The Art Of Suffering
When we are suffering from ongoing mental pain and distress then the thing to remember is to be aware of our resistance to this pain and distress. If we aren’t paying attention to our resistance in this situation then our suffering is always going to get worse, not better. It’s going to get worse every time. Not paying any heed to our resistance (which is of course perfectly normal) is how we get stuck in our mental pain, not how we get free from it! Being aware of resistance is the key to everything therefore, and yet we never are…
What is it that we really need to know in life? We might say that it is this or we might say it is that, but once we have had the experience of being in a painful inner state that lasts for a significant length of time then we will probably say that the most important thing we could ever learn in life is how not to make things many times worse for ourselves by generally thrashing around (or jumping wildly to unhelpful conclusions) when a painful inner state does come along. We would have appreciation of the value of learning ‘the art of suffering’, in other words. The point is that if we don’t understand this, then by ‘trying to do something about our situation’ we will inevitably increase our suffering. We will dig a deeper hole for ourselves either by trying to escape our pain or by trying to fix it.
In the world of mental health care we understand that running away from the problem (or by being stubbornly avoidant of difficult feelings) we always make things worse — what we don’t understand is how trying to fix things makes them worse too! When we see someone trying to help themselves but plainly making their situation more painful as a result then we call this a dysfunctional coping strategy and we will nod our heads wisely, but what we don’t see is that all coping strategies (in mental health) are dysfunctional. We couldn’t be further away from seeing this. That’s an alien concept to us…
Our considered (or maybe not so considered) position is to say that some coping strategies are dysfunctional and will rebound painfully on us, whilst others aren’t, and will work properly, just as they are supposed to, if we adhere to the protocol correctly. We won’t shift from this position of ours no matter what, we’re utterly convinced of it, but the only reason we are so resolute on this point is because we have never really questioned our core assumptions — we’re not exactly in the habit of questioning our core assumptions after all! We’re not big on that. ‘Desired separation forges a connection,’ says Douglas Flemons, who is a Western psychologist who is (uncharacteristically) looking at things in a Daoist way. This is a crucial understanding: there is no such thing as a strategy that doesn’t have ‘desired separation from the problem’ as its ultimate goal and so what this means is that strategizing forges a connection, loathe as we are to see this.
Carl Jung, who is rated by many as the greatest Western psychologist of all time (although not by very many contemporary psychologists, naturally enough) states that ‘What we resist persists’, and all strategies are of course resistance. What else would they be? What we can’t see is that it’s just not possible to technically manipulate our mental pain so as to make it go away — the one thing we can never do is get rid of our legitimate mental pain, even though this will of course be the thing we most want to do. This — we might say — is the dilemma that lies right at the very core of the human situation — our ongoing indefatigable attempt to us to escape from pain which it is perfectly impossible to escape from. Our whole lives — as the existentialists tell us — are taken up with this futile endeavour.
There are two ways of looking at this when is that familiar way which is the way of the rational ego, which — when it hasn’t had the shine knocked off it — is convinced that it can solve any problem if it is clever enough, determined enough, strong enough, etc. There are no limits to what the emboldened ego believes it can achieve — the ego believes itself to be superman (until it happens to learn otherwise). Alongside this conviction there is the unquestioned belief that fulfilling its wishes (attaining the goals that it has decided it wants to attain) is of the utmost importance. Things just don’t get any more important than this and this is the rational ego in nutshell! The odd thing about all this is however that the ego doesn’t have unlimited powers at all and its perception to the contrary is purely delusional and to what it sees as being so very important (what it sees as being absolutely important) isn’t important at all outside of its own very narrow and entirely arbitrary point of view. All we have to do is step sideways — so to speak — and we would immediately discover that what we thought to matter so very much doesn’t actually matter at all. The thing is however that we never do step away from this vanishingly narrow viewpoint, and so we never learn this to be the case. To quote part of the title of Paul Watzlawick’s book on the pursuit of unhappiness, our situation is ‘hopeless but not serious’!
The narrow viewpoint that we stick to like glue is therefore much more fragile and precarious than we would imagine it to be and this is why we have to be continuously resisting; even in the good times there is always a level of control or deliberation going on — it’s just that under normal circumstances we don’t realize that we are continuously maintaining control. Because of its extreme narrowness, the self-construct is always under threat; it contrives for the most part not to be aware of this and covers its anxiety up with an outward show of confidence (or even arrogance). We exist within a bubble of confidence that can all too easily be punctured, therefore; again, this is the ego’s situation in a nutshell. When the illusion of well-being (which is all that the ego-construct ever has, even under the very best of circumstances) does become compromised then we automatically react to ‘up our resisting’ — all we know is resistance and we are blinded by the belief that if we resist strongly enough or forcefully enough then everything will be okay. All that happens however is that we make our situation worse for ourselves — we’re making the situation worse because with our resistance reifies the very thing that is the cause of all our troubles in the first place.
When we say (or assume) that in the world of mental health coping strategies are the way to go what we’re really saying therefore is that resistance is the way to go, and so we’ve got everything completely wrong! We have misread or misunderstood our predicament just about as thoroughly as it is possible to do so! The fragile artificial viewpoint which is the ego-identity is created by resistance and it is our belief that this viewpoint is who we are that gives rise to all our suffering — ‘coping creates the one who has to cope,’ in other words, and so we end up very neatly trapped in this tautological loop will stop coping creates the one who has to cope, strategizing creates the one who needs to strategize, and controlling creates the one who needs to keep on controlling, and this is something we have absolutely no insight into at all!
Running creates the need to run just as fixing creates the need to fix and in the absence of this crucial insight all we can do is keep on feeding back into this very same suffering-producing loop. Resistance perpetuates the situation where we are obliged to keep on resisting indefinitely; we’re obliged to keep on resisting forever because a loop has no end! We’re like a hamster on its hamster-wheel hoping to escape the trap by running ever faster. We can’t ‘do’ anything about this situation either because all our doing is resistance and ‘resistance is all we know’. The key however is simply to notice when we are resisting — this is the key because noticing our resistance is the one thing that isn’t resistance…