Learning to Suffer Better
I was a competitive kid growing up. So when I got to the meditation cushion I was going for gold. I really wanted to stop the pain, stop the thoughts, and wake – up although questioned enlightenment to some extent. I spent the first week or so of my first dathun (a month long meditation retreat in the Shambhala lineage) at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, sitting on the edge of my cushion waiting for thoughts to arise so I could shoot them out of the sky like a skeet-shooting champion. Waiting there, with upright but relaxed posture, much like a waiting for an animal to come over the ridge so I could eliminate them. Then there would be some space, some relief.
A week into the retreat I met with my meditation instructor, Kathleen, who was assigned to me for the month. She’d been a meditation practitioner for 20 plus years and was also a psychologist. When we met I explained to what I was doing. She listened, and laughed. I did not laugh. I told her I thought that I was working toward perfecting the method of getting unhooked from my thoughts. She asked me if I remember the slogan “Not too tight not too loose”? I hadn’t. She said the idea is not to eliminate thoughts or stop them. The only people who don’t have thoughts are dead. But we are to notice them, relate to them, listen to what they have to say, see if they have anything to teach us, then watch them walk away.
She invited me to be gentler with myself and toward my thoughts rather than to work so hard and fight with my mind and my heart. “The idea is not to eliminate thoughts or to strive for enlightenment, but to learn to lean into it. Lean into the suffering and not be afraid of it. We are trying to be better at suffering since it will always be a part of life.” That phrase, “suffer better”, popped up in my mind last week while meeting with a client who was having a really tough time the contrast between where he was and where he hoped to be. He liked that, as did I. And it clicked.
I Googled this saying last week thinking about putting pen to paper. I found a group in Boulder, Colorado, where I learned this phrase that engages in sports and physical activities at 100% of their capacity. (https://sufferbetter.com/#) Through learning to tolerate their own pain while running, rucking, hiking, cycling, etc., and pushing beyond their own self-imposed limits, they expand their threshold for physical and psychological suffering. We can all utilize self-induced suffering to learn how to better manage it, as it will naturally arise in our lives.
“Cry in the dojo, laugh in the battlefield” is a quote I’ve always found helpful and have loved.
This is similar to what Joe de Sena, founder of Spartan Races and author of Spartan Up! espouses. If you start your day with 300 burpees your day can’t get any tougher. If we prime our physiology and our central nervous system with intense exercise and load under duress and, importantly, if we’ve also cultivated emotional intelligence and have developed needs and feelings literacy we are able to handle the weight of the world in stride. This, to me, is what it means to “Suffer Better”. If we can learn to “Suffer Better” instead of being driven to simply go toward pleasure or run from pain, we can finally become the extraordinary humans that we are.