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‘What if, instead of fleeing from pain and suffering, we embraced it?’

Journalist and author Jacinta Tynan has come to the realisation that she was suffering all wrong.

Ever noticed how the most trying times of our lives often turn out to be for the best? It’s one of the basic tenets of spirituality: that suffering is a gateway to growth.

Indeed, our greatest lessons rarely come when things are ticking along, but rather when we’re tested to our limits. And when everything falls apart, that’s when we get the opportunity to see what we’re really made of.

It’s hard to grasp this concept when in the grip of it because we’re hardwired to run from pain, which we see as a threat to our very survival, as it once was. Fight or flight.

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But these days most of what we’re running from exists only in our heads: overwhelm, fear of being unlovable, hopelessness and uncomfortable emotions such as envy, vengefulness and grief.

We can’t escape suffering. It often sweeps in without preamble – gargantuan waves that threaten to knock us over, despite our gripping on to the shifting sand beneath.

We try with all our might to look the other way, scanning for “escape routes” like wine, Instagram and Netflix, or even trying to “positive think” our way out. But what if, instead of fleeing from pain, we embraced it?

I was first introduced to this concept by a Buddhist monk in Thailand (back when travel was a thing) who offered to teach me to “suffer properly”.

Turns out I’d been doing it all wrong.

My suffering was unhinged and pointless, the kind that perpetuates itself rather than airlifting you out. I lamented, blamed and looked anywhere but within.

I was attempting to go over it instead of through it, which, I learnt the hard way, only keeps you stuck in a never-ending cycle of despair. To suffer properly, I needed to lean into it.

It’s not the difficulty itself that unnerves us, but rather our reaction to it; only we get to decide whether we experience fear or freedom.

Eddie Jaku is testament to this. Known as The Happiest Man On Earth – the title of his book – this remarkable man, who just turned 101, has suffered greatly. The Holocaust survivor escaped from several concentration camps as a young man and “stared evil in the face”.

He made a pact with himself that if he survived, he would live a full and happy life.

“Here is what I learnt,” he says. “Happiness does not fall from the sky; it is in your hands. Happiness comes from inside yourself and from the people you love.”

Jaku wouldn’t wish his devastating life experiences on anyone, yet they have informed his elevated philosophy, which is now impacting millions.

A friend who’s endured extreme tragedy – losing her three-year-old daughter 20 years ago – can also now see the gifts in her suffering.

“Numbing doesn’t do you any favours,” she says. “Don’t numb, go head-on through it. Because if you can get past that and begin to remember who you really are, instead of having the edge taken off the joy in life, you can sink into that joy and get thrilled at your own potential.”

When we suffer properly, it’s an opportunity to learn who we are beyond our own PR spin. Spiritual masters call it the “hero’s journey”: the arc of every ripping story ever told.

“To stay with that shakiness – to stay with a broken heart, a rumbling stomach, the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening,” writes Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart, which a friend gave me when things fell apart for me. It’s worth staying the course if you can.

How to suffer properly…like a Buddhist monk

Recognise that you’re suffering. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Struggling has become a habit for so many of us that we may not realise anything is amiss. Get still. Turn your attention inwards to the place of “no thought”.

This isn’t easy, either, because the overwhelming pull is to run from discomfort. When thoughts arise, return to inner stillness instead. Catch your “escape routes” – the attempts to distract yourself by scrolling social media, bingeing TV series, drinking – and resist. Try not to indulge in the meaning behind your emotional pain. It’s not the circumstance that causes our suffering, but our interpretation of it.

When we analyse through the prism of our biased perspective, it keeps us wedged in a perpetual cycle of unease.

Sit with the feelings. Take deep breaths to help them move through your body. Your freedom is not dependent on anyone else. You may not be responsible for causing your pain, but you can be responsible for ending it.

Life is governed by our ultimately futile attempts to circumnavigate pain. But when you can embrace it, it’s an opportunity for transformation.

Jacinta Tynan is a journalist and author of The Single Mother’s Social Club (Murdoch Books, $32.99), out now.

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