Some time back over the years I read an article in a popular yoga magazine titled, “Suffering is Optional” the title immediately riled me up, but ironically, reading it, calmed me down. The author was quite eloquent and within certain contexts, I could see her point. Since then I’ve grappled with this concept of suffering. …maybe it’s because I’ve invested a lot in it.
From the Eastern traditions there is a common parable of the Buddha speaking to a group of monks about suffering. Imagine there was a man and this man had just been shot in the thigh with an arrow, the Buddha says. How would this man feel? Hurt, in pain, the monks cry out! Right, now imagine the same man gets shot in the same spot with another arrow. Now, how would the man feel? Worse, Agony! Respond the monks. Exactly, replies the Buddha, and the name of that second arrow is suffering. …. and it is optional!
From the Eastern perspective suffering is what we lay overtop of our pain or wound. It’s the second arrow. The second arrow reminds me of story mind. Like the lightning speed of an arrow it sweeps us away from the initial impact, (the pain) laying down layer upon layer of thoughts and fears, that weave swiftly into stories and embellishments and in the blink of an eye, we arrive somewhere else away from our pain. Agony!
Think of a time you were hurt, either physically or emotionally; can you just hang out in that moment of pain and describe it, be with it, write it, own it, without a whole bunch of thoughts, ideas, stories or embellishments? Could you do it at the time? Most people can’t. The conscious mind/ego wants to separate from that moment of pain as fast as possible, get me out of here it cries, and that need for separation creates all kinds of layers. In the East anything laid over top of pain is considered illusory, (the second arrow, the minds stories) and is called suffering. This suffering is considered optional.
Ok, on one level, I get that… but I was raised to appreciate the merits of suffering. Suffering in the West has a different connotation. It is more about the process of our humanity, of becoming more human by experiencing life’s ups and downs deeply from the heart, experiencing a fullness and range that touches every fibre of our being, it is finding that sacred gem in the pile of eternal shit, swimming through murky waters of hardship to arrive at a clearing on the other side. Suffering in the West is what we do to become more human and fully whole. It is the process of our life. It is the Mandela of being. It binds people together. It creates the fullness of your character. If someone you love dies, the years of grief you may experience, is called your suffering, it is honoured; it is respected, it is a Generals badge in the experience of life, and as far as I can discern, it is not optional. It is in fact very necessary.
So there in birthed my dilemma. As a yogi I need to understand this stuff, or at the very least come to some personal resolution in myself; otherwise how can I authentically teach others? So I contemplate; is suffering optional or is it necessary? I ask you; what do you think?
Optional to me sounds like an end point. Some place we arrive at later. A rationalization created in the mind. Perhaps even another illusion. Kind of like hind sight… i.e. after several years of grieving the loss of your loved one you may come to a clearing. In this clearing you are no longer the same person. You stand morphed, changed and grown. Over the years of your suffering, your suffering has changed you. Now you stand in the clear and look back and realize all the ways you made your life harder during the grieving period. Maybe you felt guilty, maybe you blamed yourself for not doing or saying things you could have, maybe you never cried or shared your feelings, maybe you went on as though nothing happened, the scenario’s are endless, but now that you are in the clearing, does that make your suffering optional? Can a person honestly look back and say, hey my process to get to this clearing was optional. I had a choice to look on the bright side when my loved one died but I chose suffering. I don’t think so. There is some ignorance or naivety in that way of seeing. Hindsight is always 20/20!
If you never suffered who would you be? Sometimes our pain is so great it overwhelms the senses, it disrupts the mind, and pummels the body, we may not be able to sleep, eat, think or work. We may become ill; some people even die of their pain with a broken heart. Do we have a choice in that matter? Is it optional? Or is our biology invisibly hardwired into the love and concern of others.
Optional sounds like something to be used for light, everyday type scenario’s. Sleeping through your alarm clock the day starts late… the complaining starts and you tell yourself how crappy your day is going to be now that you’re late, or what a loser you are for not getting up on time etc… this suffering is definitely optional! … the way we handle simple daily adversity is definitely optional.
But what is optional and what is not in the face of great atrocity? Do we really have a choice when we are smacked with something huge like the sudden loss of life or some other traumatic equivalent?
I think the answer lives somewhere in that elusive gray zone. As a Gemini I am incapable of starting in the gray zone. Lots of times I miss it out completely… come full circle, and then realize its all a circle. So we have the polarities…in the far East suffering is optional and on the far West suffering is not optional. As these polarities merge into the gray zone, somewhere in that middle ground, we may discover our own authentic truth. Our proverbial gem in the pile of life’s sludge. But it is a clever discerning process to discover this gem and we need not lose our hearts guidance while we swim, sink and tread.
The heart feels when we are avoiding pain (swimming to the surface empty handed), when we are unnecessarily embellishing suffering (drowning in the sludge) and when we are suffering because we simply can’t stay with our pain any longer (too weak to carry the gem). Some pain is so great that, from my perspective, just experiencing it should be called deep suffering (regardless of east, west, north or south). Allowing our hearts to stay open, vulnerable and guiding in times of great pain and fear is the only way to traverse the murky waters. It is the only way to discern whether our suffering is optional or necessary.
Yoga and meditation helps with discernment. Over time, the more we practice, the more inner stillness we create. This inner stillness allows for mindfulness. Mindfulness creates the space to choose responses more freely. The more inner space we create the more freedom we have to choose responses, rather than react as if we have no choice.
Letting reactions go may be one of the hardest things a person ever does. Even if its just letting go of a bad day. But over time, cultivating inner space, literally re-wires our thought processes and changes our behavior. Eventually, it becomes second nature to choose responses that are nurturing and self loving rather than those that induce the pain of further suffering and that is optional.