Let’s Talk About Suffering

The dark thought, the malice,
meet them at the door, laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— RUMI

I realize that the topics of gratitude and suffering may seem like an odd combination, but it would feel superficial of me to advocate a philosophy of gratitude towards life without addressing the reality of suffering within our lives. How we approach this is important because it greatly impacts both the length of our suffering and our ability to experience gratitude. Talking only about gratitude would be like telling you about a wonderful culinary dish without sharing an important ingredient in the recipe. 

I approach this topic with a great deal of humility, aware that while pain is universal, each person’s experience with it is unique, and that we are all at different places in terms of dealing with our pain at any given time. My purpose is to provide some helpful context and principles I’ve noticed as I’ve worked through my suffering and helped others do the same, but aspects of this content may not resonate for you, depending on where you are right now in your life journey, and that is okay.

We all experience suffering. It is present everywhere, at different times, in everyone’s lives.  Some events that initiate suffering we are totally helpless to avoid; while other causes are self-created. Self-created suffering can come from naiveté, ego or a lack of discipline, like when we refuse to do those things we know we need to in order to stay healthy and somehow think that we will be the exception to getting the host of illnesses associated with unhealthy living.  I don’t speak of these things from a place of superiority, like I somehow know better, but from one who has done things, like procrastinate or drink too much alcohol at a party, temporarily ignoring the inevitable outcome.  Regardless of its source, suffering is a part of life; and while we may be able to avoid or influence some sources, there are times when we all experience it. Yet what we do have control over is how we respond to our suffering, for how we deal with our difficult life experiences greatly shapes the quality of our life, possibly even more so than the damage done by the painful event itself.

Rumi’s opening passage resonates with my own experience of suffering. I see clearly how my painful experiences resulted in me learning powerful life lessons.  Lessons that helped me avoid other types of suffering down the road. Lessons that help me to empathize with others when they are suffering. 

Helpful Ways to Deal With Pain:

Seek the Lessons That Your situation is Offering You

Hurting helps us to develop compassion for others who are struggling. It centers our heart and helps us to care more deeply for, and empathize with, others who suffer and we are more supportive of them as a result.  Be kind when others are struggling and help them out if you can.

Get clear on what is important to you in life - and hold onto that

Secondly, struggling with big issues helps us to get clear about what is important in life and what isn’t.  Our suffering can serve to help us see that appearances don’t matter, that drama is something we can avoid creating, and that love is what really matters. We receive multiple messages daily that we should value the most superficial things. You know better, don’t forget what you’ve learned.

Learn to Recognize - and Stay Away From Experiences That Are Likely to Cause You Pain

When you have clarity on how hard suffering is to cope with, people’s behaviour will often appear puzzling, for it becomes clear how often people invite or downright create their own future painful experiences. Humans are good at living in denial, at pursuing short-term pleasure while ignoring the long-term consequences, at compartmentalizing, and at telling ourselves that we are somehow the exception to the norm. There is also an unhealthy degree of entitlement that pervades our culture that somehow causes us to believe we should be immune to suffering. It is crucial to your self-growth to develop objectivity towards your behaviour and acknowledge when you are causing or contributing to your own misery. To not do so is like telling ourselves we are helpless to manage and often prevent our own pain. This sets us up to experience even more pain down the road. Avoid pain at all costs when you have the power to do so or suffer even more later.

Never, Ever Allow Your Mind to Cast Yourself As the Victim

Pretty much all of us will go through life being victimized at some point because of the elements of randomness, unfairness and evil in the world; however, there is a huge difference between seeing yourself as being victimized and casting yourself as a victim.  The first means that you are you, and you went through or are going through something bad because of nature, someone else’s unfairness, or your DNA. The second means that, as an inherent part of your identity, you have and are going to continue to be experiencing continued injustice. It is natural to feel like a victim for a while when we are being victimized. It is crippling to hold onto this identity after the event is over or let it become the entire focus of your life while it is happening.

Victimized individuals may create a victim archetype because they have little context or experience with the level of pain they are experiencing. They continue to cling to this identity because the compassion and support they get from others feels comforting.  What they don’t realize is that along with the sympathy they absorb, they are simultaneously creating a passive victim filter which will serve to feed either anger and bitterness or helplessness and depression. Victim filters need evidence in order to be maintained. A victim filter pays attention to incoming information that meets the “Poor me” criteria and ignores that which doesn’t.  The stronger we identify with being a victim, the more this focus diminishes the other aspects of our life. The victim mentality is dangerous because it cripples our ability to be objective, it cripples our ability to experience happiness, and it cripples our ability to experience full gratitude for the gifts we’re given.

If you suspect that you have an energetic attachment to being a victim, seek help.  My coaching services can help you with this.

Try to Keep Your Experience in Perspective

We have also been in situations where we’ve seen people overreact to something and greatly exaggerate their own suffering. Of course, we’ve also been in situations where we’ve done the same thing ourselves. People sometimes dramatize things that are trivial in the scheme of life. This could be due to the compounding effects of stress, or lack of exposure to stress, or lack of experience in dealing with suffering in general. For some, it’s because they enjoy the social attention creating drama brings. Complaining often brings social attention, which is a lower form of social power, but it also results in us staying connected to our anger and embedded in a story where we are cast in a bitter role. It is important to recognize that there will come a time when you are better off dropping or letting go of your past experience. Any time that we are treated unfairly there is a clear beginning and an end to the situation. We may not control the occurrence but we can allow ourselves to feel pain of that experience, investigate the circumstances that brought it on, nurture ourselves and then move on. You may need support in doing this, and please get it if you do. Holding space to feel our hurt is hard, but beyond that comes freedom and empowerment from being able to overcome our times of suffering.

Don’t be an island in your suffering, look around

Just as self-compassion is important in dealing with suffering, objective perspective is invaluable. As difficult as it is to look at what is happening to us objectively, it is important to look at what we are going through compared to the hardships of others.  We will see that our experience, while hard, is not unique. Recognizing others who are dealing with things similar to, or worse than what we are serves to connect us with others who can truly relate to what we are going through. It will also help us to know when it is time to stop venting and let go.

Suffering and Growth

If we can navigate our pain without falling in the trap of seeing ourselves as a victim, we have the opportunity to limit the ongoing effects of suffering and stave off the poison of bitterness.  Or, even more powerfully, if we can hold compassion for ourselves while simultaneously seeing the parts of our lives that our blessings, then we really see the depth of beauty and sweetness that is the full reality of our life experience. 

The ability to see life objectively and clearly is one of the ways that we can limit the depth and length of our suffering.  If we honestly acknowledge the reality of pain and suffering in the lives of all living creatures (maybe it looks different or happens on a different timeline than ours) then we can use our own suffering to further deepen our humanity and bond with others.

If we’ve used our logic to figure out the ways that our suffering is unfair, then we must also use logic to see how life is unfair to others. We are often experts at flushing out unfair things that happen to us while ignoring injustices that happen to others. To only do one and not the other is not objective living.

Principles for Dealing With Suffering During the Experience

Your experience of pain is valid. It is hard. Treat yourself kindly and with compassion. Make sure you have someone you can talk to. If your pain is overwhelming, get help.

Allow yourself to feel your sadness or anger or hurt fully, but then try to also be objective enough to recognize when enough is enough.  This means that there is a time for feeling and then there is a time you need to choose to move on and get things done.

While in some ways you might have been or feel victimized by your hard experience, avoid allowing your mind to stereotype yourself as a victim.  This is very important so get some help if you need it.

Force yourself to see beyond your suffering, for that painful experience is not the totality of your reality.  Where in your life are there concurrent blessings? Just as your suffering is being given some of your energy, focus some of your energy on what your blessings are.  Write them down or record them. Review them.

Principles for Dealing With Pain After the Experience is Over

While there usually isn’t a clear-cut line delineating before and after your pain, here are some guidelines you may find helpful after you have been dealing with your experience for a while.

Work on Developing Objectivity

These questions may be tough and humbling, but having some measure of objectivity is crucial.

 “On a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the worst experience that people have to deal with, where can I honestly place this experience?”

“Am I only comparing myself to those who I think are better off than me?”  “Who do I know that has navigated worse experiences?”

“What lessons am I learning?”

If you are feeling bitter because of your pain, in addition to giving yourself compassion, ask yourself, “How has my lifestyle perpetuated unfairness towards others in the world, either directly or indirectly?”

Make a Point of Seeing Beauty

Even while we are struggling it is important to be mindful that there is much beauty to see and experience in life.  Work on seeing and appreciating that beauty. For you, it might be a walk outside, a beautiful piece of music, or a poem; whatever reveals itself to you as beauty. Spend some time, even if it’s only a minute or two, exploring that beauty.

Recognize that your body may be holding on to some of your earlier suffering

I am not quite sure how to articulate this with clarity, but there is more and more evidence that when we do not process suffering when it occurs it becomes stored in our body. This means that in order to heal we must provide our body with an opportunity to release our hurt.  Yoga has been a great way for me my stored emotional pain. Many of those experiencing PTSD also use yoga as part of their treatment. (See the reference to Bessel van der Kolk below for more information on this.)

Closing

Once I figured out how to navigate my own suffering in a healthy way, I became more deeply aware of, and grateful for, the daily blessings that I encounter. One of the most profound learnings that I acquired was my awareness of gifts of grace within my life. These are often very small, and were easy to overlook, but now I see them all around me. I see them in the gentle way a server places a cup of coffee in front of me, or how someone acknowledges me when they say my name, or how someone goes out of their way to be generous when I have been unworthy of such generosity. My hope for you, my friend, is that this blog has served to raise your awareness of your own responses to suffering. This work is difficult, but it is one of the most worthwhile endeavours we can pursue. How we navigate suffering will serve to either open up and deepen our experience of beauty or harden our perception towards life. It is my deep sincere hope for you that it does the former.

Seeking to live my best life and support you in living yours,

Leslie

Two helpful resources:

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk

 Dualistic and Nondual Thinking by Richard Rohr https://cac.org/contemplative-consciousness-2017-01-30/