The Crap Is The Gold: Embracing Suffering | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

The Crap Is The Gold: Embracing Suffering

Robin recently said something, in one of her many uplifting comments, that really got me thinking.  She asked how I came to be so insightful about human nature.

I agreed with her that I do have a pretty good sense of what makes people tick, and I pondered for a bit how I got that awareness.  Eventually, I realized I got it by being kind of withdrawn and alone as a kid.

When I was little, I didn’t feel very comfortable relating with other children.  The way they communicated and played looked easy, but when I tried to get involved it didn’t come easily to me.  So I took to hanging back and observing, hoping to get a sense of how I could have the fun they seemed to be having.

This was a painful time, but it had wonderful benefits.  All that people-watching did give me a strong sense of what motivates human beings, why they hurt and how they heal.

Is Personal Development About Avoiding Pain?

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the story of my own growth is very different from what we normally hear about personal development and how to create it.

Often, it seems to me, personal development is presented as a bunch of “tips and tricks” for avoiding suffering.  Common examples of what I mean are:

* If you master the right lines and body language, you’ll always “get the girl” (or guy), and you won’t have to feel alone.

* If you learn the right way to organize your e-mail, you’ll be super-productive, and you won’t have to feel anxious about your work.

* If you use these super-savvy-SEO marketing tips, you’ll escape the 9-to-5 grind, and you’ll never feel trapped and frustrated again.

And yet, I think my most profound periods of growth have been the times when I’ve suffered the most – like those hours I spent on the outskirts of the playground as a kid.

What’s more, in moments when I’ve matured the most, suffering has been unavoidable.  When I was little, I had to go to school and be with other kids, and no one was around to teach me “social skills” and make relating easier.  But if I’d been able to somehow escape that situation, I wouldn’t have gained an acute understanding of people’s inner lives.

Sitting With Suffering

Experiences like this have taught me that, when I find myself suffering, turning to “tips and tricks” to escape isn’t always the best idea.  Sometimes, it’s more helpful to “sit with” the hurt — to let go of distractions and turn my attention toward what I’m feeling.

When I’m feeling lonely, for instance, I’ve taken to getting intimate with my loneliness.  I try to tune into the body sensations that tell me I’m feeling alone.  For me, aloneness shows up as a heaviness in my solar plexus.

Interestingly, the more familiar I get with that sensation, the more comfortable, and the less threatening, it seems.  I start to realize that, as Michael Jackson put it, it’s “just another part of me,” and there’s a peace that comes with that realization.

Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone seek out suffering to mature more quickly.  As I’m sure you know, there’s no need to go looking for pain in this world — it’s here in abundance.  The Buddha put it simply:  “existence is suffering.”

What I’m suggesting is that “crappy” times in our lives are often our most powerful periods of growth — and that the deepest self-development happens when we open ourselves to pain, instead of numbing ourselves to it.

32 thoughts on
The Crap Is The Gold: Embracing Suffering

  1. Jay Schryer

    This is incredibly insightful, and useful. I’m only just now starting to see this wisdom unfold in my own life. Not necessarily on a personal development level, though. For me, I’m starting to see how all of my suffering has benefitted me in my artistic expression. I’m a much better writer and musician because of the pain I have gone through. Having these “negative” experiences has allowed me to express myself more deeply and completely than if I would have been able to do otherwise. I think that in order to be a really great artist—no matter which medium you work in—you have to be in touch with the full range of what it means to be human.

    And if we look at our lives as a work of art, then we definitely want to be the best artist we can be, and that means embracing the suffering.

  2. Evan

    Hi Chris. I wonder if Gottama was a bit of a pessimist. I wonder what would happen if we started with joy – not to try to minimise suffering or ignore it.

    I do think that the advice to ‘follow your pain’ is better than ‘follow your bliss’ – pain does get our attention and it’s lessening is rewarding.

    I entirely agree with you about being with the unpleasant stuff.

    I do think the bigger picture is about reducing suffering and pain and increasing joy and ease. (This is where some Buddhists and I disagree – I think we can have joy without pain.)

    As to learning and growing. I do think that the painful times are often the most valuable. I’m optimistic enough to think that it doesn’t have to be that way. That the best way to learn is when we have time to play, freedom to play and aren’t under pressure to deliver an outcome. I think you may agree with this but I’m not sure.

  3. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. fantastic post – so interesting to read. You must have had some kind of inner ability to realise that you could learn from the kids by observing … I know that I didn’t do that and probably still didn’t .. til my mother got ill – then I started learning!

    I liked what you said about personal development – it is personal .. and we can glean helpful ideas .. and build them into our own way of life, if we wish.

    I have to say this period of my life is extremely interesting and I’m learning loads – more in a short space of time, than I ever have .. the net is a brilliant tool to help us find our way – and get insights from people we’d never have met 10 years ago ..

    It’s allowed those of us who want to learn and acquire knowledge do it in a way that suits us – not conforming perhaps to the structured ways of society and expectations thereof ..

    So what you say is so true .. and I haven’t covered the suffering! .. but I so appreciate what you say here .. thank you – Hilary

  4. Kelvin from manifesting abundance

    I guess it depends on each person’s different perspective of life. Some may see it as pain but some may see it as a way to improve themselves, just like you do.

    But then again we also have to continously ask ourselves what do we exactly want out of life! If the period of suffering helps us to reach our goals in even a little bit of way, then it is definitely worth it!

  5. Stacey Shipman

    I, too, was the observer. Still am. I much prefer taking it in than jumping right in. That said, I also agree that when we can feel our pain and be with it that’s where growth occurs. It’s running from it and avoiding it when we get stuck. I speak from personal experience. This is important stuff, thanks for sharing it.

  6. Sara

    Chris — Oh, I can relate to this post. I was a lot like you as a child. In addition, I didn’t have a particularly loving family situation. However, I think these situations actually were important to creating who I am today. I admit I wish my life was different and I wouldn’t chosen the difficulties I experienced, but they did teach me.

    Over the years, I’ve learned to see that my painful times led me to becoming a stronger person. I’m not always good about difficult times, but I have learned that these times often hold a gift, if I willing to wait for it.

    Thanks for insightful post:~)

  7. Robin Easton

    Dear Chris, This is BRILLIANT!! I am so excited reading it. It’s so clean, powerful, incredibly beautiful, and right on. I feel this is the whole key to deep holistic and long lasting growth. By that, I mean that it stays with us, and even BECOMES us. And isn’t just another concept we try to hang onto in our minds.

    My husband just told me last week that I am SO comfortable with not only all my own emotions but other people’s emotions as well. The key for me is, as you said, allowing myself to become comfortable with any and all feelings, including the painful times.

    I realized this at about 28 years old in the rainforest, and I thought it a brilliant way to live. At that same time it struck me how my whole culture, especially the spiritual, new-age, self-improvement, personal growth, and psych arenas were mostly geared toward “up lifting”, and moving away from those uncomfortable, painful, “bad” feelings, experiences or anything that was not “light”, highly elevated in thought, positive, etc. Which I understand, and can be useful at times….

    But in my own life, I decided one day not judge ANY of my feelings/experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, dark or light, and so on. I decided that I would simply FEEL them and observe. From then on I eagerly wanted to explore all the things I felt (even if it was uncomfortable or painful). I was no longer afraid to do this, even if I felt fear over something, I wasn’t afraid to feel the fear. This is when my life became incredibly rich. It’s also when I became really comfortable with myself, others and emotions, even challenging situations. I no longer see them as “something to be got over”, “got rid of”, “quickly moved into the ‘light’”. This doesn’t mean that I don’t make changes in my life, or as you said, that I seek out challenges. It just meant that I embrace it all as growth.

    I am moved that you answered my question, and did so in such an incredibly beautiful way. It confirms so much for me because people don’t often understand me, and immediately want to move me “away” from anything that isn’t totally elevated, pretty, profoundly spiritual, and so on. LOL! :) Like you, I did my MOST growth in the pain and challenges. Thank you for the gift you’ve given me here today. I needed it this week.

    Hugs to you dear friend,

    PS My grade school years were much like yours. I was deeply moved to read that about you and see WHY you are soooo wise, sensitive and thoughtful. Beautiful!!!

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jay — thanks, I’m glad you got a lot out of this post. I totally get the importance of being intimate with all parts of yourself to be a great artist, and I also get how much you embody that in your own life. And I agree, the process of building that intimacy doesn’t feel much like “personal development,” as we usually think of it, because it’s not a linear or predictable process, but it’s necessary if we want to be fully human.

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — yeah, in my own experience at least, joy arises when I drop all the defenses against what’s true right now. For example, I’ve written before about how, when I admit that I really don’t want to do something, and stop pretending I’m enthusiastic about it, something relaxes inside and that actually opens the way for me to get excited about what I’m doing again. So, for me, perhaps, admitting that there’s pain there can be the gateway to joy.

    It sounds like, for you, joy comes when there’s some breathing room for you to play and experiment. I can see the value in that, and I also value those “crucible” periods when I need to deal with conflict and criticism — and perhaps you do too.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — heh, perhaps I had the unconscious desire to learn from the other kids by observing, but at the time it felt to me like observing rather than participating was my only option. I definitely get how much you are pursuing and sharing knowledge just because of your love of it, which is something our culture doesn’t seem to encourage very often, and I’m always grateful for the way you do it.

  11. Chris - Post author

    Hi Kelvin — I like that way of putting it — that remembering that our suffering is almost always a learning experience can be a graceful way of moving through it. The beauty of that awareness is that it doesn’t anesthetize or resist the pain, or wallow in it, but just approaches the pain with a quiet faith.

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Stacey — thanks for saying that — I suspect a lot of us bloggers were the observing type. :) And I can also imagine how that contributed to the gifts you’re giving people today with what you do and your ability as a leader.

  13. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — thanks for saying that — it sounds like you can see how important your painful experiences have been to shaping who you are. I know a lot of people are grateful for that person.

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Robin — reading your comment, and also your book, I can definitely get how dropping all the judgment we usually do around “negative” feelings like anger and sadness would be needed in the rainforest — after all, if an animal spent any time wishing things were better, or collapsing into anger and fuming about what others did, it would probably be eaten. Animals are great models for relating to our emotions, I think — after they get into a conflict or need to run away from a predator, it seems to me that they just shake off the tension in their bodies and go about their lives.

  15. Chris - Post author

    Hi Tyka — yes, I think that’s one perspective that can be useful — and, we can also see moments of anger and sadness and other so-called “negative” feelings as just part of the complete human experience, and trying to deny ourselves those experiences actually cuts us off from fully exploring what’s available to us.

  16. tyka

    “we can also see moments of anger and sadness and other so-called “negative” feelings as just part of the complete human experience”

    again, i’m agree with you :)

    gonna blogroll you right away so i wont forget your blog address :D
    will return again anytime soon!
    have a nice weekend! *it’s already Friday night here :mrgreen:*

  17. Jannie Funster

    YOU, Chris Edgar of the inner-tuning hills, are one awesome person!!

    Can we get a picture of you please, as that young observant lad? I be you were so cute!

    This relates for me to your post on “writer’s block.” a few weeks ago. We try to stuff it or run from it instead of just living with it and letting it be. We try to run from that solar plexus stuff.

    True, growth has some pain, but less pain if we are not fearful of the moments — like tonight, Jannie will be recording guitar tracks in the studio, as the base for 2 tunes. Jannie is happy about that. A little nervous? Possibly? But each moment shall set Jannie free. And why has Jannie suddenly slipped into the 3rd person in this comment? Am I a whole “seminar” as was Fawlty Tower’s Basil in “The Two Doctors” episode?? :)

    Blue Bunny, can you tell us why?? :)


  18. Davina Haisell

    What I love about this post, Chris is that I sense a lot of humility.

    It’s not been made about the fight to feel or BE better. It’s not about overcoming something, it’s about surrendering. I just went through a period of growth… let’s call it that, shall we :-)

    It was huge and the emotions were so powerful I couldn’t even begin to try to explain it. I could only be with it and let it pass. Sometimes we make things too hard on ourselves and take TOO much responsibility for feelings, trying to make them something they aren’t or trying to explain them. I’m learning that sometimes they are like a river and they just need to flow and keep going — we just get in the way with our mind/ego when we try to explain.

  19. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now

    Too often we get caught up in wanting to feel better. We want the pain to just go away. Life is filled with pain, we can’t avoid it. I like that you said that some of the biggest growth periods came from your isolation. That’s a beautiful way of seeing it.

    I’ve recently been going through a rough patch with my health. It’s really put my life into perspective. I’ve learned more in 3 weeks than I have in 3 years.

    When we are struggle we are forced to learn. It’s this learning that allows us to appreciate where we are in life instead of just wanting it to be pain free.

  20. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — I don’t have a really young picture of myself on hand right now, but come to think of it I do have a picture of myself as a sixteen-year-old long-haired miscreant, which I think will have roughly equal entertainment value. It sounds like this recording is (or was) exciting and scary for you — it’s funny how those two seem to be inseparable, hmm?

  21. Chris - Post author

    Hi Davina — yeah, believe it or not, I have a humble side, and I’m not all larger-than-life all the time. :) It sounds like you noticed that trying to understand or explain how you’re feeling isn’t always helpful, and that sometimes just allowing how you’re feeling to unfold, and perhaps even enjoying the ride, can serve better.

  22. Chris - Post author

    Hi Karl — thanks, I get the sense that it takes a lot of wisdom to be able to gain learnings from what you’re going through, particularly being so close to the experience.

  23. Evan

    Hi Janine and Chris, there is a saying in some gestalt circles – “Anxiety is excitement without the oxygen”. Ie. if you can breathe into the anxiety it can change into excitement. (I don’t think it works 100% of the time but is something I find useful to keep in mind.)

  24. Evelyn Lim

    This is an excellent post! I have been “criticised” for discussing about too much pain in some of my writings. Then again, without going through some of the negative experiences, I wouldn’t be where I am. Why shun the truth? Obviously it is not about putting ourselves in continued pain either. It is more about having an enlightened perspective on our self-imposed ordeals.

  25. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — yeah, that’s a wonderful thing about life, isn’t it — that we never need to make a special effort to seek out pain. :) And like you say, it doesn’t serve us to deny our pain, in the name of attracting something better or convincing people we’re okay — all that really does is make it harder to connect in a satisfying way.

  26. Tom Volkar / Delightful Work

    Suffering is what is, just like joy and pleasure. It’s all good and it’s all to be experienced. I’m with you my fiend. What good are the heights unless we have the contrast of the depths? Observers of life are blessed. We all ought to observe more because that’s how realizations arise. Good stuff Chris, thanks.

  27. Chris - Post author

    Hi Tom — yeah, I think I get what you’re saying about realizations arising when we’re observing — when we’re stepping back and taking a look at the way we habitually do things, instead of just letting them happen on autopilot, we get the chance to let go of routines that don’t serve us.

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