Art in Action: 4 Things about Separating Struggle from Suffering


Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Since I can remember, I’ve seen struggle and suffering as one single thing: seared together like the iron-on patches my mom put on my ToughSkins jeans, melted into one block like a Velveeta grilled cheese on white bread.

The first time I heard the Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,” it was as if it was spoken to me in Swahili. What does that even MEAN? Of COURSE, pain is suffering. Crazy Buddhists. Sheesh.

Mindful practice pries open some space between struggle and suffering and gives me a chance to make a choice. Doing something that is uncomfortable but with low stake – like spending time in a yoga posture or dancing all-out to Life During Wartime or sitting in stillness on the cushion — gives me ample opportunity to feel the struggle and then choose.

1. Feel the difference between struggle and suffering.

There is aliveness in struggle. Struggle is a place of learning, growth, of moving into potential. Struggle is where we build things and create things and make things happen. Especially when you are stepping into something difficult – Upward Facing Bow, perhaps, or building a Web site or having a conversation with your teenager — set an intention to notice the difference between struggle and suffering.

In the midst of what you’re doing, feel it fully and notice if there is a secondary layer of pain or discomfort in the form of thoughts telling you that it should be different than it is. Things like “You should be able to do this by now,” or “What is wrong with you (or the Web program) that this is going so crappily?” or simply “This shouldn’t be this difficult” are sure signs you are suffering. Notice the physical sensation of those voices in your head.

2. Feel the difference between making it easier and making it more easeful.

The Buddha called it The Second Arrow (there is a great, short explanation here and a more detailed one here). The pain of life will happen to everyone, that’s the first arrow. The mental entanglements (This isn’t fair! I hate this! Someone did this to me!) around the pain is the second arrow.

Making a situation easier might mean running from or postponing the difficult pose or task or conversation. Making it more easeful can mean staying in the midst of it but letting go of the mental entanglements.

While biking up a hill this morning and a big loud truck came up fast and close by me. It scared me a little (the first arrow) and my mind first went to the second arrow of anger, blame, irritation. When I noticed that, I took a breath, felt my legs working, and kept pedaling. That choice made the situation more easeful  – and pulled out the Second Arrow.

3. Listen to the story

We all have a different Second Arrow Chorus of voices in our heads so it can be useful to get curious about what they are saying. Your mind may paint you as the victim (“People always take advantage of me” or “Nothing good ever happens to me.”), or the unloved one (“I’m excluded or left out again” or “There is something wrong with me.”), or the martyr (“I have to do everything” or “No one helps me.”). Whatever your Chorus sings into your ear, know that your particular ear worm got lodged there a long time ago in a misguided attempt to protect you. Recognizing the (often untrue) stories as suffering can help release their hold and allow us just enough space to choose something different.

4. Know that you will choose suffering (consciously or not).

You are human. No matter how much you practice, it’s likely that you will suffer sometimes. (Even the Dalai Lama must have moments of cranky, right?) The key isn’t releasing suffering permanently and perfectly, but to recognize it when it’s happening (in yourself and others), offer some gentleness and kindness, and see if it’s possible to peel that grilled cheese open and separate the struggle from the suffering.

  1. bsosdian said:

    Yet another brilliant nugget of wisdom, Susan! I marvel at the infinite ways true, ancient wisdom can be refreshingly retold. This succinct, little gem re-inspires me to focus on the richness of those subtle opportunities when the pain hits, as you have so well articulated. Suffering certainly sucks, but your piece is also making me smile to think how silly it is! Hope you didn’t suffer in its writing; it is one of the best I’ve encountered.

    • Thank you, Brian! I’m delighted you enjoyed it and no worries, it was written with a cat in my lap and a cup of tea beside me. No suffering there. ❤

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