Turning Straw Into Gold: 7 Ways to Discover the Positive Side of Suffering - Goodlife Zen

Turning Straw Into Gold: 7 Ways to Discover the Positive Side of Suffering

A guest post by Elana Miller of The Psychosphere

A few years ago I had the painful (but universal) experience of getting dumped by a man I loved.

Actually, to say it was painful is a gross understatement – not only did I feel rejected and alone, but I blamed myself for not being “good enough.”

I went from feeling like a strong, confident person who was always in control to feeling like a helpless shell of my former self.

But over the next few months I realized this break up didn’t really cause my suffering – it revealed problems that were already there.

It revealed that I placed too much of my self-worth into my partner, without considering my own needs in the process. It revealed my mistaken belief that I could control the world around me through sheer effort. It revealed I felt afraid to go out on my own because I didn’t think I couldn’t find a better relationship.

If I hadn’t been forced to go through this painful process, I never would have challenged these mistaken beliefs.

Like in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, what if we could learn to spin straw into gold? What if we could take not just ordinary experiences, but painful and difficult ones, and turn them into valuable lessons?

1. Use the bad to appreciate the good

There is a concept in the Hindu religion that there are multiple universes, each containing varying degrees of pain and pleasure. On one end is all pleasure (heaven) and on the other is all pain (hell). Our universe is smack dab in the middle – a balance of pleasure and pain.

Do you know where the greatest fulfillment and happiness is thought to reside? Right where we are. This is because difficult times create a greater appreciation of the good times. When you see the difficult times in the context of the natural ups and downs of life, it helps you reach a deeper satisfaction and fulfillment that goes beyond simple pleasure.

2. See your suffering as an opportunity to grow

When life is easy, we aren’t challenged to practice skills such as wisdom, patience and compassion. It’s easy to be wise and patient when everything is easy! But when bad things happen, like a family member getting sick, or losing your job, or your child having difficulties in school, you are suddenly thrust in the position of really testing all of those positive qualities you try to cultivate the rest of the time.

It’s like running uphill – it’s harder, but will strengthen you faster. When you’re suffering, take the opportunity to practice skills like kindness, generosity, equanimity, or any other positive trait you want to develop.

3. Let suffering open your heart

When we suffer, it teaches us to feel compassion and empathy for others who are suffering, which furthers our connection with the people around us and with the entire world. Suffering is universal. We all have lost loved ones, had relationships end, had financial stresses, and felt self-doubt. And these are only a few of the painful experiences so common in life.

When something bad happens, ask yourself, can this experience teach me to become more compassionate and loving toward others? Does it help me understand what someone else is going through?

4. Use experiences with difficult people to learn something about yourself

Someone once told me that “everyone is your Buddha.” She didn’t mean everyone in the world is full of peace and enlightenment (hardly!). She mean that everyone – especially those who are difficult to deal with – can teach you something important about yourself.

If we are always getting frustrated or upset at others, it usually means there is something off about our pattern of interacting with the world. Instead of placing the blame externally, we can learn to look inwards for solutions to problems in our relationships. Do you anger quickly? Are you overly sensitive when you feel criticized? Try to let go of your expectations for how others should behave and instead examine your own tendencies and reactions.

5. Practice mindfulness meditation to find peace in the turmoil

A while ago I read about a research study that tested mindfulness meditation as a treatment for chronic pain. Patients with fibromyalgia and other pain disorders were taught to meditate and researchers measured if the pain improved.

Interestingly, meditation practitioners rated their pain at the same level – but stated the pain bothered them less. Meditation didn’t stop the pain, but rather impacted how the brain processed and reacted to it. In a similar way, meditation can teach you to find peace and calm even when external circumstances are emotionally difficult.

6. Strengthen your relationships with the people around you

When times are bad is when we most need our family and friends. It can be tempting to curl up in a ball and distance yourself from others out of shame or fear, but your loved ones are there to help you. Suffering can actually help forge and strengthen your most precious relationships by forcing you to reach out and ask for help.

Our own vulnerability helps us connect with others on a deep and meaningful level. So don’t be afraid to share your difficulties with your biggest supporters so they can help lessen the burden.

7. Transform your relationship with suffering

In Eastern philosophy there is a distinction between pain and suffering. While pain is an inevitable part of life, suffering is our response to that pain. All the difficulty we add to our pain is our responsibility.

For example, having a relationship end is pain, but getting discouraged and telling yourself you’ll never meet anyone else is suffering (I should know – I did this to myself!). Having a boss who’s always on your case or a job you hate is pain, but complaining without taking steps to improve the situation is suffering.

In other words, pain is what you need to accept, while suffering is what you need to work to change. You can’t eliminate pain, but you can work to end suffering.

Over the months following my break up, I worked actively to process my emotions and move on. I practiced meditation, reconnected with friends, and learned how to feel compassion for myself instead of self-criticism. As I started dating again, I tried to put my energy and effort in the right place while letting go of the outcome.

I met my current boyfriend only six months later (we’ve been dating almost two and a half years). He is an amazing, hilarious, kind and generous person who makes me appreciate every day that I had the fortunate experience of getting dumped by my ex.

All the straw around us -in the form of the natural difficulties of everyday life – is really gold in disguise. You are capable of taking that straw and spinning it into something meaningful and positive.

Elana Miller is a psychiatry resident, writer and entrepreneur blogging about better living through self-examination and directed action at The Psychosphere. You can find her on Twitter @ElanaMD. Her secret life goal is to move to Nicaragua, live on a surf beach and practice telepsychiatry.
Image by by h.koppdelaney

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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