Suffering, of one sort or another, often brings people into therapy. It may be the ache of an unrequited love, the gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with a job, or the stabbing pain of a loved one’s death. It may be the relentless misery of chronic depression, the oppressiveness of an addiction, or the crippling panic that grips some people when they are obligated to speak in front of a roomful of strangers.
The first precept of Buddhist thought is that “life is suffering,” and the Buddha cited attachment and desire as the sources of our pain. “I want a job whose perks include wealth and fame, not the daily grind I’m in now,” or “I can’t go on living without my spouse.” “I hate everything and I wish it would all just go away,” or “I am so in love with my co-worker and he never gives me the time of day.” “I need meth to function,” or “I wish I didn’t have to give that presentation in class.” Suffering, in this view, can be seen as the distance between the way things are and the way we want things to be.
Acceptance – of the fact that my co-worker is already happily married, say, or of an obligation to earn a living, or of the reality of death – may be the most liberating way to bridge the gap between reality and desire. But is that always true? Should I just work on accepting the fact that I hate myself? Do I need to resign myself to the fact that I just can’t make it through the day without getting wasted? Should I just find a way to be okay with the fact that every time I have to give a presentation my heart will feel like it’s going to pound its way out of my chest, and then I’ll faint?
Sometimes it is within our power to change the way things are into the way we want them to be, and sometimes it is not. The value of distinguishing between the two is nicely encapsulated in the Serenity Prayer common to 12-Step programs: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Often, the work in psychotherapy involves identifying exactly what circumstances are causing pain, and then identifying and removing the obstacles to accepting them. At other times, the work involves specifying changes that need to be made, and then identifying and removing the obstacles to bringing them about.
And sometimes, the work of therapy begins simply with sorting out what we have the power to change and what we do not. Many people suffer needlessly because they cannot accept an immutable truth. And many others suffer needlessly because they do not see, or can not access, their own power to effect meaningful changes in their lives.