Suffering Consciously

“Only conscious suffering has any sense.” – Attributed to Gurdjieff’s Study House in Prieuré
“The only cure for the pain is the pain.” – Rumi
“You have to be free from the painkiller / To be free from the pain” – Fetish

Avoiding pain is a great source of suffering. Some of our biggest problems in life might be considered solutions to the problem of pain we do not want to feel: addictions, depression, anxiety, even behaviors that actively hurt us or interfere with our desires. When coupled with the tyranny of positivity, avoiding pain hurts us. Sometimes the thing that heals mental illness is learning how to feel the suffering a person does not want to feel.

For years I was not a flexible person. I was, in general, not a successful student of Physical Education. Trying to touch my toes caused a lot of discomfort, and exercise only exacerbated tense muscles and resulted in strange pains and pulled muscles. I did not “get” stretching. One day, after receiving some Yoga instruction, I noticed that if I leaned into the stretch, felt the muscle tension, and breathed slowly, that the muscle seemed to loosen with every exhale. The correlation became clear: breathing into the stiff muscle as it was, exhaling and feeling it relax and give slightly. This meant actually experiencing the discomfort and pain but not attempting to force relaxation. I was developing a relationship with the tension, a give-and-take.

W. Endicott & Co.

We have shortcuts and hacks for the body’s natural needs. We have legal and illegal substances to boost energy, focus, and productivity so that we can do more with less sleep. When I feel tired, I notice a craving for more coffee and not the glass of water or 15-minute nap that would actually meet my body’s need for rest. When I feel uninspired or bored, I refresh Facebook 15 times or watch a TV show I’ve seen already instead of doing something outside my comfort zone.

Sometimes we genuinely need support because pain has exceeded our capacity to manage. This is not about medication prescribed during the course of working with healthcare professionals. This is about the ways we numb the messages from our bodies and hearts that something inside needs attention and care. I think the reason for this is different for everyone. Some people feel unsafe, or simply do not know to recognize these signals for what they are. Some people fear that listening to these signals will mean the utter collapse of their lives.

When our minds and beliefs about ourselves separate from the wisdom of the body and heart, we suffer. We lose our ability to move forward with confidence and experience the fullness of joy that is possible. We lose our ability to experience the fullness of pain and grief that is possible, limiting our capacity for love. We lose the ability to make culture that supports our real needs. We allow our environment and bodies to be polluted.

Grief, sorrow, resentment, and guilt are not feelings to dwell upon, as that becomes an unconscious habit, but neither are they feelings to push away. We need to make space to have a relationship with our pain. Seeing a therapist or counselor is one way of making space and time to consciously suffer. We might set aside fifteen minutes during the week to allow ourselves to feel grief, pain, or worry.

Try marking off ten minutes. Find a quiet place. Bring a journal or voice recorder. Slow down your breathing, and imagine that your awareness can sink into your heart and belly. Imagine a line of communication between brain, heart, and belly, and notice whether that line feels solid and clear, tangled and messy, or something else.  Find where your pain lives in your body, and ask it, “What do you need from me today?” Allow yourself the ten minutes to notice what comes up, what your pain asks of you.