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The First Noble Truth: "Life is Suffering"

A core tenet of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the belief that much of our suffering is caused by our attempts to avoid pain and discomfort. This is an echo of the ancient wisdom passed down from Buddhism and other contemplative practices.

I have found this to be true. We ruminate over decisions we’ve made or need to make because we are afraid of the pain those decisions might bring. We worry about all the things we might lose, and the misery we might experience if something goes awry in our unpredictable future. We guard ourselves against the discomfort of truly sitting with our grief or anger or hurt - and we even shy away from joy, connection, and love for fear that we won’t be able to bear the loss. In doing so, we cut ourselves off from being truly present with the little moments that make up our lives. We get trapped in survival mode, searching endlessly for the path without pain.

Mechanisms like anxiety and depression might step in, sent through our bodies’ generational memory and wisdom, asking how can we protect this person? How can we make them feel safe? Anxiety and depression are like overprotective and misguided friends that believe - with the best of intentions - that you need them to survive.

What anxiety and depression don’t appear to understand is that we want to do more than just survive. We want to experience vitality, creativity, and pleasure. We want access to the whole spectrum of sensations that these bodies are capable of. And if we want to experience it all, we have to allow the discomfort and pain that comes with change, transition, growth, and full presence.

What if it’s possible to welcome pain as a necessary agent of growth, a life companion that might have something to teach you? What if allowing pain to be a passenger in your life might actually alleviate some of your suffering? What if you can differentiate between the necessary pain of reality and the unnecessary suffering in your mind, and let go of that which doesn’t serve you?

This requires shifting the stories you tell yourself about your pain. It means understanding that pain is not a problem for which you just haven’t found the right equation. It means letting go of the notion that, somewhere down the rabbit hole, fear has all the answers for where you can find safety. It means finding the tools that allow you to access safety and regulation within yourself and in community.

For me and many of my clients, this has meant turning towards our bodies - the containers, creators, and captors of our fear and pain, and learning how to decipher the wise messages our bodies are sending us.

The truth is this: your safety, joy, and connection can be found in all the same place as your fear, pain, and grief. They are all held within our bodies, this organism through which we perceive, sense, and interact. When you turn towards your body and the emotions held within, you invite yourself to live - right here, right now, in this moment, and the next one, and the next. As my teacher Varvara Erochina says, "We are alive beings existing here and now. Everything else is imagination, story, or memory."

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