by: Benjamin Reisterer, MA, LLPC
There is a somewhat famous equation developed by Shinzen Young that illustrates how we commonly experience suffering. The equation is as follows: Pain x Resistance = Suffering. I love the simplicity and the empowerment of this format to explain that pain is a part of being human, but suffering is often a product of our resistance or desire to avoid that inevitable pain.
I am often asked by friends, family, or in consultations with prospective clients what to expect with the process of therapy. I struggle to answer this question directly as it ultimately is a very personal experience based on the therapeutic relationship developed by two imperfect people delving into deep content. What therapy looks like for Jane, will most likely look very different for John. However, with that being said, I do believe there are some themes that tend to show up fairly consistently. To illustrate this, I am going to stand on the shoulders of Shinzen Young and extend the equation metaphor into the therapeutic relationship.
If Pain x Resistance = Suffering, then I submit that Pain x Acceptance = Insight. Now, I am assuming that pain is an inevitable part of the human condition; however, acceptance of that pain does not mean to give in to it or to become enslaved by it. For the purposes of this equation, “acceptance” means a couple of things. First, it means to be at peace with the fact that pain will happen at points throughout life no matter what you do. Coming to terms with this takes a lot of pressure off of constantly being “on guard” and gives yourself permission to be less judgemental (either good or bad) towards yourself for simply being human. That alone can often be very difficult, but yield powerful results. Second, it means that when pain does show up, you allow yourself to experience it fully and work through it. This is in contrast to what we often do by working to minimize, avoid, or resist it. Get curious about why it is painful for you, when did it come about, where does it hurt (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually), how does it hurt, what judgements and rules are you holding about it? These examples for curious questions about your pain are just a few and there are many more, but the point is to get very familiar with it in a non-judgemental way so you can intimately know the pain from all angles. As you step into this process of acceptance, you begin to see yourself, others, circumstances, etc. more clearly. Paradoxically, the pain often lessons during this period as well. As one begins to take honest and purposeful steps into this process, the fog begins to lift which is the critical insight that is needed.
Once you allow yourself to really work the previous equation and begin to gain insight you have (at least to some degree) the variable necessary for the next therapeutic equation, which is Insight x Dedication = Transformation. Change requires consistent dedication in order to replace habits, thought patterns, and automatic reactions with newer and more life giving options. The old saying that you never forget how to ride a bike is true. However, it can be unlearned with a consistent dedication to undoing the neural pathways (the well practiced habits your brain defaults to) created by years and years of your body and mind working in tandem to ride your bicycle (see here for an interesting video on what I mean). Having the dedication to change habits, use new neural pathways, retrain your thinking, outlooks, your relationship with emotions, etc. is most effective when you have a “why” to motivate you. This is why insight is so important. Typically, we don’t know the “why” behind the reason for what we do; regardless, we usually are getting some kind of reward for continuing the behavior. The reward may be internal, external, conscious, or unconscious but it’s always there. Insight gives us a very clear view as to what these rewards are and if they are truly what we want. If they are not what we want, then transformation requires us to have dedication to forego the familiar rewards and find new ones to replace them. This is much more likely if you have further insight into the “programs” you have developed, why you developed them, and what causes them to activate, and if you have something that you truly want to work towards.
Ultimately, therapy is a relationship that acts as a kind of scratch paper for the above equations. Use it to purposefully and deliberately show your work to get the outcomes desired. My high school Calculus teacher never gave full credit unless we were showing our work. The same requirement is true in the therapeutic relationship, as the solution can only be found in the process. There are rarely shortcuts and there is never a “back of the book” that has the answers to all the odd problems, but there are people who are ready to dive into this with you.