suffering | 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  Eventually, I realized I got it by being kind of withdrawn and alone as a kid.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.

Loving Your Ego

I used to be very unhappy with the way I thought about myself.  I was particularly dissatisfied with the egotistical thoughts I had.  Thoughts would come up like “I’m going to be mega-famous and fill 30,000-seat arenas,” “everyone is going to see me as their spiritual guru,” “I’m a figure of historical importance,” and so forth, and I didn’t want them in my mind.

I believed these thoughts were dangerous because they would fill me with pride and cause me to act recklessly, or give me unrealistic expectations and leave me disappointed.  I also thought that, in order to be spiritually healthy, I had to relinquish my grandiose visions.  I had to force myself to be humble to attain enlightenment.  Thus, I’d resist those thoughts, and shame myself, whenever they popped into my mind.

Constantly pushing my thoughts away required physical effort, and created tension in my body.  My jaw and shoulders would tighten when I resisted a thought I didn’t approve of.  This tension built up over time and caused pain and stiffness.  And the more I punished myself for having the unwanted thoughts, the more they seemed to pop into my head.

One day, I decided to try a different approach.  For a long time, I’d been choosing to love and accept my negative, self-hating thoughts when they came up.  When I’d think something nasty about myself, such as “I’m not successful enough” or “I’m not attractive enough,” I’d simply allow that thought to be, without laughing it off or pushing it away.  This was working well for me—when I’d fully accept a negative thought as it was, I’d no longer feel the despair I used to associate with that kind of thinking.  I decided to apply the same method to my egotistical thoughts.

Taking this step brought me the most peace of any spiritual practice I’ve used.  When I simply allowed my grandiose thoughts to be, without judging or shaming them, they ceased to feel as threatening.  They were just thoughts, like any other ones, and they were just as worthy of my love and acceptance.  The thoughts themselves were not hurting me—my resistance to them was the source of my suffering.  When I loved my egotistical thoughts, they ceased to be problematic.

Many spiritual teachers advise us to “love what’s so” or “love what’s true right now.”  We tend to take this maxim to mean accepting what’s going on in the outside world in this moment, without judgment or resistance.  For instance, it means we should adopt an attitude of acceptance if we have a car accident, our significant other leaves us, we become sick, and so on.  But this idea applies to your thoughts as well, including those you’d rather not be thinking.  Your thoughts, just like the facts out in the world, are part of your experience.

Suffering occurs when you create a category of thoughts that it’s not okay for you to have.  Some people do this with memories of difficult events.  “Shut up!” they say to their minds.  “Stop making me relive that!”  Others do it with thoughts that come up when they’re interacting with others.  “I’m trying to concentrate on what this person is saying,” they say.  “You’re distracting me by taking a romantic interest in them.”  Still others do it with self-critical thoughts.  “No, you’re wrong!  I’m a wonderful person.”  And so on.  When we punish ourselves for thinking in certain ways, our lives feel stressful and contracted.

One way to stay aware of the need to fully accept your thoughts is to recognize that thoughts and events in the outside world are—at the deepest level—composed of the same stuff.  They are made of the same energy that comprises everything in the universe.  Eckhart Tolle uses the analogy of the various forms taken by water to illustrate this point:

“Just as water can be solid, liquid, or gaseous, consciousness can be seen to be ‘frozen’ as physical matter, ‘liquid’ as mind and thought, or formless as pure consciousness.”

Because thoughts—like sunsets, ice cream and Caribbean beaches—are forms of life or consciousness, they are entitled to the same love and respect as all other forms.  To fully accept all of our thoughts, just as we accept other forms of life, is to draw nearer to peace.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at

Is Guilt Good For You? (Part Two)

A little while back, I wrote an article on the function guilt performs in our lives and the limiting ways we tend to perceive it.  Today, I want to expand on a particular point I made in that piece, which is that the amount of guilt we feel seems to depend on the time of day.  For instance, I’ve observed that, right after I wake up in the morning, my conscience seems to be spotlessly clean.  However, at around 10:00 a.m., I start shaming myself about things I did or failed to do in the past.  The volume of my self-blaming reaches a crescendo at around 1:00 p.m., after which it tapers off again.

In my earlier article, I suggested that, if guilt were actually your conscience condemning you for your past wrongs, you wouldn’t expect the degree of your suffering to depend on the time of day.  After all, the amount of scolding you deserve from your conscience shouldn’t vary based on what time it is.  Instead, you’d think your conscience would keep up a steady level of punishment throughout the day, until you’d suffered enough and “served your sentence” for the wrongs you’d done.

I want to take the inquiry I began with these comments a bit deeper.  Perhaps the fact the severity of our guilt depends on the time of day suggests that guilt is not simply what we experience when our consciences reprimand us.  But what does that fact say about what guilt really is?  To my mind, it suggests that guilt, like hunger and fatigue, is a natural, regularly occurring biological process.

In other words, just as you get hungry at around your regular mealtimes, and you get tired at around your regular bedtime, your body has regular times of day when it naturally feels most guilty.  One way to put this is that, just as we have mealtimes and bedtimes, we also have “guilt-times.”  The main difference between guilt and other regularly occurring physical sensations like hunger and fatigue lies in the way we perceive guilt.  We take our feelings of guilt as a sign that there’s something wrong with us, but we don’t interpret hunger and fatigue that way.

Put differently, when our stomachs growl, we interpret it to mean we need more food in our stomachs.  But we don’t view our need for food as proof that there’s something wrong with us.   We don’t perceive ourselves as bad people because we happen not to have enough in our stomachs.  By contrast, when we start ruminating on painful past events from our lives, we do tend to interpret it to mean there’s something wrong with us—that we are bad people.  Or, perhaps, we spend time and energy defending ourselves against our guilt, devising reasons why we aren’t so bad after all to try to make the unpleasant sensations go away.  Either way, our interpretation of guilt causes us to suffer, while our interpretation of hunger does not.

I’ve come to believe we can transform our experience of guilt by treating it more like hunger and fatigue.  The next time you feel guilt, try saying to yourself “oh, it’s guilt-time again”—just as you might think “oh, I guess it’s time for lunch” when your stomach growls or “it’s time for bed” when your eyelids start feeling heavy.  Try perceiving guilt as a routine bodily function that, regardless of what you do or think, will recur again and again.  Recognize also that, in a sense, guilt is easier to deal with than hunger and fatigue, because you don’t have to do any activity—such as eating or sleeping—to cause your guilt to pass away.  Instead, guilt simply arises at certain times of day, and subsides during others.

This practice has changed the way guilt occurs to me.  Before, when my mind would dwell on the ways I felt I’d screwed up in the past, I would feel ugly sensations in my body.  My upper back would tense up, and a prickly feeling would creep across my skin.  My perspective on guilt—my view that my guilty feelings proved I was a bad person—was actually causing those physical sensations.  When I changed my perspective, and started to view guilt as a natural biological process, those painful feelings began fading away.

I haven’t addressed one question that may be on your mind, which is:  what is the function of guilt?  It may be a natural process of the body that occurs at certain times of day, but why does it need to occur?

I don’t know for sure.  I certainly have theories, but they’re not important for the purposes of this article.  The important point is that the fact that we don’t know what guilt is for doesn’t set it apart from other body functions like sleep.  Scientists still don’t fully understand why we need sleep, but the fact remains that we do, and no one questions that our need for sleep is part of our bodies’ recurring daily cycle.  We don’t need to know exactly what function guilt performs to understand that it’s a routine aspect of the human experience.

The perspective I’m suggesting here has implications that aren’t limited to guilt.  When you experience a “negative emotion,” or an emotion you’d rather not be feeling, take a look at the way you’re interpreting that feeling.  If you’re taking the feeling as a sign that something is wrong with you, I invite you to experiment with a different view.  Try saying to yourself “oh, it’s time for this emotion,” just as you’d think to yourself it was time for lunch in response to a noisy stomach.  You might say, for instance, “oh, it’s anger-time again,” or “oh, it’s sadness-time.”

With this way of thinking comes an acceptance of the emotion that’s arising in you as a natural part of human life.  When you simply accept the emotion and allow it to move through you, without shaming or judging yourself, you eliminate the suffering the emotion used to create.  This acceptance is key to changing your emotional life for the better.

Are You Living To Avoid Criticism?

I have a simple question for you.  Are you involved in your current career, relationship, and other activities because you actually find them fulfilling?  Or is it because you think they’re the best way to avoid others’ disapproval?

Unfortunately, for many people, the answer seems to be the latter.  Many of us picked our career paths because they looked safe and thus unlikely to frighten or displease our loved ones and friends.  Many of us are in relationships with people largely because we think those people are likely to appeal to our families.  And so on.  The possibility of others disliking our choices is too unbearable to accept, and thus we’ve selected whatever activities we think others are least likely to criticize.

What’s most insidious about living to avoid criticism is that it seems perfectly natural because, in various ways, we’ve been doing it all our lives.  As children, we cleaned our rooms, went to bed, went to school, and so forth because, if we didn’t, our parents would disapprove and punish us.  We certainly didn’t do those things because they brought us satisfaction.  Today, as adults, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply continuing on the same path, and letting the fear of others’ disapproval drive every choice we make.

This approach to life causes us much suffering.  Even though we aren’t always conscious that we’re living to avoid criticism, being out of alignment with our callings and desires gives life a bland, uninspiring quality.  We wake up early in the morning, suddenly wondering why in the world we chose this job, relationship, or some other aspect of our lives.  We drag ourselves through our days, suppressing our dissatisfaction with caffeine, alcohol and perhaps stronger drugs, wondering why our bodies seem to be fighting us every step of the way.  We feel resentful toward our colleagues and partners, assuming that their failings, rather than our own decisions, must be the reason for our malaise.

Ironically, living to avoid others’ displeasure also makes others worse off.  Each of us, I believe, has unique, natural gifts we can bestow upon the world in our vocations, in our relationships and in our other pursuits.  By ignoring our true callings and desires, we deprive the world of the full benefit of those gifts.  And when we design our lives to avoid criticism, we bring a flat, lifeless quality to our interactions with others.  When others ask what’s going on with us, we respond “nothing much”—and our answer is an accurate expression of our feeling of emptiness.  Needless to say, this doesn’t make us pleasant or uplifting to be around.

If you feel persistently dissatisfied with what you’re doing in any area of your life, it may be because you chose the activity out of a desire to avoid others’ disapproval.  If you did, however, you won’t necessarily be conscious of that fact, because—as I said earlier—you may have become so accustomed to living to deflect criticism that it seems like the only possible approach to life.  If you ask yourself a few simple, targeted questions, however, you may become aware of the truth.

First, ask yourself who is likely to criticize you if you stop doing the activity you’re doing—if you leave the job, relationship or other aspect of your life that you’re dissatisfied with.  Is it a person you love, trust and respect?  If they didn’t like your decision, would you be able to live with their disapproval?  If you can’t accept the possibility of displeasing this person, you are probably staying in your present situation to avoid their disapproval rather than to fulfill your own needs.

Second, if you determined that you are remaining in your current job, relationship or other activity to stave off someone else’s disapproval, ask yourself what would happen if that person did disapprove of you.  Would they say nasty things to you?  Would they abandon you?  Or perhaps unrealistic or exaggerated consequences come to mind—for instance, maybe the first answer that comes up is that you would die if this person didn’t like your choice.

Understanding what you’re afraid would happen if you earned someone else’s disapproval is critical to managing that fear.  If you don’t know what specifically you’re afraid of, you can’t make an informed decision about whether to make the transition you want in your life.  But if you do know, you can consciously weigh the happiness you’d gain by making a change against the pain you’d feel if someone else were unhappy with you.  And often, when you have some idea of the effect another person’s disapproval would have on you, it doesn’t seem so frightening.  After all, if someone else—even a close friend or family member—were displeased with one of your decisions, life would still go on.

To be clear, I’m not saying you should never be concerned with the impact your actions have on others.  But surely there are at least some areas of your life where it’s okay for you to make a choice that someone else may dislike.  Examples, at least to my mind, would include your choices regarding your career, the number of children you have (if any), your sexual preference, and the hobbies you enjoy.  I think you’d agree that you aren’t somehow obligated to make decisions about those areas of your life in constant fear that someone else—even if it’s your parents—might disapprove.

The question I posed at the beginning of this article is a sobering one to consider, and it’s one that many of us would rather avoid.  But if you want genuine, lasting fulfillment in your career, your intimate relationships, and other areas of your life, it’s an important question to ask yourself.  If we can get past living to avoid displeasing others, we can finally come to understand what we truly want, and maybe even what we’re here to do, in our lives.