Suffering is Optional

A key Buddhist tenet states, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

Painful things happen in life. Unless you spend your life encased in bubble wrap and refrain from risky activities (including sitting!), you will incur some injuries. As social animals, humans are guaranteed to experience emotional pain.

What does it mean that suffering is optional?

It’s not always apparent, but we have choices about how we respond to every situation we encounter. When we don’t like something that happens, do we accept the situation? Do we perhaps find the unexpected benefit? Or do we strike out, shut down, catastrophize, regret?

Years ago, I went on a family trip. As we pulled up to our destination, the driver, who shall remain nameless, parked too close to a steep, muddy hill. We got out to check out our accommodations; when we returned, the car had careened to the bottom of the hill.

Decision time. We could have yelled at the driver, starting a fight that ruined the mood for the entire week. We could have worried the car might need repairs we couldn’t afford, or that our week would be spent taking care of the car instead of enjoying our time. There were any number of ways in which we could have decided to suffer.

Instead, we giggled. The kind of giggle that comes from the deepest part of the belly and lasts for minutes. Then, we dusted ourselves off, got behind the car and pushed. There were six of us, and it took all of our combined strength, but we got the car back up that hill. We felt powerful, highly entertained, and most importantly, bonded. We took a great picture in front of the car, and I remember that incident far more than I remember all the things that went right that week.

OK, I get it. But what does this have to do with my body?

Let’s say you injure your left shoulder. It’s going to hurt; pain is inevitable. What’s important is how you respond to that pain.

Do you stop moving the shoulder entirely, fearing more pain? If so, the body gradually builds up extra fascial strapping (think packing tape) to reinforce the immobility. Over time, you lose range of motion. Without the same range of motion in your shoulder, your neck may start to hurt. Perhaps your walking stride changes, as you stop swinging that arm.

Right now, try taking a walk without moving your left shoulder. Really do it; we’ll wait.

Did you notice the whole left side contracting? Did you feel how the hip doesn’t swing as freely as usual? Now try walking normally. Do you feel the difference?

As this theoretical shoulder injury heals, do you gradually return to trusting the shoulder? Or do you call it “my bad shoulder,” and refrain from using it as you did before? Do you take the time to smooth out your walking stride, or is it permanently altered? With the left side contracted, and the left hip not swinging as freely, perhaps you develop low back pain. Perhaps you notice you’re not as bold and confident as you used to be: your shoulder is literally holding you back.

Now your neck hurts, your low back hurts, your energy is waning, and you feel old beyond your years. You’re suffering.

What if you choose a different path?

What if as the shoulder heals, you maintain as much gentle range of motion as possible? You pay attention to how your posture and movements shift to accommodate the injury. As your shoulder begins to feel better, you consciously work to unwind those patterns. As you walk, you pay attention to your left hip, allowing it to swing as before. You relax your neck and side body. The pain passes, and you avoid suffering. Victory!

You have options.

Structural integration is about creating awareness and giving you options for how you stand and move. Not sure where your suffering began or how to unwind it? Contact me to learn more about how structural integration can help.

7 Comments on “Suffering is Optional

  1. Aye and I! The one principle we should never forget is that of equanimity. Especially true for the likes of us, but even more so for anyone facing chronic, debilitating pain. Happy to see you’re out making it real, my friend!

  2. I tried to get up from my chair after hours of computer work. I couldn’t. My right side was in pain, from the lower back to the leg. I walked like the hunchback of Notre Dame. I had just started Yoga with Ali (after many years doing everything in the gym, including kickboxing and boxing) and this was my first “discovery.” Yoga was truly challenging and Ali a wonderful instructor. So I went to see her at her Cambridge studio, and that was (and is) my major “discovery.” She assessed my body to get to the sources of my pain; she intimately knows, and understands, the human body. During my sessions I began to learn while she worked as a sculptor on my muscles, nerves, and bones. The pain disappeared in a few days. I worked everyday and go to the gym several times a week. I feel better and better. Ali is nothing less than a miracle worker with iron fingers in velvet gloves.

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