Do you know that suffering is optional? Spiritual traditions tell us this, but many of us are slow to accept it. Spiritual masters like Buddha and Jesus advised their followers that they would suffer, but they also offered hope for redemption. Yes, suffering is inevitable, but we can transform it.
A friend of mine recently shared his thoughts on how to make sense of suffering. “I want to believe there’s a reason for suffering,” he said. “But what if there’s not? What if people suffer for no reason?”
This friend is a Christian. We are taught to bear our trials the way Jesus did, trusting that God will redeem our suffering. In that sense, suffering is optional. But it seemed my friend had been taught that suffering is noble, and if we do enough of it, we’ll be rewarded.
Suffering is Optional
I’m not sure I agree that suffering is virtuous. Everyone suffers, and it’s natural to wonder why. It’s especially difficult to make sense of suffering if we believe we suffer more than others or that others have more gifts and blessings than we do. But it’s also in those cases that we truly need to learn how suffering is optional.
In yoga and other spiritual practices, we learn it’s not suffering but how we react to suffering that makes the difference. That’s the goal. We’re not trying to make sense of suffering. We’re trying to accept and transforming. And while we do so, it helps to recognize that trials are often the only path to redemption.
If I want to believe my suffering is optional, I have to react to it in ways that can transform it. First, I need to accept that (a) suffering exists, and (b) I don’t always get to choose how or how much I suffer (although I certainly can invite unnecessary suffering into my life).
Getting back to my friend’s question, I don’t know the purpose or value of another person’s suffering. But I can pay attention to how I react to things that trouble me. I can’t change the meaning of suffering, give it meaning, or take meaning away from it by trying to make sense of it. The best I can do is watch it and try to allow it to transform me in some positive way.
Mindfulness Shows Us That Suffering is Optional
One of the best ways I’ve learned to redeem suffering is with mindfulness. Who, after all, is suffering? Maybe suffering is not part of my true nature. As I’ve learned this practice, a remarkable thing has happened. I’ve become less attached to my stories of woe and more aware of my Self (with a capital S).
This is not a new age mind game. There is profound value and truth in it. I tend to agree with spiritual teachers who say we are not our thoughts, our pain, our suffering, or any number of other things, including our thrills, pleasure, accomplishments, and blessings.
We can’t come to awareness of who we are (and aren’t) by reading or talking about it once or twice or ten or even a thousand times. We must make suffering optional with effort. It’s a practice, and it’s not easy. But it’s worth the effort.
Learning to Transform Suffering
I’m sure there’s a swifter path than the one I’ve taken, but here are some things I keep in mind that help me stay aware that suffering is optional:
- My life is not about me.
- Attachment to what I think I need, want, or deserve causes pain.
- I am not my thoughts.
- I am not my emotions.
- The habits I’ve developed through my unique perspective often cloud my experience.
- No one really knows the truth about most things.
- It’s okay to not know the truth about most things.
- Even though I can’t be sure of what’s true and what’s not, I must still make choices.
- I have made and will continue to make lots of imperfect choices.
- Believing I should not make imperfect choices or that perfection is possible causes a lot of pain.
As a yogi, I try not to dwell on suffering. I continue to practice, and with practice, the inevitable pain of life is easier to transform.
What are your best tips for making suffering optional?
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