Thursday, May 7, 2009

Breaking Free from Imaginary Suffering

My wife got laid off yesterday. My sister called; her daughter, my niece, was getting divorced. The big question was what should we tell our mother? Neither of these events were surprising, but my mother has a hard time handling bad news. She would not admit this, but she does tend to magnify problems a little out of proportion. It seems as you get older you should be able to handle whatever happens in life with ease. No one escapes life without pain, suffering, and sorrow, unless they are incapable of feeling anything. The longer you live the more accustomed and experienced you should become in handling difficult times.

One of my most influential teachers, Georges Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic who lived in the early part of the twentieth century, speaks of "conscious labor and intentional suffering" as a means to personal development. He divides suffering into different categories. He speaks of unavoidable suffering that occurs when we we suffer a loss of someone close, or when we or someone we care about is in real pain. We need to deal with this type of suffering as best we can. It's not easy.

Then there is imaginary suffering. This is the most common type of suffering; it's the source of many of the problems in the world. Imaginary suffering is created when our realistic or unrealistic desires are not met. Simply, when we don't get what we want or what we think we deserve. This suffering is part of the programming we undergo as we grow. The amount of imaginary suffering we deal with in our lives is mostly dependent on how we were treated as children and how we were taught to deal with adversity, with not getting our way.

It is difficult to separate unavoidable suffering from imaginary suffering. Both are painful. For some, imaginary suffering is what gives life meaning. It is what makes them feel alive. These people actually thrive on suffering; they love to share it with others. All of us probably have met someone like this or been like this at some point in our lives. But to be happy we need to sacrifice our suffering, our imaginary suffering. Just give it up, see it for what it is.

One of the ways to give up our imaginary suffering is through "conscious labor" and "intentional suffering": putting ourselves in difficult situations; moments when we need to stretch ourselves past our comfort point either physically, emotionally, or mentally. It's putting effort into things that are especially difficult for us. This might include exercise, dieting, gardening, reading, not talking as much, asking our boss for a raise, telling someone how we really feel about them.

The more we choose suffering (activities that force us to break the chains of our existing patterns) the less imaginary suffering we will experience. This is real work, but it has a big payoff. It is a very difficult concept to understand, though, because we love our suffering as much as we love our comfort.

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