Updated 18th of August 2019.
How can we grow through suffering? The immediate experience and the cultural notion of suffering are often negative. Though if we relate suffering to the effects it has on us, we can often see that our response to suffering is what can make us virtuous and puts our personal, cultural and physical resilience on a path towards growth.
Take care that these are just thoughts, I'm not trained in psychoanalysis. Heck, I don't even follow my own theories. But I do read about this topic a lot, and like to think I am ready to have some of my own thoughts on the matter to grow further.
In psychology - especially applicable to those with some form of anxiety - the brain can become accustomed to anxiety and develop a pretty constant state of ‘fear perception’ that induces stress and emotional resistance. Some personal reflection taught me that it's quite simple to see this in my own mind, and sometimes in others as well. At one give time we find ourselves on one side of the spectrum: the side of anxiety, or motivation. The one extreme causes us to close off and refrain from showing any vulnerability (physically or mentally), whereas the other causes us to do the opposite (which is often necessary to manifest motivation into action and make shit happen). The trick, I believe, is to be able to induce this state of motivation structurally through habit formation, or be able to move more to the neutral middle consciously (using a variety of mental tactics). Consistency is key.
What I found interesting is some tendencies I think correlate with the state of anxiety in this spectrum that often indicates a pattern of someones' mental state:
- Tendency to become generally passive - or even lethargic/hopeless/panicked - without a high clarity of challenge and reward that is created externally. Manifests in lower risk taking, feeling the need to confirm safety before taking any action and induces further conformity (interesting read here: Why you should stop caring what other people think);
- Reduced 'causal' reasoning. Reasoning in a form of 'if this, then that' is vital to start orienting towards taking action. Reasoning switched either to trying to emotionally analyze a situation, or simply become emotional/anxious;
- An overall increased fear of confrontation and misperception of its likelihood (which is easily quite skewed), both personally and physically. Confrontation is not bad, it’s merely potential for either resolution or more escalated conflict. We are the common denominator of all conflict in our lives, thus we have a clear role to play in all of them. There’s substantial meaning in conflict (be it with people, yourself or your environment);
- To see discomfort as a reason to relax and distance oneself - basically avoiding the challenge - instead of as a reason to persevere (which could mean you have to rest, but that's different from avoidance). This coping strategy leaves little room for relaxing during good times, as a reward, instead of as a coping strategy for challenging times. We need to push through and reward ourselves (ideally randomly) to stay most motivated and cultivate good habitual patterns;
- Responding defensively instead of being inquisitive. Resisting, rather than taking control and deciding what to do. Forcing the discomfort of confrontation onto oneself can lead to a true experience of the power we have to choose, merely by influencing the way we react to external stimuli. We can't control a situation, but we control ourselves. Annoyingly so, we are structured to view events as external situations rather than our own experience, making cultivation of this insight rather challenging.
But how did we get there?
Now, time to make an interesting jump: this consistent, very much subconscious notion of fear in our conceptions of the world leads us to value abstract ideas around morality and the ‘good’ more, it seems to me. It comes from the primal functioning of our brain that is extremely focused on preventing bad shit from happening. Our conscious thoughts reflect this subconscious fear perception, so much more than we think. It greatly impacts the things we value and believe.
The more we use the notion and the softening effects of ideas around ‘true’ good, the more we calm our often unnecessarily panicked minds. Jiddu Krishnamurti, too, noted that we are only scared of our own thoughts. Within these thoughts, I feel the way we reason towards ethically 'perfect' and/or consistent ideas (which, when looking at the causal nature of the world isn't that realistic) is a good indication of our - totally natural and acceptable - tendency to avoid confronting ourselves with the fundamental responsibility to act instead of judge. It leads to virtue signaling and other forms of non constructive idealism, at times. Don't get me wrong though, there is amazing power behind conveying ideas.
But the ideas are by no means a virtue on their own.
We are scared of fear itself, and not of reality. We easily miss the goodness in the world as it really is, because our thoughts reflect the torments of our minds on the world we perceive, causing us to guide ourselves towards ideas of good that often result in bad judgement and higher sacrifice for the good. Sacrifice itself is immensely valuable and underlines the power of ideas, but we should use it sparingly to not get caught in the trap of ideas, which in our causal world, can lead to interesting second and third order consequences.
This sacrificial tendency causes more suffering, and takes away our focus from the trivial discomfort needed to actually achieve these long term ideals. Avoiding sacrifice or suffering, is in its own a form of suffering.
This suffering is at times akin to martyrdom, and merely exists for an idea and not in a well attuned response to reality. What then, are we creating, beside a world based on ideals, that are based on feelings that don't exist in a causal equilibrium with reality? How more can we diminish reality to something that we can neither experience the suffering, nor the true beauty of for what it is?
But I feel we need to continue to expand our soul, and I hope I'm not alone in this belief. I want my mind to be capable of being ‘here’ and ‘now’. Keeping my mental and physical posture under the stresses of the world, so that I can shape myself into a being that can live in harmony with reality a little better every day, well accustomed to its hardships and rewards. This is, to me, achieving something close to true fulfillment.
The first step, I believe at the time of writing, is to let go of the notion of some ‘continuously perfect equilibrium’ that we see in concepts like ‘good’, ‘balance’, ‘happiness’, ‘trust’ etc. These things have an interesting effect on the mind, whereas they make us compare what is to what could be whenever we judge a situation subjectively. Of course, the notion of ‘ideas’ is the very essence of our intelligence and constitutes a large portion of our extraordinary capacity to adapt to our surroundings. Yet I feel that in this world where I’m generally very safe, I’m guided by this tendency to extrapolate the notion of ‘perfect good’ into my judgements of the trivial. It evolves in my tendency to avoid trivial ‘discomfort’.
Avoiding discomfort is often unproductive and a sign of our 'primal tendencies', whereas avoiding real danger is good. But honestly, when are we scared of something truly dangerous. We often don't even see it coming..
How I think it can work better
A state of avoidance, for me, is my tendency to not consciously acknowledge responsibilities, procrastinate my tasks and generally be more lazy and seek for the easiest path. Naturally, this has a certain pragmatism to it: I leave room for more and novel experiences, by preventing the responsibility I can predict.
However, our lives are so comfortable nowadays, that I am not actually getting used to avoiding responsibility more than I need to (and therefore, trained adaptability). I’m used to being able to avoid the discomfort of responsibility very very efficiently, mentally.
It makes one suffer more, since our lives demand responsibility of us.
I see the detrimental effects of our inability to embrace suffering as a part of ourselves and our reality in my social anxiety, disorder in my living environment (postponing cleaning) and my general emotional sensitivity. This causes me to be more neurotic than I have to be. I think one would thrive on making trivial discomfort a habit. Things like this are cleaning, exercising and a general focus on achieving order, intellectual prowess and aesthetic greatness.
We predict the experience we might have when we do something, using the effect we think we could have on reality, when we undertake something (I will feel this feeling, if I do this thing). The thing is, the world is way too complex for us to predict even our own experiences let alone the non-isolated consequences of our actions.
Were we to get in touch with the world around us more in all its diversity of ideas and people, we would find ourselves confronted with challenges and situations equally complex - and rewarding - to our own intentions.
So, let’s look for the small change we can cultivate consistently like making our bed or doing only 10 sit-ups, giving someone a genuine smile without caring about the response, or telling someone how you feel. The idea is to embrace trivial discomfort and acknowledge it in the world, and keep aiming for our ideals, while staying fully capable of bearing the true equilibrium of life: change and our own feelings. Aim high in ideals, aim low in actions. Achieve less but achieve consistently. Do more. And don't forget to love.
Of course, goal setting and the notion of some ideal and attainable thing we can work towards, is essential for our fulfillment. I’m trying to reflect on the fact that there is a lot of space for the trivial between where we are now, and the future goals we aim for.
In essence, we decide how we judge our own experience and how we react to our own feelings. Our feelings are as they are, but our conception of what to do with them is where trivial suffering and the ability to welcome it, with a feeling of exhilaration and appreciation, truly allows us to control our mind's reactions and with this, our lives.