survival strategies, which have been effective at keeping us alive and leading us to pass on our genes, but also cause us to feel nervous, hassled, driven, sad or inadequate under certain circumstances. When we understand why we have these unpleasant feelings, it can offer some relief from our suffering.
Our brains developed three fundamental strategies for survival:
- Create separations—a method to form boundaries between ourselves and the outside world, as well as between different mental states
- Maintain Stability—an effort to keep physical and mental systems in a healthy balance
- Approach opportunities and avoid threats—a way to gain things that support children, and to flee from or resist things that can have a negative impact on offspring
While these strategies are helpful for persisting, they also lead to pain and distress when separations are broken, stability is disrupted, opportunities fall short of expectations, and threats emerge.
In reality, conditions that cause suffering constantly arise because:
- Everything is connected
- Everything changes
- Opportunities are often unfulfilled or lose their spark and threats like aging and death are inescapable (Hanson 2009)
Pain and distress are inevitable, but we can cultivate methods to help us manage life more gracefully. With time, the emotions and feelings from situations that shake our balance subside, and we are presented with the opportunity to extend or alleviate our suffering with our thoughts.
Ways to Defuse Negative Thoughts
The following strategies can help you to defuse your negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones:
1. Label Your Thoughts:
When you have a thought like “I suck”, say “I’m having a thought that I suck”. In a situation where you’re thinking, “I’m going to do a bad job”, say, “I’m having a thought that I’m going to do a bad job”. This subtle change in language can help you recognize that you are not your thoughts and create space for more positive thoughts to arise.
2. Thank Your Mind:
If you’re having a bothered thought like “this day sucks” or an anxious thought such as “my boss might not like my presentation”, say, “thank you mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe and stable, but there’s nothing I need you to do right now. I’ll be okay.”
3. Let Them Float Away:
Our thoughts are fleeting and will eventually be replaced by new thoughts. If you have a thought like “I didn’t make a good enough impression on that last date”, observe the thought and allow it to be released when it’s replaced by a new thought. You can imagine the thought floating away or say, “I just had a thought that I made a bad first impression, but it’s just a thought, and I’m going to move on to my new thoughts.”
4. Name Your Story:
Often many negative thoughts are combined to create a story. Sometimes it’s a reoccurring story like “I’m not good enough”. In this situation, you can say, “wow, here’s my illogical story”, and allow the thoughts to dissolve.
5. Replace a Fearful or Angry Thought With a Loving or Compassionate Thought:
If you have a thought like “my coworker is the worst for disagreeing with me”, you can replace it with, “I’m happy that my coworker cares enough about our work to make sure that it’s the best quality”.
6. Forgive Yourself:
It’s easy to keep playing back a negative scenario in your head or continue beating yourself up for something that already passed. But that won’t make the situation change and will only perpetuate the suffering. Instead, forgive yourself. Say, “I tried my best, and I had the best intentions. I will move forward and learn from my mistakes.”
7. Practice Gratitude:
If you’re in a situation where it feels like nothing is going right, take a step back and point out something good. You can recognize your senses, your health, a nearby friend or something else you’re thankful for.
Meditation is an amazing tool to de-stress and is also a helpful way to observe your thoughts. Taking some conscious breaths can relieve the tension created by your thoughts and create separation between you and your negative thoughts.
Smiling makes you feel lighter and happier. Intentionally smiling can help to change your mood and relieve the stress of your negative thoughts.
10. Do It Anyway:
It’s important to remember that you can have a thought and still perform a behavior. If it’s something wholesome that you care about, it’s worthwhile to let the thoughts occur and still act. You’ll get better at dealing with negative thoughts and gain confidence that you can perform even with negative thoughts.
Kyle is the founder of my innerglow. He’s a former elementary school teacher and current meditation teacher. He’s interested in bringing a focus on mental health into education and building community around mindfulness and human connection.
Source: Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard. 2009.Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.