How to Transmute Suffering
Unless you’ve already reached some eternal dynamic bliss state of perpetual Nirvana (if you have, how is it?), you likely suffer sometimes. You likely don’t enjoy suffering — in fact, by definition, that’s what makes it “suffering.” Because you don’t enjoy suffering, you probably want to minimize the amount you have to suffer. Right? Cool, me too. You’ve come to the right place.
While I cannot yet say from experience that suffering is curable (I’ll have to take Buddha’s word on that for now), I can tell you that it is healable. Its symptoms can be addressed at the root cause, and the cause can be transmuted into a source of joy and satisfaction, rather than pain and suffering.
Without further ado, here is a simple, but comprehensive, five step process for transmuting suffering:
Step One: Water — Feel and Allow Your Emotions
Our first step is about emotions, and learning to work with them rather than letting them work against us. Emotions flow like water flows. An emotion that is not flowing is merely waiting to, increasing in pressure until the time comes that it causes an emotional burst like a busted water pipe.
To reduce suffering, you first let your emotions flow. That means: you feel your emotions. You allow yourself to feel them. You open yourself to them, rather than wall your experience off from them. You let them come in with no judgment.
This is easier said than done. Why? Because feeling negative emotions isn’t exactly fun. It can be daunting, terrifying, at times even overwhelming. Still, like jumping into water, the longer you wait to jump, the scarier it seems. Take a deep breath, and take the plunge. Just let yourself feel awful, and do nothing. Your feelings are valid. Show them that they are valid by letting yourself feel them.
Please remember that feeling your feelings does not mean reacting to them. In fact, it means not reacting to them at all until they have been felt. Pause all actions until after you have let yourself simply experience the emotion, unhindered. Until you have fully allowed and felt the negative emotion, do not do anything to change your emotions. The only way out is through, which means that at first, the only way out is in.
When we experience a negative emotion, and we take immediate action to escape the emotion, we create addictive patterns and increase our own suffering. To reduce suffering, we must first resist the urge to react immediately, and instead allow our feelings to be felt.
Once we have opened ourselves to them, then we can begin to study them more thoroughly, but that self-study cannot occur from a place of repression, resistance or denial. Feeling the emotions must come first.
Step Two: Air — Question and Challenge Your Thoughts
Our second step is about thoughts and beliefs. Thoughts will appear and swirl and expand to fill the confines of whatever belief system they are given. Beliefs function kind of like an atmosphere, holding the thoughts in place, seemingly rigid but ultimately permeable. We often cannot perceive our belief systems because our thoughts appear too “cloudy,” so to speak.
Once we have allowed ourselves to feel our emotions (and only after!), we can begin to question the thoughts and beliefs that caused our emotions to swirl.
To do this, notice the thoughts you have about the situation. Notice that they are thoughts. Try thinking different thoughts about the situation, and see what happens to your emotions. Try thinking different thoughts about the situation, and notice which new perspectives you can easily believe, and which you can’t.
Now that we’ve started parsing out the thoughts, we can begin to see the beliefs we have at play. What are those beliefs? Approach them with innocent curiosity. Is this belief rigid, or flexible? Porous, or solid? Do I like it? Do I want to keep believing it? What would happen if I believed something else? What else could I believe? What other thoughts would I think if I believed something else? What is holding my belief in place?
Step Three: Fire — Uncover and Explore Your Opposing Desires
Our third step is about desires. Like light, when we focus our attention on something, we illuminate it into conscious awareness, and we cast a shadow on whatever it is we aren’t focused on. In order to fully move through our suffering, we must turn the light of our attention to the parts of our experience that remain in the dark: ignored, repressed or denied. This is the step that often gets called “shadow work,” or working with our unconscious mind.
This step in the process is where I most recommend seeking help from other people, both because they will likely be able to see aspects of you that you don’t see, and because it is often the most challenging step, the “trial by fire.” Seeking external support can be helpful and necessary to the process. Please be gentle with yourself through this whole process, but especially through this step.
After allowing our feelings, and exploring our thoughts and beliefs, we can begin to look at the oppositional forces that are holding our current beliefs in place. Those forces are, quite plainly, energies pulling us in opposite directions. One of our desires conflicts with an equal and opposite desire, which we aren’t always conscious that we have. By becoming aware that it is there, it ceases to be unconscious, and we can begin to study it.
Suffering arises when are “pulled” in two contradictory directions: we want one thing, but we also want something else that pulls us elsewhere. By studying the illuminated desire, we immediately know a good deal about the shadowed desire: it is always a perfect mirror, in some ways identical and in some ways exactly the opposite.
Once we become aware that our desires are there, we can enact steps two and one in reverse. We begin by probing each desire with innocent curiosity, and without judgment. We ask questions. We come to understand them in our thoughts. Then, we look to the feelings underneath those thoughts.
What is it that we expect these desires to make us feel? What are the actual needs underneath the wants?
By the end of this step, we have the lay of the land when it comes to our suffering. We know now what our suffering feels like. We know what we think about it, and what we believe. We know what desires we have, and what desires are in opposition. From this place, we can synthesize the two experiences into a combined set of needs, and begin to meet them.
Step Four: Earth — Take Steps to Meet Your Actual Needs
Our fourth step is all about practical steps. Like building in the material world, we now take the understanding we have built from the previous three steps and turn it into concrete changes to our experience. We now know the multiple desires we have at play that are creating internal conflict, and can take steps to meet the needs that lie beneath them.
What we need is only ever a state of being, either physical or emotional. Anything we think we need that is not a physical or emotional state of being is simply a strategy to reach our need. One of the main causes of suffering is equating a strategy to meet a need with the need itself.
When we understand our needs this simply, they become much easier to meet. It becomes obvious that we don’t have to bulldoze one need in favor of another, nor do we have to compromise any of our needs. We can hold both needs as precious and broaden our awareness of possible strategies that meet them both.
From this place, of understanding what it is we actually need to experience, our actions need not create conflict. This is true of balancing conflicting needs within ourselves, and conflicts between our own needs and the needs with others. We can almost always find numerous strategies to meet our needs when we focus fully on the needs themselves, rather than fixate on only certain strategies to meet them.
From this place, we can start taking actions to meet our needs, conscious of what we actually need rather than wedded to certain limited concepts of what we want. We’ve now shifted our actions in the world to be more conscious and harmonious, and healed a part of our own suffering.
The first time you go all the way through this process, it will likely feel triumphant… until you have to start the process over again with another aspect of your psyche. This is a practice. It’s a process that gets faster and easier with time and repetition.
Bit by bit, we actually begin to chip away at our suffering, transmuting an experience of pain into an experience of acceptance, learning, knowledge and power.
Step Five: Spirit — Little by Little, Dis-identify from Concepts
Our final step is about release: the evaporation of the need to go through the suffering and transmutation process. The further we get into the transmutation process, the less we find ourselves fixating on oppositional desires, and the more we find ourselves experiencing harmonious needs.
Our identification with concepts begins to dissolve, and we begin to put ourselves in right relationship with our experience of life.
Rather than judge or repress our feelings, we understand that they must flow like water, and allow them to. Rather than believe all of our thoughts as though they were truth, we understand that they must be explored and looked at from new perspectives. Rather than act upon a desire unconsciously, we understand that desires are like trumpeters that alert us to what we actually need. Rather than repress, deny or bulldoze our needs, we understand that needs are only states of being, and we broaden our possible actions so that all of our needs can be met more seamlessly.
As we do this, our experience of life begins to shift from primarily perceiving forms, to primarily experiencing… experiences. What I mean is, by understanding ourselves, and treating different aspects of our decision-making process appropriately, we find ourselves fixating less on what we think we want, and understanding better what we actually need. We identify less with what we think we are, and understand better how we actually are. The oppositions within us synthesize into a more harmonious experience of living. Need arise to create satisfaction, and satisfaction arises to create need, and the whole process can be embraced and enjoyed, rather than becoming a source of suffering.