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How to Ease Suffering in Yourself and Others

How to Ease Suffering in Yourself and Others

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh said: “When you listen deeply, you help people suffer less.”

Perhaps you've experienced the healing quality of someone compassionately listening to your struggles. Rather than trying to fix you or give advice, they acknowledge your pain. At that moment, you feel a little less alone. From there, your inner wisdom and strength arise.

It is transformative to feel seen and understood without judgment.

The same way that you can listen to a friend and soothe their suffering, you can begin to learn to listen to and heal yourself.

Mindfulness is a practice of listening. Not only do we notice sounds and what is happening around us, but we also become more aware of what’s going on within. Our sensations, emotions and inner voices are all forms of communication. When you tune in, you may notice that some of these expressions are loud and bold and others are quiet and timid.

For example, your shoulders may be screaming with tension while somewhere deep within there is a tiny voice of sadness that you can only hear when you are really still. It can be easy to wish away the tension and keep moving to avoid the sadness. What if instead, you asked your shoulders: Why are you so tense? And what if you stopped and made space for the grief your discover to share its story?

The truth is, we often don't go there because the answers can be inconvenient. They can ask us to make shifts in the way we are living. At first, that can feel scary or even impossible. However, in my experience, it's always worth it. When I heard my shoulders emphatically say, “we have too much going on,” it took some creativity (and courage) to realize there were a few things I could say no to and take off my plate. My shoulders relaxed, and I felt freer than when I would ignore their cries for help. When I acknowledged the grief within, I sought support so I could cry and feel my heartache. As a result, I felt lighter and more open to the opportunities for joy each day.

The practice is to listen as if you are going out for tea with yourself. When you are done listening, ask more questions so you can listen more.

Mindfulness teaches us that we don't have to figure out how to ease suffering. The way to calm our suffering will come naturally in the process of compassionate listening. 

Mindfulness Experiment
The next time you encounter someone who expresses suffering, try the following:

  1. Ask the person how they are and listen with your whole body 
  2. After listening, take a moment to imagine how that must feel for him or her
  3. Acknowledge the struggle without trying to fix it
  4. Ask a follow-up question to demonstrate curiosity and learn more about what is happening
  5. Be present as you listen
  6. Thank the other person for sharing what's going on for them
  7. Reflect on the quality of your interaction
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