Suffering, Healing, and Freedom

My primary religious context growing up was Irish Catholicism, with heavy doses of superstition, hints of mysticism, and a certain Manichean abhorrence of the body and appreciation for suffering. When I read the stories of Christ and the saints, my attention was often caught by a theme of suffering for salvation. Self-punishment through active masochistic practices or passive fasting from pleasurable activities seemed highlighted as the “best” pathway to connection with God.

When I changed religions as an adult, I remained interested in pain and suffering. Part of this was difficulty in letting go of all of my former beliefs at once. Many pagans looked at me askance when I talked out loud about the possible benefits of suffering. The pagans who taught and worked with me preferred to embrace a theology of embodiment and joy. To combat the pain-thirsty Catholic God was this vision of a Goddess whose rituals were “all acts of love and pleasure.”

As a person whose personality tends toward cynicism and viewing the world through dark glasses, I needed to be confronted by this alternate vision of life’s possibilities. I came to see joy as a spiritual state, a divine value to cultivate in my life. But I remain stuck in patterns of suffering.

To clarify my thinking, I would define “pain” as an unpleasant and intense sensation. I would define “suffering” as the state of dwelling in pain. “Dwelling” could be an active choice or something thrust upon a person. I see the relief of suffering as a goal of most healing modalities and religious traditions. As I begin practicing therapy, I want to help my clients to reduce suffering.

What I am coming to think, however, is that much of our suffering is caused by our attempts to avoid pain. Jung said, “What we resist, persists.” Our efforts to numb, avoid, or circumvent pain only make pain and the fear of pain the center of our lives. Most of our energy is dedicated to pain, which prevents us from finding the joy that is possible in the world.

As a healer and a spiritual seeker, I am contemplating Rumi’s statement that “the cure for the pain is in the pain.” Which seems to bring me back to my earlier preoccupation with suffering as a path toward spiritual liberation, but with a difference. When reading Gurdjieff’s Views from the Real World, I was struck by two quotes purported to have been posted at the Study House in Prieuré:
“Only conscious suffering has any sense,” and “Like what ‘it’ does not like.” I cannot say with certainty what is meant by “it” in that context. When I read it now, I think of Freud’s terming of what we call “the id” as das Es, which in German literally translates to “the It.” Considering our pleasure-seeking, animalistic drives as “It” evokes how much we disown that aspect of self while simultaneously serving its whims. I have wanted to sit and write this blog post all day, but constantly found and manufactured reasons why I could not. My “It” was uncomfortable with what is brought up by sitting and writing this out. There are fears of feeling seen, receiving criticism, feeling embarrassed by revealing so much of myself.

The distinction between “conscious” and “unconscious” suffering feels useful here. Our attempts to avoid, numb, minimize, or ignore pain leads to unconscious suffering. The pain remains, but we fail to attend to it and let it continue to rule our lives. “Conscious” suffering yields the possibility of finding that cure in the pain.

I notice this in my own experiences of healing. I often joke that the reason I hate Yoga is the reason why I need to do it, which is another thing I say that draws confused and somewhat irritated looks. My personality has been primarily one that favors the intellect and eschews the physical. When I was a kid, I could not touch my toes in gym class. Stretching was painful and embarrassing. Now as I get older, I still do not enjoy stretching or balancing, as it brings me into directly experiencing all those uncomfortable and embarrassing physical sensations. Without stretching, however, my muscles get tight and painful during my everyday movements. What I have learned in my attempts to do yoga is that when I bring my awareness to the pain and discomfort of the stretch, and continue pushing gently while breathing, my experience of the pain begins to shift. Sometimes my mind thinks it will go insane from feeling the pain but slowly the muscle begins to relax and the pain ebbs away.

I have found this to be true in my personal experiences of psychotherapy. I have found the most healing when my therapist or teacher guides me to attend consciously to what in myself feels suffering. Through this practice I might finally begin to “digest” the suffering into something more useful, or I might find an underlying cause of suffering that can lead me toward more healing. I also perceive this to be developing a tolerance for and appreciation of pain in my life. I am not seeking pain, nor am I avoiding pain. I am learning to accept the rise and fall of pain while still making room for joy and peace. Which returns me to “liking what ‘It’ does not like.” If I am able to sit in meditation for thirty minutes a day, with all the irritants and small pains, then I am better able to be with any pain (or joy!) that arises when I try to do something else I wish to do, like write this blog post.

I wonder whether this practice of consciously experiencing suffering was the original esoteric reason for what became an exoteric prohibition against pleasure and “Hedonism” by the time I grew up as a young Catholic. I would be mistaken to elevate pure suffering as a spiritual ideal, or else there would be no point in healing. The point is not to live a miserable life of suffering and consider one’s self divine, though I can think of a few folks who might believe so. If that were the case, then I’d think the Christian Hell would be the ideal destination for the spiritual elect. To simply embrace suffering as a good would be to allow it to become a form of unconscious enslavement. “Conscious suffering” suggests a purposeful, intentional approach; a practice.