Are you wondering why in the world you opened this blog to read it? Like WHO wants to read about suffering? For heaven’s sake.
Well, good job. Because what the heck — suffering seems to come with the territory of being a human being so why not lean into it, get to know it, and learn a bit about it?
That’s my general policy. . . looking into stuff I don’t want to look into. I do it because I’ve found that it’s a surefire way to liberate myself, and I lovehow it feels to be liberated. Only a liberation junkie would be fool enough to attempt making a real art of suffering. By liberation, I mean getting real, true freedom from the tyranny of all those things that are keeping you small and walled off from knowing love and connection and possibility beyond what your mind can understand.
Here’s a story:
The other day I was doing my short but steep slow run up a foothill trail near my house that I’ve frequented in recent years (most often to visit my coffin rock).
Not far up the trail, I met a trio coming down — a woman walking her mountain bike and an older man holding onto and supporting a younger man as he tried taking one ginger, tentative step at a time.
The woman asked me cheerily “You don’t happen to have any Tylenol do you?” The young man had abrasions on his forehead and knee. A cloth of some kind was over his right shoulder, covering his arm. He was moaning and yelping in intensely great pain with every attempted step. The older man, in full biking regalia including unbuckled bike helmet, told me the young man had dislocated his shoulder. “You don’t know how to re-locate a shoulder, do you?” the older man asked. I felt in their voices both seriousness and a surface light-heartedness — hoping for help and also wanting to be reassuring for the sake of the young man.
I do have a Wilderness First Responder certification, but re-locating someone’s shoulder was not something I know enough about to give it a try. I responded that I’d seen videos about how to do it but didn’t feel I was up to doing it. The man agreed. He’d seen videos too but wasn't about to try it.
I watched the young man as he tried to deal with the immense pain. I sensed his fear and childlike vulnerability. I felt a strong pang of compassion in my heart, and sadness that I couldn’t help. I also admitted feeling a sense of relief that someone else was already dealing with the situation. I wished them luck and ran past, up the hill, hearing behind me the woman ask a perky random question to the injured fellow in an attempt to get his mind off his pain.
What could I have done to help? The thought rolled around in my head.
On the switchbacks before I reached the top, it occurred to me there might have been something I could have done . . .
* * * *
In recent months I’ve had the opportunity to experience some intense psychological suffering, and through that process I’ve came to understand just how much I do know about suffering and how to deal with it artfully.
Though this young man’s pain was primarily physical, meeting this dislocated shoulder situation was a metaphor for my own recent experience and brought up in my mind as I continued running up the trail, two aspects of how we can approach suffering in a way that can transform us.
1. Calming The Response of Contraction
Living organisms protect themselves from fear and pain by contracting — by pulling away. It’s a perfectly natural response and an important one. However if our survival is not actually being threatened and we remain closed and contracted, we miss the opportunity that suffering brings us, which is to expand into new territory: to transform.
How can I loosen up contraction once I realize I’m suffering?
The basic idea is to bring our own presence to our suffering. To not turn away. To be WITH it.
Contraction happens in both the mind and in the body. Here are a couple of suggestions for calming the contractive response that really work for me:
Deep breathing is an excellent and effective practice. Long slow breaths instantly relax the body and the mind, bringing oxygen to the brain and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Conscious deep breathing also activates the hypothalamus which triggers the pituitary gland to emit neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones.
Becoming aware of the stories running in your head is another powerful way to relax the constriction. When you are able to become aware that your brain is freaking out, telling stories about what is going on and warning you to fight, run or freeze to save your butt, and that these stories ARE NOT TRUE, you have the opportunity to not listen to those stories. Instead, do some deep breathing and feel yourself in your body right HERE and NOW.
2. Choosing to Turn Toward
With practice, when you start to get the hang of #1, try actually turning your impartial and calm attention TOWARD the suffering. Not the story about the suffering, but the actual sensation of the suffering.
I recall an article I read once about a man who as a child suffered chronic pain. On his own, he learned how to actually be WITH the pain by calming himself and gently turning toward it, probing it gently with curiosity, allowing it. Over time, he found that the pain had patterns and nuances that became super interesting to explore. It completely changed his relationship to this awful chronic condition, as well as opening up whole aspects of his experience of his mind, of what he perceived reality to be and what is possible. And of course this capacity was a superpower he was able to use for the rest of his life. For me, the story of that man exemplifies the beauty in the honest art of suffering.
A master artisan of suffering knows that conscious suffering — the ability to be separate from your own suffering, to allow it to open your heart, and to look into it as a teacher — is a shortcut track to liberating yourself. The example of Jesus on the cross is the ultimate template for this practice. Suffering with awareness hammers us into gold. It chips away the stories and conditioning that keep us small, revealing in the end the shining divinity that we each are.
I'm sensing big transformation beginning to happen in our collective humanity. The process will entail suffering. As you and I can learn the art of suffering at the level of our individual selves, we will be contributing to the mastery required for the transformation of our species.
So enjoy! Practicing honest suffering as an art serves a higher purpose.
That's why you opened this blog. ;)