The most effective inner work I’ve done on myself has been in the form of what’s often called “conscious suffering.” This term comes from early twentieth-century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who “distinguished between unconscious suffering, which is without value, and conscious suffering, sometimes termed ‘voluntary’ or ‘deliberate’ suffering, through which we can self-perfect.”
By this, I mean simply letting myself fully experience emotions I haven’t allowed myself to feel in the past. When a sensation I used to avoid—whether it’s intense anxiety, anger or sadness—arises, I find a quiet place without distractions, breathe deeply and hold my attention on the sensation. I empty my mind of stray thoughts and explanations for how I’m feeling, and place my awareness completely on how the emotion manifests in my body.
This kind of experience is rarely pleasant, but I find more calm and focus in my life—and the sensation I let myself experience becomes less agonizing—every time I do it. It’s as if there is a reservoir of difficult emotion stored in my body, and each time I experience that feeling without distracting myself or forcing it down, some of that reservoir drains away.
In other words, each time I’m completely willing to feel my pain, I’m also able to truly heal. As Eckhart Tolle puts it in A New Earth, “eventually suffering destroys the ego—but not until you suffer consciously. . . . In the midst of conscious suffering, there is already a transmutation. The fire of suffering becomes the light of consciousness.”
I want to share the peace this approach has brought me with others. Thus, in this article, I’m going to describe the process of conscious suffering as I understand it. I hope it’s as helpful and transformative for you as it’s been for me.
As I said earlier, when you start experiencing an intense, uncomfortable emotion, if you have the time and space, find a place to sit alone and undistracted. Begin to breathe rhythmically and deeply as the sensation moves through you. If this process is frightening and painful, as it may be if you haven’t been through it before, keep your mind focused on the four guideposts I discuss below. These are intended to give you comfort and perspective as you immerse yourself fully in your experience.
1. Your suffering is finite. One of the reasons we’ll usually do anything to avoid intense feeling is the worry that, if we fully allow it to be, the feeling will never end. We may be entirely consumed by our rage or fear, and lose control of our actions or permanently curl up into a whimpering fetal position. Thus, when strong sensations arise in our bodies, we tend to numb ourselves with distracting activities like watching TV or diving headlong into our work.
The process of conscious suffering requires a leap of faith. It requires the belief that there is a finite amount of pain, or difficult emotion, trapped in your body, and that you can draw nearer to the end of suffering by letting yourself fully experience your pain. There’s no way, in all honesty, to know in advance that your anguish won’t last forever. All you can do is look to the experience of others who have transcended their pain through conscious suffering, and trust that you can bring yourself closer to the same peace.
2. Remove your labels. Much of the suffering we experience around “difficult emotions” occurs because we label those emotions as negative or unwanted. We learn early in life that the tension and heat in our bodies we call “anger,” “anxiety” and so on are bad things we should avoid if possible. Thus, when those sensations come up, we tend to fight them, whether by tightening parts of our bodies to choke off the feelings, shaming ourselves for “getting too emotional,” or distracting ourselves from our experience. This resistance can be physically painful and add to our discomfort.
To release our resistance and let our sensations be, it’s helpful to peel off the labels we put on our emotions and simply view them as forms of energy arising in our bodies. There’s nothing good or bad about this energy—it’s just a substance that moves through us and passes away. When we let go of our judgments about the way we feel, it’s easier to allow our emotions to arise and subside.
3. Let go of the need to explain. When we experience intense sensation, often our first impulse is to look for a reason—whether in ourselves or the world—for the feeling’s existence. From a young age, we’re conditioned to believe we must be able to justify or explain our feelings. Otherwise, we must repress our emotions. For example, some of us learn early on that, if we can’t convincingly explain why we’re angry, we have “no right to be angry,” or that we aren’t allowed to “bother” our parents by crying unless there’s a real emergency.
Our search for an explanation for our feelings usually takes the form of looking for someone to blame. If we’re “feeling bad,” our instincts tell us, someone or something must be responsible. Some of us blame ourselves—perhaps calling ourselves weak if we feel afraid, or overly irritable if we’re angry. Others blame the outside world—for instance, perhaps they blame their parents for doing an inadequate job of raising them and saddling them with rage and guilt; or maybe they blame their spouses or children for being too demanding.
Ultimately, the only thing blame accomplishes, other than creating more conflict in the world, is to divert your attention from what you’re experiencing. When you become lost in thought about who is responsible for your suffering, your attention drifts into the past—to what others may have done to “make” you feel this way—and you lose consciousness of your experience in the present.
I suspect, and others have suggested, that this urge to search our memories for “responsible parties” really stems from a desire to avoid what we’re feeling. Spiritual teacher Richard Moss writes compellingly about the need to avoid this blaming mindset to transcend our suffering:
We have to wake up out of the dream created when our awareness buries itself in our stories or roles, and particularly the dream created when we flee difficult feelings. The path to awakening consciousness is a path of conscious relationship to everything we think and feel. It is ceaseless inquiry and necessary, conscious suffering, which must continue until more and more easefully we can rest in the fullness of being.
Simply put, your suffering doesn’t need to be “about” or “because of” anything, and you don’t need to convince anyone of your “right” to experience it. If you catch yourself coming up with stories about who’s at fault for how you feel, gently return your attention to your breathing. Focusing on your breathing helps bring your awareness back into your body and what is arising there.
4. Your sensations can’t kill you. Particularly in our early journeys into conscious suffering, we tend to worry that fully experiencing what’s going on in our bodies may harm or even destroy us. This is one reason many of us rush to the doctor or psychiatrist to medicate our strong emotions away—we worry that our bodies can’t survive that sort of intensity and will fall apart under the strain.
However, on an unconscious level, we’re already experiencing the sensations we’re afraid of. Conscious suffering, as its name suggests, only brings those unpleasant sensations into your conscious awareness. We’re only unaware of what we’re feeling most of the time because we spend much of our lives looking for ways to divert our attention from our experience. If the energy flowing through our bodies could kill us, it would have done so long ago.
In reality, focusing our attention on the uncomfortable sensations in our bodies, and allowing them to pass away, doesn’t hurt us—in fact, it leads to a richer experience of life. As we release our pain through conscious suffering, we become more open to and able to appreciate the rich and varied sensations life offers us.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://therapeuticreiki.com/blog/2008/06/141-june-7-2008-carnival-of-healing/.)