Disguised Suffering, Unwanted Urges, and how to deal with them

As you read the following story, put yourself in my shoes. Does any of it sound familiar to you?

A few nights ago, a few memories popped into my head as I was dozing off. It was of an old argument, many months ago. In real life, I had remained calm, which calmed him down too, and we left on good terms. But it was unresolved internally – I still felt slighted and misunderstood. At first I simply let the thoughts pass, but after a while something in me latched on to them.

Before I knew it, an hour had passed. I had gone through countless variations of the argument. I fantasised about all the different ways I could have humiliated him, looked cool, or walked away feeling like a superior man. I even fantasised about slapping him around a little bit.

When I snapped out of this reverie, I noticed with dismay that my body was in pain. My chest and throat had tightened and heated up, my heart was beating faster, and I was wearing a scowl on my face. My mind had enjoyed the hour but my body had been suffering the whole time.

The disguised suffering

What was the point of this story? Emotional suffering is often disguised by your mind. Sometimes it feels logical and justified. Other times your mind even takes great pleasure in it.

My previous series on negative emotions and negative thoughts were about the obvious negativity. Everyone can recognise those and the suffering they cause – and obviously you would want to escape those. But what are the ways suffering can come disguised?

My little fantasy is one such example. It was all tremendously satisfying to my ego. It made me feel powerful and in control, even though I was safely tucked away in bed. Does that sound insane? Now, perhaps, but not then. What about the harm it causes? Besides wasting time, feeling too agitated to sleep and strengthening my ego and negativity, my body was also in pain. These are the same emotions that cause cancer and other such conditions over time.

Hence this post some readers might think this is common sense, but others might fall into the same trap I did. Hopefully this can help you recognise some of your disguised suffering.

Note that it doesn’t have to be a memory – it is even better if you can catch yourself in the situation as it rises.

Step One: Recognising your suffering

Here is a list of some broad negative states. As you scan it, try to see how the subtle versions can creep into your life, or if you can add any to the list. For example, anger can show up as irritation. Fear can show up as nervousness. Even pity doesn’t feel good.

  1. Anger and Hate
  2. Fear
  3. Shame and Guilt
  4. Pity
  5. Envy and Greed

Step Two: Seeing how the ego indulges in it

Next, can you see how the ego would work its way into these emotions? My ego enjoyed the fantasy, so it didn’t want to stop. Maybe it wanted to help me develop more assertiveness. More likely, it had tinged my little fantasy with cleverly disguised hatred and guilt.

Let’s take another emotion from the list at random. What about pity or jealousy? Let’s say you earn an average income and you just saw someone driving past in a million-dollar Bentley. You feel a surge of self-pity. If you’re lucky, it slides past in minutes. If you’re not, you latch on to it. And then you go home and whine and complain internally for hours or days or even weeks.

Your ego might justify this as “encouraging” you to work hard and earn more money. But at what cost? Wasted time, lots of whinging, lots of unhappiness, and worst of all, a suffering body. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go out and get rich, if that’s what you want – but your body doesn’t have to suffer in the process. Can’t you get rich in peace?

Why do we cling to our unhappiness might also be valuable.

Step Three: The body never lies

How do you recognise yourself in this state, then? When the mind and the body are in conflict, listen to the body. The mind can lie, but the body doesn’t.

First, develop a habit of feeling for any physical sensations. Over time you’ll catch yourself with any bad sensations, even the milder ones.

Secondly, it is a matter of recognition. Recognise the ego is at work – doing its justifying, enjoying, and blaming – and simply smile at it. There’s no need to fight it. No need to make yourself wrong for it. All that just makes it stronger. For more information on how the ego or mind works, please read What your ego is.

Then, we treat the emotions that it has caused the same way as any other negative emotion.

It is also helpful to do something with the gap in thought, or you might feel the urge to indulge again. You can either expand the gap, by watching your breath, or to fill in that gap with something else. For more information, see the section in the last post of the Stopping Negative Thoughts series.

The last option is the compassion and love meditation – either for you and for the other person, sometimes both. Are you not earning as much as you would like, and beating yourself up for it? Meditate on self-compassion, and for the person who drove past in the Bentley. I cannot understate how powerful this meditation is.

More destructive emotions and urges

In doing research for this article, I went looking for as many destructive emotions as I could. I found a few that were surprising – I never thought of them as destructive emotions. They also needed special treatment, so here they are:

  1. Lust. Excessive lust is also painful – both on the practical and emotional level. I’m not taking a stand on the morality of sex here – that is up to you to decide. But you can probably think of situations lust can be troublesome wanting a married man or woman, perhaps, or your best friend’s new crush. How about the famous “blue balls” that men get? Painful.A technique that Buddhists recommend is to reflect on what lies beneath the skin – the bones, the muscle, the blood vessels, the organs, the urine and the faeces. Try it now – dig up a picture of someone you lust over. Next, try to see them as they are underneath their skin. You’ve all seen those medical pictures, or war pictures of dead and dying people. I remember a biology class in my teens where we had to dissect a lamb’s eyeball. Gross. Guys, this is a good time to take out that porno you have hidden under your bed. Ladies, there’s a picture of me in the About page. (Just joking.)
  2. Desire This works for lust as well – and most of the other desires. Maybe you want to lose weight and yet have cravings for a piece of fried chicken. Maybe you want to quit smoking. I don’t know if it works for stronger addictions though, I’ve never had those. Simply feel your urge fully. You know and recognise the urge, and you feel it in your body as a physical sensation, not through the mind. Feel it completely and without fighting it, but don’t indulge in it physically. It is the same principle used in dealing with negative emotions. If your urges come more as thoughts, try the series on negative thoughts.
  3. Pride. I don’t see how this causes emotional suffering, but it is clear how it affects us in the practical world. The Dalai Lama suggests thinking about knowledge and how little you know. Do you know anything about how your body works, how electricity is conducted, nuclear physics, or brain surgery? Even in your chosen field or job, you wouldn’t know every thing there is to know. You’ll notice we are not comparing ourselves to others, as that practice might cause troubles of its own.
  4. Laziness. Again, I don’t know why this is listed as a negative emotion. It might not cause emotional suffering, but there definitely is a practical side to it. I have no idea how I overcame laziness it just happened once I found a passion. So my suggestion would be to contemplate what your lack of action is costing you. Next, contemplate what solid action can bring you. Don’t just think it through for a few seconds. Really spend time on it – hours if you have to. See if that begins to propel you into action.

For pride and laziness, the compassion and love meditation could also help, as they could sometimes be the symptom, not the root. What do I mean? A lack of self-esteem, for example, might contribute to laziness. Contempt for others might be a source of excessive pride. The meditation could go some ways towards offsetting those.

Are all physical sensations wrong?

Does this mean that all “bad” physical sensations are wrong? No. You have to distinguish between gut feelings and emotions. Gut feelings are often instinctual, and play a part in our survival. For instance, if we see a snake, we feel a sense of dread, and that helps us avoid getting bit.

Now, it gets more difficult in normal life – if we meet someone and feel bad, is it our intuition telling us he’s dangerous? Or is it plain old hatred? This takes experience and time to judge, although my article on intuition might help.

Also, not all sensations come from emotions. You might notice more of these as you get more sensitive. Some are obvious – you might feel queasy after some rotten tomatoes. Other times, a lack of sleep, too much sugar, or a myriad of other causes might be the cause. Again, don’t stress out if you can’t find an emotional root – I did, initially, and that just made things worse. With time, you can tell the difference.