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Suffering is Optional?

My shamanic mentor Alberto Villoldo used to say something like: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Do you find it outrageous? I did.

He defines it like this: Pain is part of living as a human being. We suffer illness, injuries, abandonment, disappointment, failure, the end of love, death of a loved one... Experiencing painful events is inevitable, and we can’t just decide to skip them.

Suffering, on the other hand, is made of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the interpretation we give those painful experiences. And there we do have a choice. We can change the stories we tell ourselves and the meaning we assign to those events.

I thought about this distinction recently, because it came up so clearly in my own experience, so I want to share it with you.

You know the kind of people who go for a vision quest on the top of a mountain for three days without food or water, or sit to meditate facing a blank wall 14 hours a day for years, or those extreme endurance athletes who train for the ultramarathon and end up running a 100 km in one go or do the triathlon or 24 hours of aerobic exercise… I can imagine how pushing yourself through your limits and beyond can be transformative. I’ve always admired those people, and also thought they were utterly crazy.

I am a Feldenkrais practitioner. If this means anything to you you’d know that this method is the softest, the most self-caring and non-invasive way to create change and growth. I know it is possible to learn, improve and grow without inflicting suffering on myself. So I’ve never had the inclination to go into those extreme feats of self-exertion.

Now, about 18 months ago I started practising the Wim Hof breathing technique; I go through a couple of rounds of his breathing exercises almost every day, and I find it invigorating and entertaining. Wim Hof is known as the Ice-Man. He holds some Guinness records of swimming in icy water, enjoying a long ice-water bath, barefoot running in the snow, that kind of thing.

This is when I started to end every shower with cold water. My tap water isn’t ice cold, but it is much colder than what I had considered pleasurable. This is one of those things that I could admire, and understand that it could be good for me, but never really considered doing. I hate the cold, and showering in cold water felt too much like self-inflicted suffering to actually do it.

I’m still very reluctant to inflict pain on myself for educational purposes, but I somehow managed to change the story. I could transform the cold shower and my body’s reaction to it into an interesting sequence of sensations. I can feel the gasp reflex, I can feel my skin reacting to the cold, I can follow the way the water seems to become less cold after a while, and I end up simply enjoying a shower. My breathing is calm, I don’t gesticulate frantically like I would before. I observe myself; I am neutral and curious.

Why am I telling you all this? Because last week I went for a weekend on the beach. This is Chile, the Pacific is cold down here, I’m telling you. The day was cloudy, there were only a few kids getting themselves wet. I decided to dip in. I walked into the water, I didn’t do those silly jumps, trying not to get my belly wet as a wave was approaching. I didn’t have that familiar inner conversation: “Shall I, or shall I not? Did I have enough? Time to go out?” I just walked in, dived into an oncoming wave, swam around for a couple of minutes and went back out.

I was surprised, I can tell you. I’ve been living in Chile for 20 years. I simply don’t go into these waters; I had considered them not apt for human touch. Just getting my ankles wet had been painful. And there I was, enjoying myself in the cold water. It was cold, but I wasn’t suffering. I actually enjoyed the mildly extreme sensation.

So what has changed? My mindset, of course. My relationship with cold water has changed. In my mind, cold water stopped being associated with suffering. And curiously enough, it doesn’t even feel like pain any more. It is simply a body sensation without any emotional charge. I could walk in without hesitation and enjoy the ocean, which I love, because the inner dialogue that anticipated suffering wasn’t there any more.

This is when I remembered my mentor’s words: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Can you make some sense of this outrageous affirmation now? Can you recall anything from your life that stopped feeling like suffering because you changed your inner story about it?


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