Being Present with Suffering

When I’m wrestling with an idea I can sometimes (OK, often) be guilty of staying too high in the mountains, rather than down in the valleys—down in the mud. Lately I’ve been working with an especially tough subject though (did you read the title of this post?) and not getting very far. Mostly I’ve been writing and deleting, writing and deleting.

Suffering and pain are in the mud.

When one attempts to write about such things from a theoretical perspective, it can quickly sound hollow. Suffering and pain are real. They are aspects of life that can’t be avoided. Last week I was making dinner and having a happy conversation with my husband when I received a phone call from someone I love very much, someone who was trapped in deep pain.

One of the reasons I’m so dedicated to my practice of yoga is that it chips away at my automatic reactions to things. The automatic response to try and “solve” the pain of people I care about. Or to “freeze” when faced with my own.

Through my practice I’m able to look at the pain and suffering in my life and breath deeply and clear my mind and look at the pain and suffering again. When I’m connected to my practice I’m able to stay present with the reality of my feelings long enough to respond without judgement or rash action. This isn’t easy. It isn’t new-age frew frew crap. It’s real life and it’s hard. But when I move my body, when I breath deeply, when I allow myself to become still, when I just sit with pain (mine and others) and allow myself to be present with it, things become a little easier. The path toward intentional action (as opposed to automatic re-action) feels more like a possibility. I am better able to notice the knee-jerk habitual response that’s crying out to me and choose something different.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Standing on the mountain top again. Sometimes, when we’re mired deep in pain, the idea of being still and present sounds insane.

I’ve been taking a yoga class lately with a lovely teacher named Ruby. When I walked into class last week, my heart was filled with the suffering at the other end of that phone call. It was filled with my own suffering at the difficulty of memory, expectation and change. Ruby, in a class focused on strengthening the immune system, asked us to move and make sounds and shake. I was happy to get my lymphatic fluids moving, happy for the immune boost, but really, I was thankful to stand in a room surrounded by people who were shaking and sighing, who were doing something physical and somewhat strange.

After the movement, Ruby called us back to stillness. And I dutifully stood there. And I felt as though everything had changed. Things had broken loose. My suffering wasn’t gone. And I didn’t know how to magically “fix” the suffering of the woman who had called me. But I remembered a key lesson of yoga: Everything is real, but everything is changing. All the time. It’s something I talk a lot about in my teaching, but in that moment of standing still I felt it. When faced with suffering and pain (or anything else for that matter) there’s no all-the-time-perfect-answer or response. We have to be present to what is and decide what to do—again and again and again—afresh in every moment.

I practice yoga to increase the moments of clarity in my life. Those ever elusive, brief moments when I remember who I truly am. (The first four yoga sutra’s state: “Now, the teaching of yoga is presented. Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind. When that is accomplished, the seer abides in its own true nature. Otherwise, at other times, the seer is absorbed in the changing states of the mind.”)

I have no specific pearls of wisdom on how best to respond to suffering. All I can say is practice no matter what’s happening or what emotion is present. Cultivate habits of practice when you’re happy so that it’s not so hard to find your way into practice when you’re not. And remember, a good hour long group practice is wonderful. A 20 minute practice at home is wonderful. But so is taking a quick “bathroom” break in order to push the pause button and sit in stillness for a moment. So is taking a deep breath, rather than holding your breath, when you’re trapped in a difficult situation. It’s all practice.

Yoga practice is the remembering of who we truly are in every moment of our lives. Yoga practice is responding to and being present with suffering (and everything) while abiding in our own true nature. I’m guilty of abiding in my false identifications and attachments a lot. But, thankfully, less than I used to.

Hiking in Indiana

Ruby’s practice:

  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Notice how you’re feeling.
  • Briefly and gently move in anyway you need to in order to feel comfortable and limber.
  • Come to a standing posture (mountain pose) and feel your feet on the ground. Feel the air around you. Take a few more deep, slow breaths.
  • Make a soft fist with your right hand and begin to gently tap your left arm—all of it! Move up and down every side of your arm and into your armpit. After about three times through, open up your right hand and “brush” off the energy. As you do this make a sound. Whatever sound makes sense, maybe a deep sigh or the sound we often make after lifting something heavy. Repeat this brushing-off accompanied with sound 3 times.
  • Do the same thing on your right arm.
  • Then your neck, shoulders and back.
  • Then your chest and belly.
  • Take another moment with your chest. Act like King Kong. Gently beat your chest while saying “Ahhhh…”
  • Then your legs. Make sure to spend some time on your inner thighs and outer hips.
  • After you’ve tapped and brushed every part of your body, take about 45 seconds to shake. Gently bounce and shake your entire body.
  • And then stand completely still for at least a minute.

10 Responses to Being Present with Suffering

    • Nice to hear from you Catherine. It was so lovely to meet you last month! I hope your practice and teaching are going well.

  1. I’ve been lazy and not practicing yoga lately. Your blog really motivates me to start doing yoga again. I will begin tonight! Also, reading your blog (no matter what the post is about) magically makes me feel better, always. Thank you, Summer!

    • Thank you so much for these kind words Naoko. They are the motivation that keeps me writing on days when it is hard…

      Yes, start your practice again tonight! You can even start simply: with one, deep, intentional breath.

      Be well,
      S

    • Happy New Year Shannon!! I love your intention to meditate every evening. Yoga is often thought of as simply a physical practice, but it’s actually a deep meditation tradition. Let me know if you need any help building your practice!!

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