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On Yoga and Learning to Look at Suffering

I did not come to yoga to understand my suffering. I came to yoga to avoid my suffering.

I had started a new job that was much busier and more stressful than any I had held before. I sat at my desk and frantically typed all day long, then complained about my projects over dinner, and dreamed about them at night. It wasn’t good. I had done some yoga — a class or a course here and there — but it wasn’t something I did on a regular basis, though I knew how much I liked it.

My shoulders and neck were getting tighter and more painful by the day, from constant hunching and the accumulation of stress. My mind was a tangled mess of assignments and words used so often they were rapidly losing meaning. So I started doing short, at-home yoga practices. Ten minutes after a stressful meeting. Fifteen between finishing one project and starting the next. In the evening, once my daughter was in bed, I would go into a quiet room, close the door, and do yoga in the dark.

As I found more stillness and flexibility in my mind and body, the work became less overwhelming. My neck and shoulders still wound tight over each day, but the pain had no chance to accumulate because I was regularly smoothing it away.

This was much better. My suffering decreased.

Then I started to notice that my enjoyment of life was also increasing. The regular practice at slowing down, noticing my breathing, being in the moment, helped me experience the lovely elements of each day more acutely. The warmth of a heavy, purring cat on my lap became an exquisite treat. The soft summer air on my skin as I walked down the block became a treasure. Small, wonderful things started feeling less small, and even more wonderful. My growing ability to snap back from the abstractions of the past and future and exist in the present made my present more joyful.

This was wonderful.

Then recently, I circled back to thinking about suffering again. I have noticed that the same practiced ability to look at myself and notice pleasure can also be used to look at myself and notice pain.

Being in pain and watching myself be in pain are different experiences. In the first, I am immersed in the pain, and I respond to it with anger or avoidance. It is very likely that I will do something I regret. I spread my pain around. No one wins.

When I can pause, even for a flash of a second, this changes. I can choose to take a breath, or three or ten, and I become calmer. I can see my own pain, and the pain or confusion in those around me. I can choose how I want to respond. I can choose to be firm but kind. I can be soft in the face of another’s pain. I can relax my clenched muscles and slow the physical swell of fight or flight. I can stop the cycle of lashing out and start a cycle of care and compassion.

This is huge, and I am exploring it. It is already making my relationships stronger and gentler, and giving me greater peace.

And I can glimpse, just over the ledge of discovery, a path for healing past suffering.

Past emotions are not gone. They live within us, informing our responses, relationships, and perspectives. We are the accumulation of our experiences, and we cannot change the past. But we can change our responses to the past, and in doing so transform the present and future.

I can bring myself to tears if I immerse myself in a sad memory. I can feel the flush of shame if I recall an embarrassment from when I was a teenager. I can stir myself up into a fine frenzy of fury if I delve into past wrongs.

When I can look at my past anger without being enveloped by it, then I have an opportunity. I can understand the situation with much greater intellectual and emotional clarity. Time helps. Practice helps even more. Then I can bring my analytic mind to bear on the problem, and take it apart like a puzzle, gaining understanding of what happened, what went wrong, how I can do better next time. I can choose to view that angry version of myself with compassion. I can forgive the mistakes I made. I can let go of the harm that others did to me. I can heal.

I can only heal, in other words, when I can step outside my suffering. Slowly, over time, with practice, I am learning how to do this. Let me be clear: this does not mean that I do not experience suffering, anger, pain, embarrassment, misery, grumpiness, sorrow, jealousy, rage, helpless fury, or any other emotion. I feel it all. But I’m starting to learn how to feel and to notice myself feeling, and this is what makes the difference.

It’s the difference between having a wave crash over me, while I roll helpless and breathless in the water, unsure which way is up, compared to jumping at the crest of the wave and riding the frothing breaker toward shore. The wave and I are both present, either way. But how we function together has changed.

I didn’t come to yoga to understand my suffering. But as I learn to live with my suffering, past or present, and respond to it with clarity, attention, and compassion, I am transforming how I understand my past — and how I move through every present moment.

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