four noble truths | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

The Crap Is The Gold: Embracing Suffering

Robin recently said something, in one of her many uplifting comments, that really got me thinking.  She asked how I came to be so insightful about human nature.

I agreed with her that I do have a pretty good sense of what makes people tick, and I pondered for a bit how I got that awareness.  Eventually, I realized I got it by being kind of withdrawn and alone as a kid.

When I was little, I didn’t feel very comfortable relating with other children.  The way they communicated and played looked easy, but when I tried to get involved it didn’t come easily to me.  So I took to hanging back and observing, hoping to get a sense of how I could have the fun they seemed to be having.

This was a painful time, but it had wonderful benefits.  All that people-watching did give me a strong sense of what motivates human beings, why they hurt and how they heal.

Is Personal Development About Avoiding Pain?

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the story of my own growth is very different from what we normally hear about personal development and how to create it.

Often, it seems to me, personal development is presented as a bunch of “tips and tricks” for avoiding suffering.  Common examples of what I mean are:

* If you master the right lines and body language, you’ll always “get the girl” (or guy), and you won’t have to feel alone.

* If you learn the right way to organize your e-mail, you’ll be super-productive, and you won’t have to feel anxious about your work.

* If you use these super-savvy-SEO marketing tips, you’ll escape the 9-to-5 grind, and you’ll never feel trapped and frustrated again.

And yet, I think my most profound periods of growth have been the times when I’ve suffered the most – like those hours I spent on the outskirts of the playground as a kid.

What’s more, in moments when I’ve matured the most, suffering has been unavoidable.  When I was little, I had to go to school and be with other kids, and no one was around to teach me “social skills” and make relating easier.  But if I’d been able to somehow escape that situation, I wouldn’t have gained an acute understanding of people’s inner lives.

Sitting With Suffering

Experiences like this have taught me that, when I find myself suffering, turning to “tips and tricks” to escape isn’t always the best idea.  Sometimes, it’s more helpful to “sit with” the hurt — to let go of distractions and turn my attention toward what I’m feeling.

When I’m feeling lonely, for instance, I’ve taken to getting intimate with my loneliness.  I try to tune into the body sensations that tell me I’m feeling alone.  For me, aloneness shows up as a heaviness in my solar plexus.

Interestingly, the more familiar I get with that sensation, the more comfortable, and the less threatening, it seems.  I start to realize that, as Michael Jackson put it, it’s “just another part of me,” and there’s a peace that comes with that realization.

Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone seek out suffering to mature more quickly.  As I’m sure you know, there’s no need to go looking for pain in this world — it’s here in abundance.  The Buddha put it simply:  “existence is suffering.”

What I’m suggesting is that “crappy” times in our lives are often our most powerful periods of growth — and that the deepest self-development happens when we open ourselves to pain, instead of numbing ourselves to it.