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October 23, 2019

How to Stop Suffering, Step 1: Get Out of Bed.

Note to self: tomorrow morning, get out of bed.


“Just get out of bed,” I tell myself. “That’s all I have to do. Once I do that, all the terrible thoughts will melt away and I’ll just do what I need to do to live a full and fruitful day.” 


“But everything is wrong, and I’ve made all the wrong choices, and I feel sick and small, and I’m in the wrong place and time and everything is sad today…”


“I know it seems that way. But the truth is that all I have to do is get out of bed, and I’ll be ok.”


“But I’m really suffering today. There’s nothing for me to hold on to. I’m alone, and failing at everything, and I can’t see any reason to lift myself up off this mattress.”


“Actually, none of that is true, and I’ve already learned that when I just get up and get going, I feel fine. All I have to do is stand up and go to the kitchen and someone will be there smiling at me, hand outstretched, offering me a warm cup of Nescafé and a little plate of beans and eggs. It’s all good. Just get up.”

The Background

For the past 15 years, I’ve been carrying around a list of tricks and tips that I turn to when I’m in a place of suffering, and need help to find my way out of it. The list is a brief “note to self” that I carry with me mentally, and pull up into consciousness whenever I find myself in pain, the turmoil of my thoughts pulling me out of balance. 

This “stop-suffering” list, as I’ve come to call it, is now an old friend, a patchwork of practical self-help learnings pieced together over time in response to various mental crises: episodes of freaking out, temporarily losing my mind, forgetting who I am, hitting a wall. Each item in the list has been inserted reverently into place after I discovered that it miraculously worked to help pull me out of a dark place. 

The first item is a simple reminder of the way to start each day with strength: 

Get out of bed.

The story behind this list item no. 1 finds me sleeping under a mosquito net in the Guatemalan jungle. I was living in a remote pueblo in the northern panhandle of that colorful and haphazard country, a few kilometers south of the ruins of Mayan Tikal and a world away from my known and comfortable American world. 

San José, Petén is the name of the place. It sits couched in the soft middle of Guatemala’s sweltering, ridiculously hot and sweaty Central American rainforest. It was there in that humble village, with its generous people, lovely lakeside views, and history of war, poverty, and deep connection to land and culture, that I got suffering so badly every morning that I could hardly get myself out of bed. 

A few months earlier, I had jumped ship from my home country and embarked upon a nine-month study of cross-cultural conflict resolution for my college anthropology program. The journey started out as an exciting adventure, fresh field notebooks in hand and travel plans well-laid. But it didn’t take long for my wide-open expectations to give way to storm clouds that rained down on me every fear, shadow story, bad behavior, and excruciating mental habit I ever had. 

By the time I made it to San José about halfway through my study, I had succumbed to a stormfront of combined forces that included, but were not limited to:

getting constantly sideswiped by being outside my linguistic and cultural comfort zone

getting lost, laughed at, and injured

feeling confused, vulnerable, and sometimes terrified

living away from my partner and going through major trust issues with him (on both sides)

being too hot, too wet, too burnt and bitten, continuously

furious about politics in my own country, and

sick with bronchitis that went untreated for weeks. 

I had kind of lost my sense of self, in the way you lose your keys, but you KNOW you just had them, and now they’re not in that place they always are, so you don’t even know where to look. 

It wasn’t my first time traveling abroad, or alone. It wasn’t even my first time in Guatemala. But digging deep into a study of that country and its struggles had exposed me to suffering, hard truths and untruths, violence, intractable conflicts and straight-up bad news to an extent I had not experienced before. 

Trying to cope, I started to exhibit behaviors that weren’t like me. My existing self-protective strategies had ceased to give me any sense of control over my experience. I was responding badly to the challenges surrounding me. I had lost my keys.

Each morning upon waking in San José, I would lay sprawled out and sweating over my sagging, bent and squeaky-rickety mattress, feeling incapable to meet the day. The electric fan blowing over my nearly naked body gave me scant relief from the heat. I invariably woke up restless, caught in a web of painful thoughts that had accumulated in my psyche overnight. 

Before my eyes had a chance to open, I would be overtaken by a wave of dread, a sense that everything was terribly wrong. I’d be revisited by images I’d seen in the news, stories I’d heard in my interviews. Before I could get on top of my thoughts, painful memories, beliefs, and anxieties about my own life would add their scenes to the mental drama. I found myself daily captive to an internal echo of “everything is wrong, no escape” inside the cavern of my mind. 

I was suffering an internal story of being in the wrong place, though I was right where I said I wanted to be all along. I was in the place I escaped to when the last place I was in got to be unbearable. What was wrong with me?

Ironically, I was in a beautiful place. I woke each morning to a lovely prize: the magnificent turquoise glow of Lago Petén Itza below my bedroom window. Beyond the limits of my internal chaos, sunrise on the lake spread across the outer landscape in untroubled morning stillness. From my bed I could lift my head from the pillow and twist my neck to look east over the stunning vista with a sense of wonder. Tropical birds and bugs waking the world with a cacophony of song! Grace and glory shining down from the heavens! 

But before my eyes could appreciate the view I would be overtaken by…those thoughts again. And the thoughts bred feelings: feelings of angst, confusion and debilitating loneliness, supplemented by anger at myself for feeling so terrible waking up in that beautiful place. 

In the beginning when this pattern emerged, I tried different strategies to try to break myself out of the funk. Reading didn’t help. Writing didn’t help. Cigarettes and beer didn’t help. (Well, they helped a little bit.) Yoga barely helped. I was unmoved by all I knew of spirituality, philosophy and psychology. Even the marvel of living in a tropical paradise, surrounded by all variety of fantastical flora and fauna fauna — spider monkeys and pacaya palms and toucans and jaguars — was not enough for me to extract peace from the environment around me. 

By that time in my life, I was familiar enough with meditation and spiritual teachings to know that while I was suffering due to some things beyond my control, most of the upheaval was being caused by my own mind. 

Other methods having failed me, I knew that if I could rearrange my perception of my experience, I could find my center and get back to OK. But in the heat and confusion of the Guatemalan rainforest, any possibility of rearranging my internal experience by my own strength felt as far away as the Arctic Ocean.

The Gift

Then something wonderful happened. I was given a gift one only receives in return for payment of time, experience, and observation.

As morning after morning passed into day after day, and as I acclimated to the buggy heat of the jungle and finally got that bronchitis medicine I needed, I noticed an interesting truth revealing itself to my consciousness: I wasn’t really suffering. 

To be sure, I did feel one-hundred percent terrible when I woke up, and it was an incredible effort to get out of bed. But I noticed that when I finally got up and got moving…well, I didn’t actually feel bad anymore. 

I noticed that once awake, I might go an entire day without so much as one tortured thought of being lonely or disconnected or lost on someone else’s planet. Instead I would find myself marveling at the unique charm of my surroundings, laughing and chattering in Spanish with my Guatemalan friends, or losing my breath and stopping to rest while trying to climb some ungodly steep cobblestone path to pick up ground masa or eggs from a local señora. I was carrying out interviews and taking notes, keeping up with communications and washing my hair, all that daily stuff. I was simply living life with life’s regular ups and downs, like “normal” me would do. 

When the day ended, after chatting with my host family in a hammock while watching a static telenovela on their black and white TV, I would wrap myself up in my mosquito net and lazily drift off to sleep.

It wouldn’t be until the next morning when I woke up frozen into my familiar feelings of despair and desperation that I would remember that everything was wrong and I couldn’t possibly get out of bed and live the day ahead of me with any kind of grace. 

Over time, I recognized that my mattress-bound suffering was not a fixed condition at all. It was a habit. And habits can be broken.

The Shift

In one night’s moment of clarity, I decided that the next morning I would try a new experiment. When I woke up suffering, I was going to push back against that habit. I was not going to stay down and suffer. Instead, I was simply going to get out of bed.

When I awoke, the dialogue began:


“Just get out of bed, Shannon. That’s all I have to do. Once I do that, all the terrible thoughts will melt away and I’ll just do what I need to do to live a full and fruitful day.” 


“But everything is wrong, and I’ve made all the wrong choices, and I feel sick and small, and I’m in the wrong place and time and everything is sad today…”

And on it went. Until eventually, I tired myself of the internal back-and-forth, and got to the point where I had no more arguments to make to myself. Then I moved. 

How to get up when mind says NO:

Slide one foot over edge of bed. 

Put foot on floor. 

Slide body to edge of mattress. 

Roll on side; reach one arm out from under mosquito net fortress. 

Put hand on floor next to foot. 

Drop to floor on hands and knees. 

Sway back and forth, staring at the dirt floor; get bearings. 

Stand up. Look out the window at that sugar-sweet view. Get dressed.

Step outside my room, take ten steps into the thatched-roof kitchen, and by the time I arrive, forget that I was suffering at all. 

Those ten steps to the kitchen were the beginning of my years’ long compilation of the stop-suffering list. 

The significance of the moment was huge for me. It was my first experiment using tools of my own experience to reverse habitual thought patterns, to dissolve them with action. I had studied such things before and had some success in isolated moments. But this was the first time I consciously practiced building a new habit in the middle of the old. I pushed back against my habitual dialogue one leg first, day after day. Through repeated choice, I learned to plant seeds of intention in the ashes of dead stuff I thought was alive. And with practice, flowers grew. 

This is not the end of the story, but a beginning. Truth is, I’m still planting seeds. Many years after my first experiment, I still have mornings I wake up and have to coax myself out of bed by sticking one leg out first. And I know that getting up and out isn’t a magic panacea that solves everything. Life is more complicated than that. If I only had to get out of bed to make flowers grow, there would be no need for a stop-suffering list. 

That’s why my list starts with “get out of bed” and continues on, weaving through lessons learned in different times and places, each with their own stories and small victories attached. 

I find value in such list making, keeping track of habits and strategies and happy accidents that have taught me how to live more skillfully, with less suffering. I make notes so I don’t forget what I’ve learned. Because I still forget. I often have to reconnect with my list for a refresher when I freak out and forget what I already know. 

One lesson I never forget any more, though, is to “get out of bed.” That one has stuck with me. It should, because every morning brings a brand new opportunity to practice it. I don’t know if practice will ever make “perfect” in this case. But I do know that practice can make me get out of bed. By literally lifting me up, it eases the burden of suffering from my life and reminds me that the power to choose how I enter my day — and my life — is mine. And anything that can do that is perfect enough for me. 


Photo credit: Igor Rand on Unsplash

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