How I Learned To Be Happy In The Face Of Physical Misery

How I Learned to Be Happy in the Face of Physical Misery

Last week I came down with a bad case of poison oak rash. Now, that might not sound that bad, but this rash covers all over my body (including places best left undiscussed) and also my face, eyes, mouth. It's not pretty, and while I won't go into details, it's pretty disgusting and miserable.

Image via Mike Elliot (Shutterstock)

This post originally appeared on Zen Habits.

I have to admit, it's frustrating. I live a pretty healthy life, eating lots of vegetables and whole foods, very little sugar and refined carbs or processed foods, and get plenty of exercise, meditation, and more. My health is usually under my control, but for almost a week now, it hasn't been.

Last weekend, as I examined my body that is giving me so much physical discomfort and stress, I thought about what was making me unhappy. And if this were the case for the rest of my life, would I just be unhappy all the time? I considered people who have physical ailments all the time. There are plenty of people whose bodies are out of their control, who cannot physically feel good most of the time, who have illnesses and miseries every day. I am very lucky compared to them.

So here's the process I've been going through to help me be happier — with a note that I constantly fail at this process and have to try it again. I'm not perfect at it, but being perfect at it isn't the point. Learning as I go through it is the point.

1. Let Go

What am I holding onto? Two things mainly: the idea of myself as healthy and comfortable, and the expectation that life should be without physical discomfort. My idea of myself as healthy is something I have built up over the past eight years, so when reality goes against this idea, I struggle. My expectation of life as something without pain, discomfort, itchiness, and some other gross things I won't mention... it's fairly strong. It's hard to let go of these things.

Why let go of them? Because they are causing me more pain than the physical ailment itself. The real pain I've been going through is my inability to accept reality, and my desire for life to be a certain way. I want it my way. And when I can't control that (which is pretty much all the time), I feel frustration, anger, depression, stress. Lots of stress. This applies to everything, not just physical ailments, but when anything doesn't go the way I want it to.

So what's the process for letting go? It's first, realising that I'm holding onto something, then second, realising what it is I'm holding onto, and third, realising it's causing me pain. Then fourth, realising that the thing I'm holding onto isn't necessarily true. I'm not necessarily always a healthy person. I'm not always in comfort. This isn't the way life should be, and in fact it's not the way life always is. This is a repeated process, because two minutes after letting go, I find myself desiring it again. I practice.

2. Accept What Is

Once I let go of what I want things to be, I learn to accept reality. What is. This isn't always easy. Reality doesn't match up with my fantasy/ideal of what life should be. I have to just see things for what they are, and accept them. Be grateful they are the way they are. Learn from what is.

This can be difficult because we tend to want to control things, not accept. Acceptance is seen as surrendering, passive, giving up. And yes, it's a bit of each of these. But it's not the end. Just because you accept, doesn't mean you don't act. It means you start with acceptance, then figure out the best way to act based on a place of peace and acceptance. Acceptance isn't a bad thing. It's a good thing. It means you're at peace with reality.

So I stop running away from the current moment, and just try to see with curiosity what actually is. And it's not as bad as I'd feared. The fear, the resistance, the not wanting, is by far the worst part.

3. Act With Gratitude and Compassion

The next step in my process is to be grateful for what I have, and to act with compassion. What does this mean? When I'm miserable, it's because I'm focusing on the things I see as "bad." But I'm ignoring all the things I should be grateful for: being alive, being able to walk, being able to love, being loved, having friends, having a job I love — the list is endless.

I can find that gratitude, and focus on actions I can take that show that gratitude. If I'm constantly complaining (internally) about how miserable I am, that's not a grateful action. If instead I seize the awesome life I have and do something good with it, that's showing my gratitude for what I have.

Acting in compassion is what I try to do when I have accepted the moment. Just because you let go and then accept doesn't mean you don't act. It means you start from a place of acceptance of what actually is, and then decide how to act from there. Compassion is my guide for how to act from that place.

How do I act in compassion when my body is full of discomfort? Well, I can be compassionate with my body and take care of it. I can be compassionate with myself and give myself rest if I need it. Or I can be compassionate with others, and stop focusing on myself so much. I can find ways to alleviate the suffering of people around me, or find ways to take what I'm learning and share it with all of you, and hope that it helps someone.

Acting in compassion can take the focus off of yourself and put it somewhere that brings good in the world.

Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery [Zen Habits]

Leo Babauta is the creator and writer of Zen Habits. He's married with six kids, lives in San Francisco (previously Guam), and is a runner and a vegan. Read more about him: My Story.


    Well well - he's had a whole -week- of discomfort, so he's perfectly qualified to tell those with chronic conditions (like incurable neuropathy) to let it go and accept the status quo and not try for a cure.

    Pain and discomfort is relative. To a healthy person a week of poison oak rash can be as much of a challenge as neuropathy pain is to someone who has been dealing with it for years. Leo Babauta's post is valid and supported by relevant literature (ex. "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. " V.Frankl). Zen, yoga,, meditation, and other disciplines all present valid approaches to applying effort in a positive way to deal with conditions that seem beyond our control. I have had neuropathy for years and have found much relief in several of the disciplines mentioned above.

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