One of my most popular posts is “The Relationship Between Growth and Suffering.” I felt like expanding on it in the hope of shedding more light on suffering, since emotional pain generates more questions than any other human experience.
Many well-known creators and thinkers over the course of human history were not without their demons. We look to these people and wonder what it is about emotional tumult that pushes them into acts of creative expression. We also want there to be a glimmer of something not-awful in all that torments us. The good news is that this is true: There is a relationship between these things, and if you are suffering often for “no apparent reason,” I believe it means you’re in the thick of becoming who you are.
In the first post I liken the spiritual growth process to the Theory of Positive Disintegration. In this metaphor, your ego is a seed casing and suffering is the pressure which pushes you to ultimately flower. Positive Disintegration is a theory of development I really love, in part because it views the human organism as growth-oriented by default. This has become glaringly obvious to me: By our very nature we are all pulled to evolve, to become, and to outgrow our childish and destructive behaviors. Yogic theory agrees: This view posits that the thing pulling on us is higher consciousness itself. Consciousness is always trying to pull you up and towards it, out of your neuroses and into your Self. In short, you are all but “doomed” to evolve and grow, whether or not you think you even want to yet.
Here’s the rub: To access these “higher” spaces means we must let go of that which we imagine to be safe and familiar. It’s when we try to remain seeds (or roots, or saplings) out of fear that hurts us. Therefore, the purpose of this post is to discuss that it is resistance to growth that creates the most suffering, not growth itself.
Having said all that, I don’t believe suffering is a prerequisite for creation. We are all creators, whether or not we are aware of it, and whether or not anything tangible is made with our bodies and/or minds. The romanticization of pain (and addiction and mental illness) is an unfortunate byproduct of our culture. We recognize the significance of art and that the act of creation is a wonderful thing to do as a human. So, when our great thinkers and creators are addicts and “crazy people,” we start to glamorize these parts of their minds. (FYI: Addiction and madness are super not-glamorous.)
The reason this is unfortunate is because our best work actually comes when we are calm, well-cared for, and “out of the way” of the creative process. Additionally, work can be done with joy done even when it deals in heavy matters. For instance: I’m here writing about things like the apocalypse, addiction, and mental illness and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
I believe artists often wrestle with demons because many millions of humans are not yet as keenly aware of their inner evolution. They have not yet been pulled into the storm of what Dabrowski would call “Stage 2.” If, by some incredible miracle, everyone were to wake up to Reality at once, the “demons” we see in the gifted would dissolve immediately. The average amount of awareness, being quite low, acts to hold those back who are trying to grow at an accelerated rate. If they were in a more nourishing environment—one that saw the value in their evolution rather than feeling threatened by it (or worse, trying to find a way to “monetize” said evolution)—suffering in this way would be reduced.
It’s almost like creators and philosophers across generations have always been trying to climb out of a mud pit made of tyranny, cruelty, and other hierarchies (even if they themselves have fallen to cruelty and egotism). We all know this is virtuous on some level. It is also difficult and painful for them to challenge the mold around them—and when I say this, I mean in unfashionable ways. In society there is often a “cause du jour,” and many of us feel righteous when we jump on the bandwagon to challenge these things. But in this sense, I am more speaking of philosophers such as Kierkegaard (or Truth-bringers such as Christ) who were denigrated and yet continued to follow their hearts and consciences. These kinds of people are significantly more rare, and for this, can receive a great deal of ostracization. This kind of life can render one isolated and “in their own world,” which, of course, hurts. It does not need to be this way.
Here are some additional bulletpoints on growth and suffering:
- As a human, you are pulled towards growth. Growth means leaving your seed casing, your present ego. When we intellectualize it, question it, doubt it, or suppress it, we are fighting a process that cannot really be fought.
- We create suffering by refusing to accept the changes that accompany inner growth. I can’t tell you what changes will need to be made once you start really expanding. It may be certain relationships, your job, your location, your habits, or any number of less-dramatic tweaks. On the other hand, you may not feel moved to change much externally at all. No one can say what will need to be done if/when you wake up or grow spiritually—only your own inner compass can point you to these changes. Also, your intuition probably already has an idea. My advice is to follow that intuition, even though your mind will resist it. To see this process through, your conditioned mind has to get out of the driver’s seat of life. It is not your friend.
- The more often we refuse to accept who we are and what we need to do, the more suffering we cause ourselves. Refusal to do what you are pulled to do (in favor of the mind’s “but wait” nonsense) is resistance, through and through. For instance: Alcohol was a big thing for me. My ego did not want to give it up. In service to my ego, my mind did a great number of tricks in order to keep me drinking for years longer than I should have. Guess what? The amount of suffering I created for myself due to my unwillingness to drop this habit is incalculable: So many humiliating texts were sent, and so much morning shame was endured. In Ireland, after not being able to eat normally for three days due to a whisky hangover, I pleaded with my liver to not give up on me. It sucked. Now I fully recognize that it was part of my path to play around with this drug for as long as I did. Letting go of alcohol happened in its own time. Still, along the way, it hurt, over and over and over again, and always in the same way. It really comes down to this: How many times do you need to humbled by suffering before you’re actually ready to change? The answer is different for everyone.
- Growth won’t stop just because the “little you” feels over it. Do we understand what I mean by the “little you”? I mean the one who believes it “should” be in control, who falls into despair when life does not go “their way,” and assumes they can muscle life into some kind of acquiescence to better suit their desires. The “little you” is made of childish delusion; it does not want to accept disagreeable realities or concede that it really isn’t in charge. More times than I can count, I have asked myself this question: “When will this whole thing just end?” And that created a lot of suffering, because here’s real talk: It won’t end. This is another good thing to just accept. Yes, in regards to spiritual awakening, it will level out. This turmoil does not last forever. If you persist and persist and persist, the mind will take its rightful place within your expanded consciousness and quit creating awful feelings for you all the time. I promise you this will happen if you just keep going, even when you think you can’t. But growth itself is unending. The intense awakening is more like the drastic moves out of the seed casing and above the ground. In this sense—to liken you to a tree—once you are a sapling, the emotional storm settles. Even so, you’re still going to be growing upwards for a very long time.
- Ultimately, sadness and pain are transient thoughts. I know this won’t land well for anyone with severe depression, but hear me out: Consciousness (you) always exists in boundless, infinite form; sorrow and despair just float through at times. Like everything else within pure consciousness, they come and go. Pure consciousness is the only unchanging thing. It is actually the attention we lavish upon sadness and pain that energizes them. Pay more attention to the negativity in someone, and they will become more negative. This is true for what you attend to in yourself as well. I don’t mean to imply that “changing where your attention goes” is a quick and easy task, or that recovery from a pattern of depression is going to happen overnight—but it can be done, and it is worth it. Nothing that I advocate for happens overnight. Recovery from anything, including deep depression, is rather the result of much effort and tenacity and belief in the possibility of recovery. There is a mental resilience that must be in place. If we are lacking this mindset, it is helpful even to start there.
- We cannot make logical sense out of life and/or anguish, even though we really want to. I know this is also a very unsatisfying thing to read, but it is true. Sometimes pain can be treated like a clue: Alcohol made me miserable, so I quit drinking. My job is becoming difficult for me, so I’m taking up a new endeavor. Other times pain completely defies rational explanation. There is no predictable, proportionate “amount” of pain that yields some other amount of growth. Similar to point #3, it really has to do with how long you need to be “worked on,” and that’s different for every individual. This thing isn’t an exact recipe yet it is also assured: Put enough pressure and heat on carbon, and it becomes a diamond. When we have a bit of space in our hearts, we can look back on suffering and see that it was actually a rather strange state to be in. And at the risk of sounding harsh, we can see that it is actually a bit arrogant—again, the work of the “little you”—to assume you should be the decider for when suffering is over. We are far more powerful than we imagine, but we are not the ultimate deciders for how we grow and what we need. The best we can do is make those necessary changes, keep up our practices, and have grit. Expecting a constant answer for the “why” of suffering is itself indicative of the need to grow. The truth is simply that we do suffer… until we don’t anymore. What happens in between is mysterious, and when we cultivate wisdom, we can even see the beauty in it. Furthermore, surrendering to the fact that all of this isn’t really “your call” can actually help a lot.