Overcoming Suffering and Our Fear of Change

Suffering, both physical and psychological, cannot be escaped. We can, however, minimize it by not adding to our discomfort.

For Buddhists, much suffering comes from our desire for permanence. In the West, we often refer to this as difficulty adapting to change.

It is hard to think of anything that doesn’t change. The weather, our relationships, and life itself are all temporary. We age and die. Our children grow, create their own families, and become independent — a double-edged modification necessary for their well-being and requiring an adjustment that, at times, is painful for us.

One’s effort to establish a vice-like grip over all the “temporaries” we hold dear can only fail. Our attempts to freeze-dry and maintain ideal moments of perfection are fruitless.

Those who believe in an afterlife often imagine the best parts of this one and hope the future will contain some glorious, magnified, blissful version of these moments. Many believe there will be permanence, for example, in their joyous reunion with departed loved ones.

Others run from thoughts of inevitable loss or nightmare difficulties ahead of them in this life. They seek TV, music, alcohol, drug abuse, or other distractions from such possibilities.

What if we could become impervious to suffering using a magic potion? Imagine further that the rest of the world stayed as it is.

Without any sense of loss, we would become indifferent to the misfortune of others. We would lose ourselves, become unrecognizable, and be unable to understand anyone else’s hardships.

Without the capacity to sustain personal injuries, our lives might be described as robotic, wooden, and hardened — indeed unchangeable. No new learning would be possible.

Doesn’t love require compassion and understanding, put out of reach by the magical drink? Would we even wish for love, be moved by a tender film, beautiful music, or art? Why might such an individual read fiction without caring what happened to the characters? Nor could he capably raise children to become decent human beings.

Given that the suffering connected with an impermanent human state is inescapable, we must come to terms with our lack of control and inability to achieve more than a temporary evasion of external stressors. 

A worthwhile alternative is the transformation of ourselves into creatures who, recognizing life’s inevitable difficulties, hold our knowledge of human transitoriness gently.

Rather than gnashing our teeth over the uncountable unfairnesses befalling the human race, there are alternatives. One might do better to recognize that we pay for love, the appreciation of beauty, and the blissful moments of exhilaration with the suffering and change that make up the other side of the coin of existence.

We can learn to give up the struggle for control of everything except that which is in our power. We can accept the pain and the shortness of our lives and learn how to live with them.

One step is to recognize we will not achieve permanent happiness in an ongoing process of craving much of what we believe will make us happy. We tend to react to purchasing a dream home or finding a desirable mate as if they are Christmas toys: short-lived sources of joy. We take them for granted before long, at least to some degree. As the English author Wordsworth reminds us, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

Homo sapiens do better to shift their focus from the complexity and lack of ease in any life by focusing on self-care, kindness, gratitude, displaying compassion, and listening to and recognizing the true nature of our friends and acquaintances.

We can ask those we care about whether they believe we understand them. And if they say no, tell them we want to do better. An essential feature of such attempts to improve relationships involves working on ourselves and diminishing whatever anger might lead us to hurt them.

Self-knowledge and meditation may lead us along this path. The latter also allows us to live more often in moments of tranquility.

The Buddha told a story about “the second arrow.” The arrows he described referred to the pain from events outside us. Of course, when the first arrow strikes, we feel anguish. We are advised, however, not to wrestle with it. Instead, begin by recognizing it.

One can come to an acceptance of the harm by releasing the tension and embracing our distress. Gentleness with ourselves, meditation, and ensuring not to enlarge our suffering allows the injury to heal to the extent possible.

The agony will grow if we keep struggling with the wound and remain preoccupied with the affliction and how it occurred. As the Buddha tells us, worrying over our pain is like a second arrow we shoot at ourselves.


Both of the images come from Wikimedia Commons. The first is Meditation at Empty Cloud by Rikki. The second is the Buddha.

15 thoughts on “Overcoming Suffering and Our Fear of Change

  1. Thank you; this is good and wise.


  2. drgeraldstein

    Many thanks, Pink. It may be too much truth, but I believe it is the truth. Thanks for showing the courage to face it.


  3. I tend to shoot a lot of second arrows at myself.  Not the kind that scream “why me”, but more the kind that say “I must deserve this”.  

    “Acceptance” does not seem to be something I can master and “embracing the distress” is a concept I don’t even understand.


  4. drgeraldstein

    We’ve all done the “second arrow” routine, brewdun. But you might substitute the randomness of life’s distress for the belief that you deserve to suffer. I’m sure you can come up with the names of people struck down by tragic events they did not deserve. Start with Abraham Lincoln, a man who was depressed and assassinated.

    Acceptance means recognizing the pain for what it is and seeing it as a part of who you are, whether it is or isn’t because of something you did, and then making the best of the life you have by taking control of that which is in your power, as small or as large as it is.

    Thank you for your open and thoughtful comment. And, remember, much of the unhappiness in the world is disguised by people who don’t want us to know about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for another awesome post, Dr. Stein! (I log on about once every 2 months nowadays to read blogs, by the way, which is one of the major changes I’ve made recently. Another change would be that I’m moving out of state – not sure where yet – and so the preparation for all that comprises many changes going on at once).

    Once I hopefully get settled somewhere (i.e., a certain level of “permanence”), then I can finally relax, get into a stable routine, and finally heal and/or manage all of my symptoms/illnesses/diseases/etc. But given the uncertainty of our government, the debt ceiling, and whether or not millions of Americans will get paid from programs like Veterans Benefits and Social Security, among others; nothing is stable, or permanent, and our lives can be easily upended by both man-made catastrophes and natural ones.

    I try to prepare for the worst and expect better. But not everyone can afford to prepare for the worst. Not everyone has the strength, health, energy, social capital, money, and/or resources to prepare for the worst. Some psychologists might consider this line of thinking “catastrophic,” but others will still see the positives in preparing for such negatives realistically.

    There’s a growing number of disabled and retired people whose sole income is from either Social Security or Veterans Benefits, and some are planning ahead for a government default (not to be confused with a government shutdown), where our only sources of income might be stopped for a while. Some who rent plan on prepaying their rent through the end of their lease, to avoid eviction (myself included, since my lease’s end will be near the time of the possible default). Others have been stocking up on non-perishable food and water, hygiene products, and other necessities, in the event they have no income for such necessities. Many of us don’t have savings or wealth, so we can’t rely on anyone or any program to be available should the government default. These kinds of threats – even if they don’t come to fruition – have caused certain changes. One 81-year-old retired woman who lives alone had reportedly canceled her trip to see her family so that she could save that money in the even the government defaults. Others have cut down on their spending, their risky outings, etc., due to the possibilities that Medicare providers won’t be easily available to them during a government default. Such policies that are man-made affect millions of Americans, which causes them to change their lifestyle, their peaceful living, and even their health.

    It’s hard to not worry during such perilous times of political polarization. It’s hard to cope for many people who face eviction, worsened credit, and homelessness in their near future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you for this, Dragon Fly. I think you provide a first hand explanation of the uncertainty facing those who might be impacted by default. I can well understand how unsettling this is at this stage of the situation. I am no expert, but doubt that a default, should it occur, would last very long. I am glad you are preparing for such things, including a possible move out of state, ideally to a more congenial location.

      All the best with respect to a challenging moment. As you also suggest, it is important to keep the “negatives” in as realistic a framework as you can.


  6. Thank you, Dr. Stein. I read your beautiful post last night when it arrived, and again this morning and the whole of it is like a meditation on love and self-acceptance. I wish I could distill your wisdom to offer it to some who feel a sense of entitlement, lofty expectations in life…expecting light without a shred of shadow. While I’m grateful for the whole of your message, this slice stands out: “Without any sense of loss, we would become indifferent to the misfortune of others. We would lose ourselves, become unrecognizable, and be unable to understand anyone else’s hardships.” Grateful to you! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      You are welcome, Vicky, and I’m grateful for your words in response to what I wrote. Yes, there is plenty of entitlement, even in those who point fingers at people less well off than they are. No one gets a “free lunch,” whether it is a life free from suffering or in the sense of blame we are told we deserve.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Dr. Stein, you express so well the upside of human suffering. Thank you for this timely reminder.


  8. Beautifully said, Dr. Stein. Thank you for sharing your wisdom


  9. What a remarkable post, Dr. Stein. I really liked this phrase, “hold our knowledge of human transitoriness gently.” It reminds me of another piece of wisdom from Mark Nepo, “When we stop struggling, we float.”

    The second arrow, Mark Nepo, your post all point to the simplicity of seeing and accepting things as they are. Simple, but not easy, so I love that you give a way to start – with our relationships and loved ones. Beautiful!


  10. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Wynne. I am glad you pointed out that living in such a way isn’t easy. It means giving up illusions. One irony is that in so doing, many think they have given up on happiness, but in reality it is possible they will find something more reliable — more in their power to achieve and sustain them.


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