Saturday, January 23, 2016

Suffering: How optional is it?

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,” a popular expression that appears in many different places, implies that while we all have pain, it’s how we deal with it that determines the course of our suffering.

Desire, fear and ignorance are often at the core of suffering. The inability to accept things as they are, recognizing that change is a constant, and deep seated fears that reflect themselves in desires that can be unrealistic creates considerable unhappiness for many.

The research indicates that the more chronic the “pain” the more difficult it becomes to ease and stop suffering. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for people affected by chronic conditions to experience anxiety, irritability, anger, fear, depression, frustration, guilt, shame, loneliness, hopelessness and helplessness, all symptoms of suffering.

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived the death camps of the Nazi regimen, has written extensively on suffering and even developed a type of psychotherapy to help those dealing with it. He notes “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In August, Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning was the inspiration for the post Searching for Meaning When You are Chronically Ill. It’s interesting to note that Frankl’s recommendations for easing suffering are quite similar to some of those outlined in Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path that leads to Awakening

Consider the following for reducing or stopping suffering, recognizing that there is no one way that works for everyone.

• Recognize that nothing is permanent and that change is an important part of life. We’re designed to be resilient and we can build on that by maintaining a broad repertoire of possible responses to challenges such as talking, distracting oneself, writing, finding ways to laugh about it, doing something to change the situation, deep breathing, and so on.  

• Accept things as they are. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl

• Practice mindfulness.  Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is one of the few proven therapies that work for chronic pain patients, as well as for many other types of chronic conditions. Frankl practiced aspects of this while imprisoned, as did the prisoner Shukhov in Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” 

• Cut back on news feeds and social media as these venues focus on information, which can unnecessarily increase fear.

Recognize negative thinking and when you are ruminating. Our thoughts have the capacity to make us miserable. The post How to Stop Obsessive Thinking About Illness provides a number of techniques for stopping such thinking.

Find meaning and purpose in your life. As Fankl noted in working in the death camps with inmates it didn’t really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. Check out Searching for Meaning When You are Chronically Ill

As to the original question posed by the title of this post, just how optional is suffering? Because there is pain, there is always going to be some type of suffering involved. The extent of it though can be dictated by how we choose to deal with it.  

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. … Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering. Viktor Frankl

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