In Praise of Suffering

Suffering is a gift.

In April, I turned 16 years-old in yoga. (I am aware, as I write this, that there is a distinct chance I will look back on this entry with some embarassment about the naivete of its yogic understanding, but if I have learned nothing from my practice over this period it’s that I must start where I am, with what I have.) It’s nothing, really: sixteen years. Except that so much has changed. My life habits are dramatically different (for example, I hate to admit this, but when I began the practice of yoga I was still an active smoker. I was still hooked on nicotine, among other . . . er, well, nevermind). My hips and hamstrings are dramatically different. What is most surprising is my dreams, as in both aspirations and nocturnal journeys, are dramatically different.

And, to be honest, I really owe it all to suffering. I wouldn’t be here without it.

Without going into the whole backstory, let me just say that I came to yoga because I was struggling so much with the feelings inside my body, mind, and emotions–feelings I can only describe as suffering. I wasn’t so much in physical pain, though there was some of that, I just knew that I wasn’t happy and felt that the odds of making myself that way were pretty slim, if not dismal. The depth of my discontentment and irritability has turned out to be a tremendous gift: it provided, and continues to provide tremendous incentive to practice in earnest, and a stark contrast to the relief, the lightness of being, and the serenity that the practice of yoga infuses me with. But let me stop here and say what I really came to say.

A very wise man once told me: “If you look at it, the one and only one problem you have with your life is that it is not happening one hundred percent the way you want it to.” So, yes, sixteen years of practice and it still remains true: My only problem, ever, with life is that it isn’t happening the way I want it to. My bills are too high, my income is too low; my wife is too demanding, my wife doesn’t pay enough attention to me; the piece of carrot cake is delicious, but too small; the bad times last too long, the good times end too soon. On and on it goes.

This discontent, I have found, lodges itself in my body, my nerves, my emotions, and I receive all these physiological and biochemical signals that incline me to spend my energies (and, quite often, my essential vitality) to try and control the situation, to work harder. All this at the behest of a system that has been catapulted into “emergency” mode by too much work, too little rest and nourishment, too many stress hormones caused by too many fearful, despondent thoughts, sugar, caffeine, dehydration and so on. Essentially, by the fear of the fact that life is not going to happen one hundred percent my way.

So, to the practice of yoga. The practice of yoga has brought me to the awareness of this fact, a fact which I have found is confirmed by ancient texts, particlarly the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: I am inherently driven to try to avoid pain and seek pleasure at all costs. Now, this isn’t a bad strategy and appears to make good sense, except that there is a certain insanity to it. As a human being, to successfully avoid pain and experience only pleasure, I would have to have one hundred percent control over life. The more I practice yoga, the more clearly I see that I have very little, if any, control over how life happens. But suppose, by some miracle, I could control most of life. Suppose I could manage to avoid pain and create pleasure ninety-five percent of the time. One hundred percent of my misery would still lie in the five percent of the time where I had no control over whether I experienced pain or pleasure.

Yoga teaches there is another way. It teaches that suffering in not caused by how life is happening, or by how the world is. In other words, it is not life’s fault that it’s not happening the way I want. Life happening the way it is is not the cause of my suffering. Yoga teaches that I am the cause of my suffering. Yoga shows me the ways in which, without knowing it, I have fallen out of step–or, to say it in a more “Iyengar” way, out of alignment with life, which is functions in perfect accordance with certain universal, immutable laws. In other words, life doesn’t happen my way because it is capricious and mean. Life doesn’t happy my way because “my way” is not in harmony with life’s laws. To the extent I am unaware that I am seeking to go against the laws of life, or laws of nature (or to the extent that I am ignorant of what they are) is the exact same extent to which I suffer. Yoga promises me that I can perform certain actions that will remove my ignorance of life’s laws and thus enable me to live in perfect harmony with them. At this point, I no longer need to have life happen my way, because I am, you could say, happening life’s way.

And that’s the most profound change wrought by these sixteen years–a change which truly makes this a “sweet sixteen:” I am now compelled to spend less time, energy and life force trying to arrange life to suit me (and thus suffer the consequences of such insanity), and am much more willing to invest those energies into developing a human being who is one hundred percent for life; that is, a human being capable of embracing life, exactly the way it is (and isn’t) in every moment. Saying that, I am aware of what a lofty goal that seems, and how far I’ve yet to go. Fortunately I have my companion suffering waiting to pick me up when I fail at this project, and to urge me onward should I slacken my efforts or be tempted to give up the goal.