Once upon a time, when I was teaching yoga, there was a week when I subbed three classes in a row. I needed a theme that would reach out to a diverse group of practitioners at different, respective levels. So I did what I always do when in doubt: I winged it. Really. I just opened up my Yoga Sutras book and decided whatever page I opened to would be the theme. Lo and behold, bold print jumped out at me that said, “Suffering is an Opportunity.”
My first instinct was to shut the book and try again. Because, to be totally honest, sometimes I get really, really tired of character-building opportunities. I feel like I’ve had quite a ride with tough times and learned a lot of lessons, and there are times when I wish I could just have great things happen for like a year straight. Do you ever feel the same way? I sometimes find myself wishing for an easier ride, but, things that happen in our lives will always yield suffering on some level – until we learn how to better relate to the circumstances in front of us.
Nobody who walks through life is excused from hard times. Period. Everyone has to face some kind of tough stuff – whether it’s loss of a loved one, divorce, an accident, job loss, or illness – it’s built into the way life works. And we don’t talk about it nearly often enough. I have my theories on this, but I think it’s mostly that we desire the superficial facade of constant wins. What I mean is that we are busy trying to impress everyone and show people that we know what we’re doing and how to play this game called Life. We believe that suffering is a synonym for weakness (thanks, cultural conditioning), and we blow up social media with pictures of how happy and amazing and fun and #blessed we are. Yet, as a society, we're more depressed than ever before, and many of us deal with health problems, sleepless nights, and an overall feeling of dissatisfaction.
So what gives?
Despite it being a principle shared by all religions and personal development theories, we don’t use suffering to grow. We don’t know how, and no wonder – it’s not commonly taught. Instead of sitting with our pain and allowing ourselves to feel it, we default to distracting ourselves from feeling whatever is at the root of our suffering. As for me, I distract myself by adding more to my schedule. I make myself busy so that I don’t have to process my pain. Other people use food, drinks, alcohol, drugs, retail therapy, etc. – whatever the vice is, we all have something. We avoid our pain, numb it, distract it, and send it out the door (or so we think). See ya, suffering! Yet, of course, it comes back.
What we really need to do is just hang out with it. Invite it to sit with us and be with us while we figure out whatever the hell “it” is. Maybe it is plain ole sadness. Or fear. Or rejection. Maybe it is anxiety and trapped beliefs about never being good enough. Whatever is at the base of your suffering provides valuable intelligence, because it reveals a piece of yourself that needs to be touched, loved, healed.
Suffering is an opportunity because in it lies wisdom. We can choose to learn about ourselves and be authentic as we fumble through the growing pains that suffering supplies. We can scale back on the pretending and simply accept ourselves as we experience this inevitable part of life. And we can choose, eventually, to live by the mantra, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,” as we better learn how to deal with these experience and how to avoid the dramatic cycle of suffering, escape, create more pain, escape, suffer. Embracing suffering as an opportunity is not easy, it requires you to challenge your perspective. We have to be willing to do the work of mindfulness to build a more intimate, productive relationship with our pain (here’s a how-to piece I wrote on mindfulness to help you get started).
We can craft an intimate relationship with parts of ourselves that we didn’t even know existed – and by doing so, we can help those parts grow braver, stronger, and more resilient than we’ve ever imagined. And as we see that we can turn that piece of ourselves on and let it shine, we inspire others around us to do the same. Suffering is an opportunity not just for you, but for everyone who you come into contact with; looking at it that way, it’s easy to see that it’s not just our right to heal, but it’s also our responsibility.