Saturday, 30 November 2013

Suffering - To Be or Not to Be?

I'm guessing many are familiar with the idea of "blessings in disguise." If your experience is anything like mine sometimes these blessings are seemingly very well disguised! It can even be true that years after various life experiences the "lessons," realizations, and relevance can still be unfolding. There exists a premise that most any experience (no matter how painful) can be transcended and holds within it the opportunity for growth and transformation.

When I consider this I wonder - is it then a given, that pain must precede growth? Well, certainly it is implied in such ideas as "growing pains." Physiologically there is a great deal, of energy required to support physical growth. Likely no less true for emotional/spiritual growth.  What of the idea that suffering is the result of resistance to what is (or as per Buddhist teachings) non-acceptance of impermanence. Said another way, "the only thing that is constant is change." (Heraclitus)

Therefore if change is inevitable - resistance to change (is both the cause of suffering and is a choice) then suffering could indeed be seen as optional. Pain I hear tell is also "inevitable" (but a distinction can be made between "pain" and "suffering" - usually along the lines of acute and more chronic respectively. For example one might "expect" to feel the pain of loss (at the end of a relationship, or passing of a loved one). I wonder though, whether that too is "necessary" or more a consequence of conditioning and therefore assured through belief systems.

I'm not suggesting ignoring or repression of emotional pain - I just wonder to what extent (if any) or for how long, the pain would exist, if it literally wasn't believed to be a circumstance that required a painful response or that if it were, commonly held time frames for such a "process" didn't apply. In other words an entirely different healing paradigm or even view of life. How much then is this pain brought on by the belief it is a "required" "natural" part of the process (and therefore it is so) and that it will take a more or less predetermined amount of time to heal or "get over it."

So then perhaps suffering is more about trying to avoid change (by for example, staying in various circumstances beyond their continuing to serve any higher purpose) than it is, "required." Nothing stays the same - it's ultimately futile to resist the reality of this. Nonetheless resistance to change can be pretty far-reaching both collectively and personally. I'm also not suggesting that the idea of impermanence (and change) be used as a rationalization to justify such things as unbridled development (those sort of changes should be ushered in mindfully and with foresight - not just done in a non-sustainable way and summed up as "change is coming whether you like it or not."

I acknowledge that it may be required experience, the emotional peaks and valleys that present as various circumstances play out in our lives, or as Shakespeare suggested "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." However, my own personal reflection, introspection and self awareness also has brought to my attention what I might call habitual suffering. This might be tagged a part of victim consciousness in some schools of thought - it's a way seeing oneself, so that when unconscious of these mistaken beliefs, I might routinely conclude that I can "expect" to suffer. From this perspective, most anything I might take on - at best, will be defined by mediocrity or just as likely will end poorly. Obviously if this is the prevailing mindset, the powers of self-fulfilling prophecy most certainly will come into play.  My point here is that it is possible to discover that one can identify so completely with painful outcomes and the inevitability/necessity for hardship and suffering that virtually nothing else is possible. (I would suggest that this is true for different people in varying degrees, in my case I didn't necessarily have a continuous sense of foreboding and approached many things with relative confidence and enjoyment. At the same time there were countless ways I limited what was possible in my life by believing certain non-truths about myself, living them as true and creating pain & suffering along the way, by repeating many of these patterns. It's rather fascinating to me (well.. when I'm in a philosophical frame of mind) to come to realize there are such energies operating in my life. Of course on the one hand I have choice and personal responsibility, but at the same time it's not as though I get up each morning and make a "to do list" of various ways to create suffering in my life. Regardless when one is granted more of a "birds-eye view" of their own life, the ability to be the observer and see these some of these things - it's intriguing to consider, that was me, I was doing that (even though when I was doing it, I couldn't see it?)

For the purpose of illustration I will share a couple of contrasting experiences - both involve the rather seemingly pedestrian service of oral hygiene. What I have learned over time is that it doesn't matter how I come to learn different things about myself - because the behaviours and underlying programming are in operation throughout my life (not just where I discover them).

For quite some period of time I went to a particular dentists office, the visit with him was unremarkable (given it was usually for all of five minutes - the rest was spent with the hygienist). Suffice to say my experience with her was such - that I generally had some degree of anxiety running before I even got in the chair.  The experience varied from visit to visit depending on how diligently I maintained consistency with flossing etc. (the primary variance being time in the chair). The tension and anxiety I experienced naturally included my jaw muscles (which would just ache) while she was doing her cleaning routine ( which at times felt to me like she was supporting her entire arm weight on my jaw) I would try to relieve the tension by moving or asking for a break. Her response to this was an audible sigh, which I suppose could be an expression of her concern for workload and time management given this was a multi-chair, high volume clinic (which felt to me more like a assembly line than a client care setting). Of course it was possible that she was "intolerant" of my expression of discomfort.

I was just watching an old Bill Cosby stand-up comedy routine and he was doing a bit on being at the dentist. He commented that if he were ever to lose the use of his legs, he could ambulate adequately using the muscle of his buttocks ( I laughed at this as I related to the imagery) - I did exactly that while in the chair with the hygienist, as she put more pressure on my teeth I would wiggle down the chair trying to get away from her. Then occasionally, she would slip and poke under my gums with one of her cleaning implements, I would jump, jerk my head away and close my mouth.

She would admonish me - telling me I "really need to hold still and that it would go much easier and faster if I would just relax." Then she would go on to tell me that there was a "fair amount of bleeding under my gums and that the inflammation contributed to my "sensitivity."

Personally I'm fed up with a prevailing consciousness that considers sensitivity a pathology (without question at different times in my life I have done my utmost to "desensitize" responding to a world that seemed to expect it of me) more recently my journey seems to be about reclaiming myself (including the gift of sensitivity) - I am far more aware of my own humanity as a result & would submit that many of the worlds "woes" might be addressed if more people didn't perpetually cut themselves off from their own hearts.

I said - "you don't suppose it would have anything to do with you sticking your precision made, surgical stainless steel hooks and claws under my gums, wielding them like you were ploughing a field - while you do your gum-gardening?" "At home I use soft synthetic thread and a rubber tip pick!" (here the tool-kit looks like it belongs in a medieval dungeon.")

I will acknowledge it is my responsibility to take good care of my own health (including my oral hygiene) - it is not my responsibility to sit back quietly when I am uncomfortable, and make someone else feel better about causing me discomfort because they are in a hurry, or their technique and practices don't include empathy & compassion for the client. I say this now in hindsight because for a variety of "reasons" I kept going back to this clinic (though it wasn't unusual for me to procrastinate about confirming my appointments when the reminder cards would arrive in the mail) - so it was my choice.

The contrasting experience took place quite recently. I had heard good reports about a clinic in town that offered the services of a hygienist (the focus was on a thorough cleaning & they could still assess anything concerning that would require the attention of a dentist). My experience began with a phone conversation with a fellow at the "front end," he was patient, pleasant, informative and in a non-hurried fashion, gave me all the answers I required to make an educated decision.

I arrived early the day of my appointment, anticipating new client paper work and also brought a book to pass the time. I found that the book wasn't necessary as the same fellow I had spoke to was at the reception area that day and was very engaging and seemed interested in conversation (which was a pleasant, relaxing way to await my session.

As it turned out the previous appointment went a little overtime and due to my delay in booking a session, my cleaning was to be more extensive than what it might have been if I had come in sooner. The hygienist explained what was going to be required - she said due to the later start and the amount of work, that she might only do the lower half and book another time for completion. Her concern was both one of time and for my comfort (she indicated that even if she had time to do it all in the one session, it might be more uncomfortable for me afterward). I appreciated that she was upfront about all this at the outset, that she wasn't going to trying a rush through and she was sincerely concerned with my well-being (she was not of the mind that "productivity" ruled the day and the client should just "suck it up," with regard to discomfort).

She let me know that there was a "topical" freezing gel available (in other words no needles required) - I indicated that I was keenly in favour of using all that was available to me! I was encouraged to let her know at anytime during the procedure if I felt the "slightest discomfort" and she would apply more freezing. The difference was so stark - I suppose I didn't imagine before having the experience that it could be so!

During the session I shared a little of my past experience (without specifically identifying the clinic or staff) - she was aghast. Her perspective was that she "couldn't keep showing up doing the job if it meant that degree of discomfort for the client." It was so affirming to hear that my concerns and well-being were not "unreasonable expectations." I sat back in the comfort of the dental chair (which previously would have been an oxymoron - "comfort - what comfort?") this chair even had a pulsating back massage feature). I never felt anything through the whole procedure, it was amazing! I was even sent home with some acetaminophen (in case my gums were tender later) - as it turned out I didn't need it, but I certainly appreciated the consideration that I might.

I guess what I have learned from this is to listen to my own assessment of a situation - if it doesn't feel okay to me, then it probably isn't. I also recognize that I don't have to "settle" - because something has always been a certain way doesn't mean it's right, or that nothing else is possible. It does mean I need to speak up, move on or create a better way for myself (or for others). Some things are what they are - if my continuing to show up in it, causes me undo suffering, then my response to the situation needs to change. Chances are if I keep coming back for more, that is what I will get. The change then is, I decide I am worth enough (as is my well-being) to say no to the current situation, "enough is enough." There is no virtue in suffering (and at the very least, some of the time, it is not necessary).

In other words I will find myself in more loving circumstances - by expecting it and beginning with consistently loving myself.

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