Transforming Our Relationship With Suffering
Introduction: The Function of Suffering
Buddha identified suffering as “The first condition of human existence”. War, violence of all kinds, hunger and starvation, disease, loss and grief - all of these are manifestations of human suffering the world over.
At face value, suffering seems a curse on humanity. No one seeks a life of misery.
However, suffering does serve a vital function in each of our lives: Every human being must experience suffering. As cruel and painful as suffering is, it is an essential vector for growth - physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Suffering and Fitness
To consider how suffering functions in the cycle of growth, let’s look at endurance athletic training. Endurance athletes are quite familiar with suffering - but we call it by another name: “stress”. Specifically, the stress of training. We know how vital stress is in the process of building aerobic and endurance fitness through training. It is the first of three phases of the Fitness Cycle:
Both Helen and Anne experienced a great deal of suffering in their quest to bridge the sensory gap. And somehow, without any guidance manual, they were able to orchestrate that suffering with enough recovery and adaptation to succeed in their quest. Together, they attained a high level of “Life Fitness”.
The “Promised Land”
Our greatest hope to alleviate suffering in our lives and the lives of others is to exercise and empower our choice about stress and suffering, and successfully orchestrate the complete Fitness Cycle: Stress-Recovery-Adaptation. Outside the context of athletics, let’s call it: Suffering-Healing-Transformation.
Returning to the endurance athlete scenario, it is our clear appreciation of the opportunity and promise that stress offers towards growth and fitness that inspires and empowers the athlete’s choice to deliberately orchestrate and experience that stress.
,br> Life Fitness, Spiritual Fitness - these engage the same Fitness Cycle as the athletic training cycle. In my experience as an endurance athlete and in my Pursuit of Mastery, the single greatest benefit of diligent daily practice is my clarity of choice: As I gain experience and clarity in orchestrating the cycle of Stress-Recovery-Adaptation as an endurance athlete, it crosses over into many areas of my life as a “spiritual athlete”: Suffering-Healing-Transformation.
Be Here Now
Pain and discomfort have a powerful way of anchoring us - even tying us down - to the present moment. It is difficult to daydream, reminisce, or disassociate when one is experiencing pain. This is one way in which pain supports us in growth and fitness. Pain forces us to experience the here and now - to perceive and to express the truth.
If we are simply not present in life - navigating through life on “auto-pilot” - there is little potential for, or investment in, growth. In the presence of discomfort, we are very much in the present moment. In this context, it serves as a wake up call.
That pain can be physical, emotional or mental pain. All three are capable of keeping us fixed in the present moment.
Affluence As Opportunity
Returning to affluent societies and suffering, there is undeniable evidence that material wealth cannot prevent or alleviate suffering. It may temporarily divert suffering, but in the interim, that suffering will incubate. However, affluence - material wealth, free time, adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc. - does indeed offer resources to transform our relationship with pain and suffering.
All forms of affluence - the material wealth, free time, adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care - collectively offer us opportunity. If we squander opportunity on diversions, comfort, laziness - essentially attempting to sleep through or escape suffering - we are absolutely destined to fail. We will still - individually and collectively - experience pain and suffering. Even true happiness is not an escape from suffering.
And to the extent that we invest that affluence towards a powerful resistance of suffering (like an antibiotic), that resistance will simply generate more powerful and extreme forms of suffering. That is the nature of polarity in our lives and our Universe. Strengthen one pole, and the other will strengthen as well.
Rather, we must responsibly invest the opportunity that affluence provides us with. We must invest our affluence to choose our suffering and to orchestrate that suffering with recovery and adaptation - with healing and transformation. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to all life to commit to this orchestration - to the pursuit of Spiritual Fitness. This is true happiness and fulfillment.
Power of Choice
In my Pursuit of Mastery as an athlete and as an artist, I have found that as I refine my ability to choose and embrace stress, and to diligently orchestrate the complete cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation, I am healthier and experience less chronic stress (victimization). I feel more functional and brilliant in my day-to-day existence. I find joy and ease in my life of service - one that is balanced with the reward of true happiness.
True happiness is not an escape from suffering - it is a healthy, functional relationship with it.
In stating that I “choose” my suffering, I do not necessarily pick the form, size, color, shape or flavor. Nor do I always choose the time or duration. I simply strive to embrace the stress I experience as opportunity for growth and fitness - be it physical, emotional, or mental. In my discipline as an athlete, I strengthen my ability to exercise choice - to orchestrate stress-recovery-adaptation.
In this way, art and athletics can indeed offer medicine and a healing path to our planet. (Although I train as an athlete, I regard myself as an artist. My current primary genre just happens to be triathlon.)
Each day that I am able, I begin the orchestration of the Fitness Cycle as I execute my morning athletic training. A key component of my training is to be present with the discomfort. No auto-pilot or disassociation. I get “up close and personal”. I really investigate the nature of suffering and discomfort, and my relationship to it. I regard each session, and the mindfulness I bring to it, as an offering to all beings.
A Finish Line?
Buddhists pray for enlightenment and alleviation of all suffering. What is enlightenment? The completion of growth? The finish line? But the Pursuit of Mastery has no finish line.
As I contemplate this, I realize that my prayer is not to end suffering, or to end growth. My prayer is that all beings may experience choice in our suffering, that we may brilliantly orchestrate the Fitness Cycle in our lives - individually and collectively.
I pray that we may compassionately share the support and empowerment of companionship as we travel together in joy on the Path of Mastery.
When we collectively orchestrate the Fitness Cycle, we no longer resist our destiny as Spiritual Athletes and Artists. We no longer squander precious resources and opportunities in attempt to avoid and resist suffering. After all, this resistance simply yields more extreme forms of suffering like war and famine.
Rather, our Suffering is de-centralized, local, organically-grown and sourced (in harmony with Earth), small-scale, easily orchestrated, and balanced with Recovery and Adaptation. It is healthy for our environment and all life forms.
As Spiritual Athletes and Artists, we work and play together, we celebrate our sufferings as empowering opportunities for Fitness. And every being is a Spiritual Athlete/Artist.