Primary and Secondary Suffering
The key to coping with challenges (age-related or otherwise) is to be able to distinguish between what is happening and the feelings towards what is happening.
You are on your way out the door but have misplaced your keys. What emotions come up? Maybe anger and frustration? What thoughts go through your head? Probably a lot of rational problem-solving thoughts like: ‘Where did I last see them? Let’s try my coat pockets.’ But on top of this, you might notice thoughts of self-blame: ‘I am so stupid. Why do I always forget things?’ These thoughts might feed the already existing emotions of anger and frustration. If you take a moment and tune in, you will probably also be able to feel these emotions manifest themselves physically somewhere in the body. Tightness in the jaw and chest? Contractions in the belly?
What tends to happen is that our mind goes down one of our inner pathways. Maybe we start to worry about the future: ‘Why am I always forgetting things? Am I getting dementia? My grandmother had dementia. I will probably get it too. What would happen if I got dementia? Where would I live and who would look after me?’ Now you might start to notice other emotions, like sadness and fear. Or your mind might react with fear and anger, and call yourself hurtful things like ‘stupid, old, scatter-brained fool’. Other people might be the target for your anger – your messy partner or your keyeating dog perhaps? By now, you have gotten yourself wound up in a circle of unpleasant thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Just because of some missing keys. And while you are going around this cycle, your brain has no capacity left to think clearly about where to look for the darn keys.
“There is a lot of suffering in this world, and we try hard to make it worse”
‘There is a lot of suffering in this world, and we try hard to make it worse,’ abbot and Zen master Tenkei Coppens Roshi told me with a laugh when I interviewed him. ‘We all carry loads in our lives,’ he said, but he also assured me that ‘it is possible to have a difficult life and process it well’. To be able to distinguish between what is happening and the feeling towards what is happening can help us alleviate the load we are carrying. ‘Whatever we feel is also a feeling about something. It is not the thing itself.’ The ability to distinguish between, following Tenkei Roshi, the feeling and the feeling about the feeling is what we gain when we apply a certain kind of attention to our experiences.
In secular mindfulness teachings, we call this primary suffering and secondary suffering. Primary suffering is unavoidable. Most of us have lost our keys at some point in life. ‘Shit happens’ is a rather rude way to put it but, nevertheless, a very accurate description of how unwanted things happen beyond our control. Secondary suffering is our reaction to the primary suffering. It is all the horrible sensations we add to our lives through self-blame and name-calling as well as the catastrophic thoughts and worries about an imagined future. These are all examples of suffering that our caveman brain introduces in an attempt to avoid potential dangers in the future, but those kinds of catastrophizing thoughts are usually not wanted or helpful in today’s world.
To paraphrase Charles Rozell Swindoll, life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. I am not sure if he had any valid research to back up those numbers, but the message is that the way we respond to things is more important than what actually happens to us.
Dr. Russ Harris, an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer, invites us to imagine that we have a ‘struggle switch’ at the back of the neck. By default, it is turned on, which means that whenever we encounter something unpleasant, our first instinct is to struggle against it. We might wake up one morning and discover the body is stiff and aching. With the struggle switch on, the mind is likely to respond with thoughts like: ‘What is wrong with me?’ ‘This is it – life is going to suck from now on!’ ‘Why can’t I just have the body I used to have?’ ‘How can I fix it?’ It is likely that mixed in with the thoughts, you experience a nice cocktail of emotions like sadness, anxiety and anger, which might very well exaggerate or add to the physical pains in your body. Do you see the vicious cycle?
Luckily, it is possible to turn off the struggle switch. You can stop searching for your keys for a moment and say to yourself: ‘I have lost my keys and I am noticing a lot of negative self-talk and catastrophizing happening right now. For the next couple of minutes, I will just stand here and pay attention to my feet on the floor.’ When some minutes have passed, you can go back and continue searching for the keys with a calmer and more focused mind. If we don’t feed the emotions with thoughts, they will pass right through us.
Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor claims that it only takes 90 seconds for an emotion to run through us. If it stays for longer, it is because we choose to feed it with thoughts.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space and, in that space, lies your freedom’
Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl is quoted as saying that ‘between stimulus and response there is a space and, in that space, lies your freedom’. A mindfulness practice utilizes that space, as we stop for a moment and pay attention to what it is that is driving our urges, desires, thoughts and emotions. With this awareness we can stop feeding negative cycles, redirect unhealthy inner pathways and lower the secondary suffering we put ourselves through.
This post is a taken from chapter 5; Know it: Know what drives your thoughts and emotions from my book Ageing Upwards, a mindfulness-based framework to the longevity revolution
If you would like to gain more awareness of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, I suggest you try one of my guided meditation practices connected to chapter 5. You can access them here
R. Harris, The struggle switch, YouTube. Available from: https://youtu.be/rCp1l16GCXI
Dr. J. Bolte Taylor, My stroke of insight (Penguin, 2006).