I’m sitting cross-legged before a monk offloading my woes. There’s enough time. I’m here for five whole days without children, work or any distraction. Even mobile phones are contraband. Bloody hell!
I’ve signed up for the ‘Embracing Change’ program at Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary in Thailand. They get their fair share of separated people here, like me. It’s right up there with death of a loved one and other such life altering calamities as one of the top five life stressors which bring people to their knees.
Only what I learn from my monk, Rajesh, who is technically no longer a monk but a Life Enhancement Mentor assigned to me for my stay, is that the trick to ease suffering is to suffer. The only way out is through.
“If you’re going to suffer, suffer properly”, he tells me. I start to wish I’d chosen the detox program instead.
Over the next few days Rajesh goes on to teach me ‘The art of suffering properly’. I take notes. I need to because it’s something most of us are not so good at. We are instead “adept at the game of avoidance of pain and suffering”. But to run, he warns me, keeps us stuck in spiralling patterns of despair and hopelessness. The art is this: when pain arises, however mild or otherwise, go within. Pay attention to our ‘escape routes’ – those things we all do to distract ourselves – scrolling Instagram, bingeing Netflix, downloading to a friend – and resist. Stay in the discomfort and wait for it to dissolve. Which, I’m assured, it will. Ninety seconds tops.
“You may not be responsible for causing the pain”, he says soothingly. “But be responsible for ending it”.
This might be news to me but it’s a movement of sorts. Leaning into pain is a thing. Something wise people have practice for eons but most of us have been too busy avoiding to notice. We are taught these days to think positively, to cajole ourselves out of our distress before it takes hold.
Yet spiritual masters prescribe a healthy dose of wallowing to get to the other side. As spiritual teacher and author Eckhardt Tolle says, “You need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it”.
Sarah Wilson suffers well. The powerhouse behind the I Quite Sugar phenomenon and author of ‘First, We Make The Beast Beautiful’, her best selling memoir on anxiety, writes candidly about her frequent dives into darkness as being the catalyst for her most profound realisations. “You can resist this discomfort, find the flies unbearable, give into the resentment, torture yourself”, she writes of a long solo hike. “Or you can bunker down and sit in it. And when you do, something happens. You enter a slipstream of movement and calm non-thinking.”
Another master sufferer is author and activist Glennon Doyle who has mined deep despair for personal elevation. She’s amassed a huge following via a platform of urging the rest of us to go there, to welcome doom as our greatest teacher. “Pain knocks on everyone’s door. If we are wise, we will greet it and say, ‘Come in, sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know’”, she says. “I’ve learned that when I run from pain, I bypass transformation”.
We get it in hindsight. Looking back on the heartbreak, the job loss, the absent father and far deeper challenges besides, we can usually redefine it, given time, to glean the profound offerings within. With perspective we can appreciate how it’s the tough times that have shaped us. Yet try telling us that when we’re in the thick of it. Try staying in the thick of it.
Next time I do.
The day came like any other. But by mid morning I was rattled. A series of letdowns, plans gone awry, overwhelmed by all that’s on my plate. At first I revert to default, powering through my to-do list. Anything to deflect from the rising anguish. Then I remember the monk. And I attempt to suffer properly.
I crawl back into bed. At noon. I have never done this before, except when I’m sick or that time I had depression in my twenties. I put the phone in the other room so I can’t call anyone and I stay with the angst. Until school pickup.
I put on a happy face there. Only it’s not an act. I do feel better for it. For allowing the feelings I usually flee from. It’s this that will make me whole.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and on dailylife.com.au and is published here with permission.