There are two important facts you are in denial about
- Suffering is a persistent and pervasive aspect of your experience.
- Your death is going to occur in a finite amount of time.
I suggest that becoming keenly aware and accepting of the suffering inherent in life allows you to create a more powerful relationship to it. In next week’s article we’ll talk about the importance of establishing a more conscious relationship with death.
Suffering is your active avoidance of death, so these topics go hand in hand. Confrontation with one empowers a confrontation with the other. As you read, experience the suggestions firsthand. This makes it real, and it is only of use if it is real!
Most people also have a less than optimal relationship to suffering.
It is my intention here to point out the nature of that suboptimal relationship, explain the consequences of engaging it, and suggest an alternative way of being. By developing a mature relationship to suffering we are better able to be and do what we authentically want.
For the purposes of this article, we will define suffering as discomfort of any kind. This type of experience shows up in almost every domain of human existence. Mental, emotional, and physical suffering is the subject of our inquiry today. It is not our intent to eliminate “bad experiences” from life, as this may well be a pipe dream. Rather, we seek to understand and work with suffering in a new and more conscious way.
Becoming conscious of the way things currently are is the first step in any transformation.
From here, and only from here, we are able to change. Seeing clearly what we are up to puts us in the position to do something different, until then the body and mind will continue on as usual.
The following list highlights some of the key methods we employ to avoid suffering. (Before reading take a moment to ask yourself ‘how do I deal with suffering?’). Use this list as a springboard for your own contemplation of the matter. Experience each distinction deeply and see if you can find instances of it in your own life. Each of us engages a personally tailored method to mitigate suffering, it is up to you to find out what this is.
- Ignoring– Looking the other way when we are in pain allows the experience to decrease in intensity and significance (or so it seems). This can show up as an active turning away from or pure ignorance of the presence of suffering.
- Distracting– By occupying your consciousness with content other than your suffering you are able to reduce its influence at that moment.
- Lying– This has the effect of establishing a new layer of conceptual experience to live within. In this fantasy you are able to believe that you’re ‘ok’.
- Numbing– This is accomplished with the habitual overuse of all things. By remaining saturated with sensations, dopamine, and stimulation you are desensitized to you suffering.
- Fixing– the source of our suffering is typically attributed to circumstance. As a result we will attempt to resolve the suffering by ‘fixing’ the problem. While objective measures and real-world solutions are always a good idea, it is important to note that oftentimes the problem lies within you, your mind, your identity, and your way of seeing/thinking.
This type of relationship to your suffering can negatively affect your experience. (Before reading the list contemplate the possible consequences of the aforementioned behaviors, ask what effect does ignoring, distracting, etc. have on my self and life?)It is of critical importance to see the consequences of your relationship to suffering because they are what motivates change.
Again, as you read, be responsible for seeing each consequence as it appears in your own case. If you remain ignorant of all the damage you are causing it is much harder to let go of your current way of being. Deeply feel the impact of these consequences on your life personally. These aren’t to be treated as hypothetical considerations. This is real and it is you.
- Reduced awareness– When we cut ourselves off from an authentic, full, and honest experience of self and life we inevitably lose awareness of the totality and truth. This awareness, or ‘self-knowledge’, is the key to living a fulfilling, powerful, and free life. If you don’t know what is true of ‘you’ how will you direct your life? How will you know what you want, how you work, why you act the way you do, and how to be effective in your relationships, career, activities, and so on? You can’t! If you want to be self-aware you MUST allow yourself to contact and understand your personal suffering. It is already the case, and will continue to be the case until you become aware of its truth.
- Reduced levels of fulfillment– When the totality of life is not witnessed it is difficult to be fulfilled. By cutting yourself off from what you deem ‘bad experiences’ you are limiting the range and depth of your experience. There will be a sense of incompleteness with regard to self and life. A background flavor of unsatisfactoriness will pervade your experience. Never being able to fully let go, relax, or become intimate with life is an inherently hollow and unfulfilling way to live. The richness of experience is only accessible when we are willing to be with it as it is, regardless of its quality.
- Loss of integrity– When all aspects are accepted and integrated into the self-structure there is integrity. Wholeness, coherence, completeness, consistency, and honesty all point to integrity. A building has structural integrity when it is stable and not damaged. The building’s integrity comes from every beam, wall, window, edge, and corner being in a position that supports its function- to stand and hold things within. Each part must relate to the others such that standing is possible. If just one beam was out of alignment, and so not in proper relationship with the whole, the building would topple. In much the same way, you have integrity when every aspect of you is accepted, included, and related to effectively. When you have integrity your function is healthy, happy, powerful, and free.
- Loss of power– Power is the result of relating effectively to the condition at hand. When you are artificially disconnected from your suffering you cannot see the condition, when you can’t see it you cant relate to it, and so lose power over it. If you want to do something about your suffering it is necessary to relate to it as it is. By detaching and running away from the dark side of experience you lose touch with reality itself because so much of ‘reality’ has unfavorable characteristics. A disposition defined by rejection, ignorance, numbness, and avoidance gives power to suffering, you are essentially saying ‘you win’. Power and ability come when you see clearly what is occurring, and then relate to that. Your relationship with suffering will carry over to every domain and aspect of life.
- Loss of freedom– When you let suffering ‘win’ by running away you are allowing it to dominate you. When you are not ok with the fact of suffering you will be forced to avoid so many experiences, truths, and developmental hurdles. By allowing suffering to be as it is you are freed to experience and be so much more.
- Loss of authenticity– When suffering is real, but you deny that fact, you are disconnected from your actual experience of self and life. This disconnect means that you do not know how you really feel, what you really want. You don’t know who you are. When you don’t know who you are you are compelled to make something up for the sake of social survival. This ‘made up’ display is the heart of inauthenticity. You will also be running from negative experiences with others such as rejection and judgment. When these social experiences are unacceptable to you it becomes impossible to act naturally. Your main concern will be to impress and be acceptable to others. Rather than honest expression and genuine relationship you will be trapped in superficial performances and disconnected relationships.
- More suffering– Let’s say you have 10 ‘suffering points’. If confronted, accepted, healed, let go, understood, dealt with, etc. these 10 points would go away. However, if you were to avoid the suffering through the manifold methods we addressed above, these 10 points would be stored, to be resolved in the future. These 10 points will reside within until dealt with. What’s worse is that they will continue to affect your current experience in subtle but significant ways. The un-confronted pockets of pain will continue to leak into your experience until resolved. What could have been a brief encounter can turn into a lifetime of background fear, angst, discomforts, etc. Do your future self a favor and deal with your ‘problems’ as they arise. This is how you suffer the least.
- More suffering 2– Resistance causes suffering to get worse. The more you resist, the more it hurts. Shinzen Young, a modern spiritual teacher, uses a mathematical analogy to explain this dynamic. He claims, and my experience confers, that (Suffering = discomfort X resistance). This also means that no resistance equals no suffering. *hint hint 😉*
It is time to consider another way of being.
Before moving on, it is helpful to ask, “If these methods are so bad, for us why would we use them?” or, “If these ways of relating to suffering are so ineffective why does nearly every human engage them?”
Asking such questions deepens understanding of the matter and increases the likelihood of change because you then know what to look for and can see the flawed logic.
There are a few reasons why ineffective dispositions, reactions, and methods are so readily adopted in relationship to suffering. (Before reading on take a moment to consider what these might be).
- We ‘do’ before we ‘see’– More often than not, and in more ways than we recognize, we do things long before understanding the condition we are trying to effect. In the case of eliminating suffering we engage the aforementioned ‘anti suffering strategies’ without seeing that they will not work. An unclear picture of human nature, the nature of suffering, and the dynamics of mind leads us to believe in the efficacy of such methods. Learn to relate to reality as it is.
- Fear of death– Suffering essentially implies that there is a threat to our lives. The reaction is to avoid this threat. We run away from it because it might kill us, that is the deep assumption.
- We are identified with the pain– Strange as it may sound we can actually become identified with our heartache, physical pain, mental anguish, and so on. This means you take it to be what you are. Once this happens you feel the need to protect, perpetuate, and promote your own suffering. This leads to behaviors that seek not to eliminate it, but to make it manageable. If you have no intent to rid yourself of suffering for real, you won’t, and you will pay the price.
- Default survival reactions- It may well be that tightening up, turning away, running away from, and generally avoiding discomfort is the default method we inherited through biological evolution. Suffering is a survival mechanism for avoiding damage to the body. Its message is, “That’s bad, make it stop.” For our ancestors, avoiding suffering was a means of avoiding a threat. Today we do not need this impulse and can readily direct our lives without it.
- Our culture values comfort– Fulfilment, freedom, power, and authenticity are less important to us than psychophysical comfort. As a result the attainment of comfort guides and directs our behavior. With comfort as our guiding principle it follows that whatever produces the most immediate comfort is the way to go. Immediate and transient comfort is very easy to attain, and so will be the primary goal or solution when confronted with discomfort of any kind. It seems like common sense, and it is! But that’s the problem, common sense is not necessarily sensible.
Find a way to relate to and experience suffering that does not produce the many negative side effects we observed.
We want to establish a relationship that allows for the best possible experience of self and life. What might this mature relationship to suffering look like? For the purposes of this investigation we will define a “mature relationship with suffering” as one that does not produce extra negative side effects.
This new way will appear in the form of internal dispositions, attitudes, and objective behavior changes. The following list includes several possible shifts. The explanations provided are by no means comprehensive, but point to the truth and benefit of the shift. There are of course many more options available to you and much to learn about each. I encourage you to investigate them for yourself.
- Acceptance– This is the ultimate solution to suffering. Once accepted, any ‘negative experience’ turns into a neutral perception. Negative experiences will continue to occur, but your suffering does not have to. Non-acceptance is the root of suffering. Work to accept the fact of suffering with an open heart.
- Contemplation– Questioning brings us in touch with the truth of our suffering. Understanding allows us to see what we are up to, why we’re doing it, and the consequences of doing it. The ability to stop doing something comes only after clear understanding. Undermine the very root of your suffering by seeing its source.
- Toughen up– Transform yourself into an entity that is capable of enduring whatever hardship life presents. Intend to be ‘tough’. Train your body-mind to toughen up by consciously facing all forms of suffering as soon as they arise. You can even take on practices that produce suffering as a means to toughen up.
- Go for things other than comfort– When comfort is your highest value you will habitually avoid suffering. As a result your relationship to suffering will be avoidant and weak. Being directed by more powerful principles such as discipline, excellence, compassion, etc. will give you the opportunity to train and embody a powerful relationship to suffering. As a result you will become mature in relationship to hardship and pain.
- Mindful awareness– By simply observing your suffering as it occurs, you establish a more grounded and detached relationship to it. This puts you in a position to respond intelligently rather than react blindly. A high enough degree of mindfulness actually deconstruct suffering such that it is no longer suffering.
- Slow down– Depend less on reactivity and avoidance and allow the time for a response to develop. Don’t be afraid to sit with your suffering. It won’t kill you, and being with it consciously may be all you need to do to let it go.
- Checking in– Ask yourself if you are suffering from time to time. We can get used to our suffering such that it blends into our sense of self and experience of life. Regularly take time to feel into yourself and clear out whatever suffering you find. Stay up to date with yourself so you don’t get overwhelmed by a backlog of pain.
- Open-mindedness– There are always be other ways to be. If you are suffering, be open to the fact that a simple change in disposition or mindset could reduce or eliminate its impact. Maybe you don’t need to suffer at all.
- Trust– A paranoid disposition towards self and life does you no good. Trust allows a letting go process to unfold. Trust allows you to work with self and life, not against them.
- Honesty– Do not deny your experience in any way. Lying to yourself about yourself creates a disconnect in your experience. Reduce disconnects and confusion by being honest.
- Self-transcendence– All of the aforementioned things will help you create a healthier relationship with suffering, but none of them will eliminate it. Suffering is the tool used by survival itself to ensure you keep being you. As long as you exist as a self that must survive you will suffer. There will always be unacceptable conditions and you will always suffer their presence to some extent. The possibility I’m suggesting here is radical, but possible. Self-transcendence means you are not your self. You exist, but not as someone. You are, but without quality. This is a topic for another day, but keep it in mind! This is a real thing. It is worth considering.
Life is a bitch, but you can learn to love it by…
Becoming aware of your suffering and noticing it’s prevalence and effect.
Becoming aware of your anti-suffering methods and noticing that they don’t work.
Finding and embodying a better way of being.
This transformation takes time and effort. Commit to change and be willing to give yourself to the process. There is no better sensation than newfound freedom from unnecessary suffering.