The Art of Potential Suffering

Hey Everyone, Abby here (well, you know that, but I just felt like saying it anyways).

This morning I am feeling particularly inspired to discuss the necessity of suffering and why it is a good and necessary stress in our lives.

Typically tagged with a negative connotation, suffering need not be perceived as  “bad.” On the contrary, it packs an opportunity for growth. It is my mission in this post to empower you with tried and true tips to use suffering to your advantage and to prevent unnecessary suffering in your lives.  

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I have read a number of books on the psychology of this topic and studied hundreds of people in my own work as a coach, trainer, and teacher, and there is one truth that resonates in all stories of success: those who are willing to suffer and suffer daily are the most successful.

I recently defined suffering as “the subjective experience of pain or discomfort.” One online dictionary defines suffering as “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” Melding these two definitions, we glean that suffering: (a) involves deeply uncomfortable feelings and (b) is fleeting—it comes and it goes. 

You can see in my definition, my view of suffering is that it is a choice. A choice backed by the wisdom and light which psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and creator of logotherapy, Victor Frankl shed on us: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Then, I delved into a recent session with the MeetUp tribe I lead, the “Boulder Holistic Human Optimizers” (check us out here), wherein we philosophized on this question exactly--what is suffering? We each shared our perspective, and as we peeled back the layers of this dense topic, more and more questions arose. Our grasp of the topic, if we ever had one, slipped away from us. Curiosity flowing strong, I posed one of my stream of queries to the group: Is suffering a choice? Do we need suffering? Do we need to suffer? Does it happen to us or for us?

To the question is suffering a choice, a new nuance was brought to light. While pain and discomfort may be waves, suffering is like a flood that, as hard as you try to fight, overtakes you. 

I reconsidered my definition. Perhaps it is not suffering that we choose or do not choose, but how we respond to the precursors to suffering, pain and discomfort. 

My definition became a working definition. 

Either way, on the question of whether suffering happens to us or for us, we were split. It’s my view that suffering happens for us. When we put on these opportunistic lenses, everything works in our favor (see Rumi below). 

Since most of our questions don’t have a single answer, we naturally tried to find some certainty in the midst of the uncertainty. This led us to one extremely clear takeaway that we were unanimous on: situations that potentially give rise to suffering are a regular part of Life at large and everyday life.

Let’s look at some examples of potential suffering in everyday life. 

It is being in a long line at the grocery store that causes you to tense your shoulders, scrunch your eyes and freeze your forehead. It is advancing into sprint intervals during a workout when you simply want to stay at a slow pace, in a single gear. It is cutting out white sugars in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle and dealing with the grrrrr's or ghrelin, the hunger hormone, that are coming more frequently as your gastric juices are churning and your brain is telling you, "eat a bagel!"

A quick lesson in yoga philosophy…

These situations--ones that ask you to defer to what you want and endure what you need, are what cause, in yogic terms, 'vrittis’ to arise. Vrittis are fluctuations of thought and emotion. They can be elicited from the weather within—such as by a disturbing or unwanted thought, or from outside of us, such as by unpleasant weather.

This begs the question: how are we supposed to handle these vrittis? Better yet, can we use painful and uncomfortable stimuli—the source of suffering, to our advantage?

The answer is a blaring YES, and this is how:

  1. Accept them.
  2. Embrace them.
  3. Play with them (frequently).
  4. Get excited about them.
  5. Repeat.

Your power to be equanimous begins in the mind, with your perspective. Here are six tips to switch from repelling to relishing potential suffering. 


1. See Suffering as Your Friend.

As I learned in my yoga studies, pain and suffering are your greatest teachers in life. When you are in the middle of an argument, it is hard to be happy and appreciative of the clashing of opinions. It can be psychologically and emotionally painful. The same goes for athletic pursuits such as running a marathon. But what if--hypothetically speaking, you come into each of these situations viewing them as magicians of your life revealing to you something valuable that will better your ability to connect and thrive? If you do, it becomes far easier to love every moment. You’ll see that emotions spewing and firing left and right are not bullets, but buttons helping to build up the fabric of your character. You’ll view your leaden legs and ebbing energy as resources purposely limited to strengthen your spirit.

2. First, Breathe. Then, Breathe Into Your Potential Suffering.

Breathing is a best life panacea, which is why I recommend it as a first step to almost any troubling situation. It creates space between yourself and the stimulus and induces a calmer state. Clear thinking does not take place in an emotional headspace. So, take a deep breath. The next step is to breathe into the suffering.

During myofascial release work that I offer in personal training sessions, I coach my clients through rolling, smashing, flossing, and simply sitting on tight spots in their backs, calves, and other areas. At this point, I advise this: “Once you have found a ‘trigger point,’ or an area of extreme tightness, sit there and breathe.” If the client is totally tensed up, the tissue will not be able to effectively open up and their response to discomfort will leak to other areas of their bodies.

This discomfort response applies to all situations in life; hyper-reactivity is both mental and physical. If you bolt at the first sign of an uncomfortable situation or feeling, you mentally de-condition yourself to face them. You increase the fast-twitch fibers (for speed and quickness) of your fear muscle while simultaneously, being neglected, promote the atrophying of your love muscle, your heart. And, as seen above and below, you must love suffering in order to let it help you.

3. Heed the Call of Kelly McGonigal.

In her New York Times Bestseller, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good For You, and How To Get Good At It, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. flips our paradigm of stress from one of avoidance to one of acceptance. She writes: “Mindset 1: Stress Is Harmful. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided. Mindset 2: Stress Is Enhancing. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.”

There are two types of stress: distress and eustress. The former depletes our energy, feels unpleasant, and often makes us feel out of control, helpless, or hopeless. The latter is energizing, feels good, and often inspires us to take action. 

I’d like to point out that between distress and eustress, much like between stimulus and response, there is a bridge. That bridge is your breath and your heart. And your breath leads you to your mind (see tip #2).

4. Meet With the Five Enemies on a Daily Basis.

Meditate. Sit in a quiet space, close your eyes, and breathe.

In this post on my personal blog, I wrote about the five enemies you will encounter during meditation. They are: (1) sloth, (2) agitation, (3) craving, (4) aversion, and (5) doubt.

In the process of sitting with ourselves--even if in external quiet, with internal chatter going on, we encounter these five characters. Initially we think they are enemies, but, if we breathe into our hearts and accept them, we become more equanimous, or non-reactive. That is one of the best feelings and greatest powers of the human mind. To be still amidst chaos. To embrace suffering, meditate with 360-degree chest breaths and inviting in these so-called enemies for all the cookies and milk their souls so desire.

5. Take a Page from the Poetry of Rumi.

“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor,” this 13th-century poet, jurist, and Islamic scholar beautifully advised. 

Whether or not this is true, it’s your choice to believe it or not. 

Can we know the outcome of our efforts before we act? No. So let’s not linger on what might happen and fill ourselves with fear of the unknown. Instead, choose to believe this: you are exactly where you need to be, at all times. You are not behind or ahead. Such ranking only exists when we compare ourselves to others, and it creates anxiety. When you stay in your own lane, you realize, you are right on course. 

When you live with the confidence that everything is just right and everything will be just right, with some temporary turbulence in the middle that is also exactly right and exactly what you need at that moment, life is a super awesome and enjoyable experience. 

6. Know This: The Obstacle is the Way.

Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy predicated on the belief that we do not control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses. In his timeless work of personal writings, the famous Stoic practitioner, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, wrote: “the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Some modern day maxims drawn from this include: “setbacks are just setups for a comeback,” “turn obstacles into opportunities,” “turn your roadblocks into your stepping stones,” and as Yeezy says (cannot believe I am quoting him here) “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Circumventing our weaknesses, questions, and frustrations by trying to skate by with what we are currently doing and is not working will only lead to further agitation.

7. Go Outside of Your Comfort Zone (OCZ) Daily.

In other words, get uncomfortable daily. The more that you engage with discomfort, the higher your tolerance for it becomes. In my own life, one way I do this is by taking ice cold showers, working out daily, and having challenging conversations. This tactic is all about doing things we don’t want to do but know will make us better. Start small but visit discomfort daily. What are some ways you can go OCZ?


I’ll recapitulate all of the above into this succinct summary, your CliffNotes of this article:

If you continuously choose to avoid suffering and flee from suffering, you will become great at avoiding and fleeing from future suffering. You will be preparing to brace for what comes next.

If you appreciate, embrace, and learn to love suffering, you will be in top condition for leaning and breathing into future suffering.

When you accept, embrace, engage with, and get excited by suffering, you will live with open arms for whatever comes your way, because, to borrow a phrase I repeat all too often in training sessions: “You’ve got this.”

Abby Maroko