Is Suffering Optional?

December 21


Not long ago, I was invited to be a panelist at a “Le Pub Scientifique” webinar on the theme of “pain-related suffering”. The main speaker, Dr Peter Stiwell, shared about his research on why understanding suffering matters for clinicians, and what definition may be helpful to work with. I was fascinated to hear that very little research has been done in this area, which in my experience leads to people in pain (both physical and emotional) experiencing a lot of grief if people around them and medical professionals in particular are not in the habit of listening to what they are going through.
I had a lot to share that night – which was energising – rooted in my own experience of pain-related suffering and especially about what has helped me navigate it. Here, I want to reflect on why relating to suffering in a way that leaves us empowered rather than despairing is so intrinsic to personal and collective liberation.
I came up with a definition that night. It will sound familiar to those of you who are practitioners of Nonviolent Communication. Suffering, for me, is experienced through so-called ‘unpleasant’ emotions (anxiety, frustration, resentment, and more) and is essentially triggered by repetitive, negative thought patterns because underneath all that, there is a real experience of many needs being unmet as a result of the pain. Some that have been chronically unmet for me include freedom, play, contribution, relaxation, peace of mind, planning, social engagement and more.
So then comes the very interesting question – asked during the webinar – whether pain is indeed unavoidable and suffering optional. There’s no question in my mind that pain is integral to our being embodied creatures and endowed with a nervous system. It is unavoidable. In fact, it is even said that it is a gift in the form of feedback that something in the body requires attention. 
How about suffering? That’s the part we are all curious about, isn’t it? 
I’ve come to believe that it may also be unavoidable, at least at this time in the evolution of our species. This is not because it’s inherent to our physicality but rather because we live in a society that shapes us as humans with very little or no resilience at all to navigate experiences of pain and discomfort without spiraling into suffering. 
We don’t know whether children growing up in the “biology of love” (see my previous blog) would develop into resilient adults. We have no way of knowing how our very distant ancestors – i.e. before the onset of patriarchy – might have responded to the experience of pain. What I know for myself is that a certain resilience took years to grow in me, and that it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t managed to mobilise a lot perseverance, hadn’t been endowed with a good dose of privilege, and hadn’t found creative strategies to stay well wrapped in warmth, understanding and the tender care of others – all of which, I believe, are indicators of what the biology of love could be and what we can do to compensate for its absence.
So, what am I claiming here? 

If we were encouraged at an early age to recognise and welcome our emotions, articulate them, link them to needs – met or unmet – and learn practices to develop resilience, we wouldn’t be suffering so much. When life meets us in unkind and unpleasant ways, we could be better resourced to face the intensity of emotions that arise in us, manage to face pain without wiggling like worms in panic and basically stay more relaxed and trustful within. We would even manage to recognise opportunities for growth in the most challenging situations. 

Instead, what most often happens is that we quickly get trapped into suffering, most vividly manifested by inescapable loops of anxious thoughts and it’s easy to fall into hopelessness. What causes this phenomenon, I believe, is that we are literally not allowed to feel. We haven’t got in us to stay with our feelings and embrace them, whatever their degree of intensity. More importantly, when feelings arise, the vast majority of us – including in many non-Western cultures -, feel alone with them because we know we won’t be met by others when we express them. Instead, our expression is received with discomfort, judgment, at best sympathy, but very rarely true empathy. The end result, at an individual level, is that most of us will do anything we can to avoid feeling the pain. As a result, we engage in a range of escaping and numbing strategies and we suffer. At a collective level, the numbness translates into sustaining systems that lead to unspeakable human suffering and the destruction of the planet.

So, why am I claiming that growing in resilience is a core piece of liberation? It may be obvious by now but let me elaborate a bit.
One of the core characteristics of patriarchy is that it separates us from our core and most intimate experience, i.e. our physical sensations, emotional feelings and needs, and the ability to track the meaning-making that our mind excels at. Most of us are socialised to dampen down or hide our feelings – as mentioned above -, and we never learn that when we long for freedom, comfort, companionship, intimacy or contribution, it’s an expression of life. That’s what it means to be human or a creature of flesh and bones gifted with consciousness. What happens instead is that our actions are driven by external forces, such as stories about who has authority and can help, how we ‘should’ feel and react, what we ‘ought’ or ‘ought not’ to do and that ‘life is unfair’ and that ‘we must have done something pretty bad to deserve this’. The numbness, desperation, trauma, disempowerment and harm, most often associated with the unavoidable reality of pain, is a direct outcome of our inability to be with feelings.
So now that I’ve been through this experience, I am advocating to whoever is facing a chronic pain or illness condition, to the degree that they can access certain resources (inner and outer) and are open to put faith in their own humanity, that it’s possible, over time, to develop the ability to suffer less, to not get trapped in harmful narratives and behaviours and ultimately find liberation from inner habits that perpetuate powerlessness. When we learn to live with pain and discomfort with grace, other challenges in life start having much less grip on us. Imagine what would happen, if instead of being a low capacity species (as my friend Miki suggests), the vast majority of us had developed this kind of strength of spirit. Imagine what we could do together to face the mess we are collectively in. That’s why I believe this journey, for those who want to take it, can lead to personal and collective liberation.
Amongst a whole range of practices and support structures that have fed me along the way (see a previous blog here), teachings from wisdom traditions have helped me greatly to take some distance from my suffering. I want to name one such resource as it has been particularly soothing and transformative: the teachings of Jewish, Hindu spiritual teacher Ram Dass and in particular the book he co-wrote with his friend Mirabai Bush: “Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying”. I’ll leave you with one quote:


“Death is a moment, and how you spend your life in each moment is the rehearsal for your death. It’s called be here now. It’s your thoughts just in this moment… this moment… this moment. You delve into this moment. That’s all there is. When you are living in time and letting the monkey of your mind run around in past and future, that’s your mind. But here we are. And death will also be a moment.”


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