Understanding Suffering

I read an article in last month’s Yoga Journal about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the concept of suffering. The article was framed as most other magazine articles are, as a kind of self-help or quick-fix sentiment, but there was girth there, there was sincerity.

I so often forget all of the wisdom I learned in my yoga teacher training about the importance of an emotional yoga practice. I’m aware on an informational level of everything I learned; I have pretty strong recall faculties, but every now and then I come across something that triggers an old Kripalu memory, lost or perhaps faded, and everything comes rushing back in a giant rush of “oh yeah.”

This tiny magazine article did that for me. So much so that I’ve been keeping it in my purse ever since, as a reminder of all the gems of wisdom inside it and represented by it.

It gives me chills sometimes to read Patanjali. Damn, that was a smart man, I always think. How did he know all that? How did he know me? Because that’s what it feels like to read his Yoga Sutras; it feels like I’m reading an answer to every question I’ve ever asked. It feels like I’m reading a how-to book on life, that’s completely unique to me, even though it’s not. He was just that good.

His take on the concept of suffering (dukha) is, in my opinion, incredibly apt. Everyone suffers, he says, there’s no escaping it. Everyone. I need to pause here to emphasize how important, even that one tiny sentiment, really is. Every single person on this enormous planet feels pain, emotional, mental, and physical pain. We have that huge unifying link in common. No matter how else we may differ from one another, you can be sure that your neighbor, the person living in that beautiful penthouse apartment in River North, your boss, your worst enemy, frigging Justin Timberlake, EVERYONE suffers. At the root of it all, we’re all going through the same shit. And as grim and crappy a perspective as this may seem, I find it comforting in a way to know that no one is ever alone in how they feel.

Secondly, Patanjali explains that no single person’s suffering or pain is less real or legitimate than another’s. No matter how trivial or inappropriate you may interpret your or anyone else’s suffering to be, there’s never a “right” amount of pain to feel. We so often try to gauge our suffering comparatively to someone else’s or things that we’ve gone through in the past. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that pain can feel almost insurmountable at times, but it doesn’t mean that the pain you feel when getting fired or breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend is any less real. We feel what we feel when we feel it, and that’s an important thing to accept.

Patanjali also goes into the 5 universal causes (kleshas) of suffering, and again, he hits the nail on the head. He lists them as ego, ignorance of one’s true self, attachment to pleasure, resistance of pain, and fear of death. Some of these may seem self-explanatory, but to avoid losing anyone to any “crazy yogi” talk, I’m going to explain them in my terms. Basically life happens, and it’s shitty sometimes. We get caught up in the changes, and lose sight of who we really are, because at our truest core, our truest self, we are inherently happy. Hard things get in the way, and we forget. Most importantly, however, and probably the truest problem for myself, is that we get so caught up in the emotion and the pain of it all when we’re in the thick of it, that we forget to take a second and actually define how we’re feeling. Why am I so upset? Why does this hurt? Where does it hurt? If we would just take a moment, breathe, and answer those questions, our suffering would instantly feel more manageable because we would understand it.

This is the crux of it all, as Patanjali describes, the differences between the suffering we can control and what we can’t. Parts of life are undoubtedly going to suck sometimes. People die, we lose things that are important to us, people get sick, change happens, and we’re going to feel pain because of it. End of story. But, we reach a point in any bout of suffering where we have the choice to lessen it or make it worse.

Wallowing and obsessing over what ails us only fuels the fire.  Conversely, denial, guilt, and trying to push your feelings aside only adds to your distress, which is why it is so important to figure out what’s real and what’s not. Am I angry? Sad? Hurt? What does it feel like in my body? Is it hard to breathe? Do I feel tightness in my chest? Why am I crying? Often times the body knows more about how we’re feeling than the mind does, which always baffles me.  But, when we are able to answer those questions confidently, when we can know for sure what’s wrong and what isn’t, the pain never feels quite so bad.

It’s not an easy habit to acquire, to be able to pull yourself out of an intensely emotional state and look at how you feel objectively. It can feel impossible at times. But it’s something to practice, something to work toward, and even the smallest steps can make the biggest differences.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, please just take away these four things:

  1. You’re never alone. Everyone feels this way sometimes.
  2. Your pain is never too big or too small; it’s just the way it is, and it’s always ok.
  3. After you’ve figured out what’s really hurting you, only you have the power to let go, move on, and get over it.
  4. Underneath everything, you are a happy and joyous self. All you have to do is remember.

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