Avoiding Future Suffering

Man with sander

Last week I watched my husband limping with back and leg pain after spending hours sanding our floors. Clearly, bending over with the sander was aggravating a pre-existing back injury. Rather than avoiding the activity creating his pain, he worked, bent over with the sander, a good part of the next day. Our floors looked great once he finished. But it took several days for the physical pain this work caused to diminish.

The suffering of day one did not make him avoid what had caused that suffering on day two. But, we all do things like that. We continue saying “yes” to projects even though we know our days are full. Somewhere in the back of the mind is a voice reminding us stress and fatigue will result, but we still add just one more thing to an already full calendar.

Patanjali,s Yoga Sutras say there are three kinds of suffering. Suffering due to change, suffering that comes from things we long for or are greatly attached to, and suffering that comes from not being able to override our patterns even when
they are harming us. Here are some examples I notice in everyday life.

Parinama – Change is constant. The seasons change from hot to warm to chilly to cold. We change as we grow from children to householders to “seniors.” Our closest friend moves across the country. A family member gets sick and dies. A beloved pet is lost. Our business grows, and then closes. Yesterday was sunny, today is cloudy. Everything changes but we may not recognize it if the transition is slow. But sometimes the change is so quick that we cannot comprehend it, let alone adjust to it. We want to hang on to what is familiar, but as the reality doesn’t allow
that, we grieve and suffer.

Tapa – Wanting what we want and keeping what gives us pleasure. Dreams of something we want to own or achieve can be pleasurable or painful. When the desire for a house, a relationship, or recognition is strong yet not achievable, we can feel frustrated, angry, sad, miserable. In another example, we may love our job and identify so strongly with our occupation that when we retire we mourn the loss of who we were rather than living a new life. In either case, desiring something we cannot have or being attached to something that changes or disappears, we
experience pain.

Samskara – Deep conditioning or imprint, habit. Have you ever seen someone with an oxygen tank who can’t resist lighting a cigarette, or someone who has had a triple by-pass salivating over a Big Mac and French fries? Certain unconscious patterns of behavior cultivated over a long period of time may result in
problems, ill-health, and suffering.

Our experiences create impressions in our mind. The more the experience is repeated or the more profound, the deeper the impression. We may not be aware that these engrained ways of seeing ourselves or the world cause us to think and act a certain way. Even with the knowledge of what will cause our suffering, the patterns are so deeply rooted that we often fail in our attempts to reduce that very suffering.

Avoid future suffering
Our goal, then, is to be able to discriminate between what is real and what is the mind’s tendency to vacillate, create desires, and identify with things that have the potential to create suffering. So, how, we might ask, shall we do this?

Prepare for the negative aspects of suffering. If there is a hurricane coming, you prepare for it. Those who ignore warnings suffer the most, unfortunately. Often our desire to do something, whether it is to sand floors or to stay in our home during a storm, overrides our awareness that we are creating more potential for suffering.

Here is where yoga practice can help. We learn as we move, breathe and meditate, where the lines are between feeling comfort and discomfort. We grow in awareness, not only of our bodies, but of our thoughts and patterns as well. With greater consciousness, our ability to discern between what is helpful and what will cause suffering grows.

We can’t control everything, especially not Nature. But, with mindfulness we can make better choices to prepare for or avoid the effects of suffering. The floors may have to be sanded, but we can hire someone. And, we can’t control Mother Nature but we can board up the house and get the kids and dog in the car and leave.

A Lesson on Mistakes

Yoga class image

The lesson came in the first class of the first day of my Vedic Chant Training in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our teacher was reviewing chants we had studied over the past two years. We were directed to chant them without looking at our chant papers – in other words, we had to chant from memory.

Of course, mistakes were made. And, I realized that every time I heard myself make a mistake, I was thrown off and found it difficult to join back in the chant.

As we finished each chant, our teacher Sonia Nelson asked us what we noticed. I raised my hand and explained that every mistake I made so threw me off I found it difficult to regain my place in the chant.

She related her own experience with mistakes as she was learning. She explained that she had been clear about wanting to learn to chant well. In the process of studying, she came to realize that mistakes were her teachers. The mistakes she made chanting identified for her what she needed to work on and refine to reach her objective.

Her advice to me was priceless. She told me I needed to change my negative associations with mistakes. I needed to replace my old samskaras or habitual way of thinking about mistakes with new, positive samskaras.

When the awareness of a mistake comes up in chanting, she suggested pressing a finger and imagining sending the “mistake,” like a text, to a text box. Later I could return to the text box and work on refining that problem area I had identified. For me, this sounded like a plausible and positive way to deal with mistakes, perhaps even those I might make in other areas of my life.

Rather than getting bogged down with self-criticism when I make a mistake, I can identify it, put it away for the moment so I focus on what is going on in my life at that moment. In a way this becomes an act of acceptance. I made a mistake, but I can still address what needs my attention in the moment, and come back to deal with it thoughtfully and take whatever action is needed.

We are human. We all make mistakes. Looking at our mistakes as opportunities to learn and refine our actions can be so much more helpful and supportive in our lives than self-criticism and negativity.

What do you think? Could this lesson be of help to you?