Pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.
Oh, let me count the ways I've fought with this one over the years. The cliche peace treaties always come as a surprise, but this one really caught me off guard.
Several years after my this too shall pass moment, I walked into a yoga class feeling out of sorts, and feeling bad for feeling out of sorts. One of my favorite things to do when I'm in such a state is to question what I'm MISSING, what I'm doing WRONG...because, clearly, I must be doing something WRONG to be feeling so awful. And if I can't figure out what it is I'm doing wrong, I am no doubt destined to feel this way FOR. EVER.
About halfway through class, I set myself up in Eka Pada Supta Virasana.
(I hesitate to tell you the English translation, because it includes the word "reclining," which is highly misleading with its implication of "lounging around.")
I have no idea how many times I've done this pose over the 12 years I've practiced yoga, or at what point I stopped hating it, or when it officially made its way into my top five favorites.
As I settled in, I wondered why I liked it so much. It's certainly not because it's gotten any easier. The truth is, every time I do it it's every bit as painful as the very first time, a quad stretch so intense it feels like muscle is being wrenched from bone.
Lying there, I listened to a little side-by-side movie soundtrack in my mind entitled The Then and The Now.
Then: Okay, that doesn't look so hard. I'm sure I can do that, and probably without any props. But I don't want to show off, so I'll use the props...and then just quietly move them aside.
Oh. My. God. Who invented this pose and how is it possibly appropriate for beginners?? Have I wandered into a level III class?? I must be doing something wrong because I'm sure it is not supposed to feel like this. I really hope I'm not doing any permanent damage. HOW much longer are we going to be here?? I REALLY wish I'd gotten more props! OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod!!
Now: Ouch. Breathe.
Then: Pain and suffering.
Now: Pain. (And breathing.)
Clearly, and not surprisingly, the difference between suffering and not suffering is the difference between my mind (then) reacting to and resisting the pain and (now) responding to and working with the pain.
But there's no possible way I could've had a Now experience the first time I did the pose.
Then, I had no frame of reference for what was happening. I didn't know if what I was feeling was good pain or bad pain...I just knew that it was painful pain. And pain is scary.
Now when I get into the pose I know I'm doing everything right. I know what it's supposed to feel like and if something needs to be adjusted, I adjust.
Now I trust my body. I trust the yoga. I trust my breath to soften the hard edges.
Now...I have faith.
In this case faith was the result of familiarity, knowledge, and top-notch teachers who don't let me stay in poses if I'm doing them wrong. With each repetition there was a little less fear, a little less judgment, and (thank God) a little less ego. As those things fell away they were replaced by understanding and acceptance and allowing.
And, of course, breathing.
Without faith the human mind responds to pain with fear and judgment (the magic formula for "suffering"), but faith doesn't happen automatically or all at once. It has to be grown and cultivated until it becomes solid enough to rest into. And then it has to be stretched again, which generally involves some form of pain or discomfort and, yes, sometimes more suffering.
But, even in the midst of the pain, there's an unshakeable foundation that makes it possible for that expansion to take place. And that is what I had forgotten.
As I gently revisited the discontent I'd walked in with, I recognized the parallels. I still didn't know exactly what it was about, but I did know a few things...
There was an awful lot of "yes" going on in my life, and there's a vast difference between the level of faith needed to get to "yes" and the level of faith needed to stay there. I had landed in the space between, where there are only two choices: I could lean back into the faith that had brought me there; or, I could pack my bags for a future-trip into fear and judgment.
I despise packing, and the future-tripping thing didn't seem to be working out too well, so thank God yoga -- as it so often does -- showed me another way.
The pose hurt, but I knew I was doing it right.
Life hurt. I was feeling distant from God. But once I got past the fear and judgment I could see that from a human perspective, I was doing everything right with Him, too...everything I knew to do to cultivate my relationship with Him.
Was an adjustment of some kind needed? Maybe. But first I had to stop fighting what I was feeling...otherwise there's no way I'd be able to hear what The Teacher had to say.
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So is it true that pain is unavoidable? I say yes. Of course, some pain is avoidable (I'll save that yoga discussion for another time). But a certain amount of discomfort seems to accompany life-affirming, faith-expanding growth.
Is it true that suffering is optional? I say yes. And no. Like yoga, it's a practice. There's no such thing as a perfect pose, and there are very few examples of humans with perfect minds free of fear and judgment. So we strive. We persevere. We falter and forgive.
And through it all -- eventually -- faith wins. Every. Single. Time.
* * * * *
Next up in the Trite and True series: Everything happens for a reason. Until then...what say you? I'd love to hear your take on this (or any other) cliche!