The Peaks and Troughs of Personal Development: Dukkha and The Art of Suffering

Big Wave

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
― Kahlil Gibran

Over the past ten years of my life, experience has cultivated and culminated my life into a garden of sorts. Gardening has become a habit of my regular attention and I always start each waking day examining the entire plot. Initially, it’s easy to get caught up staring at my favorite flowers and later on, worrying that some plants aren’t getting enough sunshine. Weeds must constantly be removed and roots watered. In time, my garden experiences all the torrential downpours a normal plot does as well as receives an overabundance of sunshine during the dry season. When the storms do come they bring the kind of rain that aims to drown everything in sight, wash all my progress away, and tempt me to start anew. Other days, the sun shines as brilliant as ever and the flooding waters that once aimed to destroy my garden of life lift it up.

Life’s shortcomings have taken me deep into the insights of reality. Suffering has always been more motivating than the short leg work of enjoyment’s spurt. The truth is that pain is better at pushing us through the horizontally stacked doors of complacency, hesitation, and change than love’s promise could ever hope to do.

Drowning in Dukkha

Suffering, like a typhoon, is a cyclical torment. When it hits us, the ground of our being shakes open and we run to hide in fear. During these brief moments in our lives, when suffering seeks to destroy our worth, simply peaking out of our shelters and looking at the storm from a safe distance can be more enlightening than we could ever imagine.

Every bout of suffering’s cycle begins exactly the same.

At first, our physical sense is tested. The unforgettable hours of physical agony drive their way into our memory banks and nervous systems making pain a natural avoidance. Suffering reminds the body of its inability to escape human hardship whether it be by the constant reminder of a scarred forehead that was once stitched up, broken knuckles that no longer bend, or fractured bones that still ache when we overexert ourselves. Struggle continually exists. Even a torn muscle that still hurts when touched or moved the wrong way is a constant reminder of the body’s impermanence.

As our body begins to heal and all seems well, a whispering critic creeps from behind the shadows of our curtained minds. If we grant the commanding voice enough attention, we allow its unruly work to commence. As the body heals from prior misuse or simply bad fortune, a great wall arises out of the unstable ground and furthers the challenge of our faith.

The critic aims to destroy. It brings added pressures to our lives: fear, judgment, distraction, comparison, and self-centered revolution all at the same time. Attempting to manage and sort out its many voices in our head has a swallowing effect. The critic, bound to a base of anxiety, creates discord in our minds making life seem uneasy when all is perfectly well.

In my own encounters with the critic, I have found that mental disease has always brought more stress to my life than any amount of physical injury. The body doesn’t worry if it’s going to die or isn’t able to heal properly or on time; it’s always the mind that begins troubling effects. Whether it’s misperceiving a situation, playing “what if,” or just being old-fashionably selfish, I have found mental suffering to be a much more distasteful challenge to encounter in personal development than any physical disability.

To overcome the critic, I am constantly reminding myself that the world does not revolve around me and my interests, but what is best for me as well as everyone else and their best interests. Life is looking for a win-win, but we must both agree to allow it. The critic, however, can only see the world as win-lose and is never satisfied aimlessly searching for something better.

At its darkest depths, suffering has affected my life directly through relationship. Our interdependent lives have a way of magnifying suffering (and rewarding us) more than any instances or mistakes of our individual, independently based lives. I am always shocked at how easily I can forget about my own problems and push them aside at the sight of unintentionally hurting someone I care deeply about. It’s always at the unexpected moment of being the cause of another’s pain that I realize I’ve made a mistake or offended someone unintentionally. At this point, my pain seems to take the passenger seat and I finally realize I am not the only one driving.

Ironically, our pain and problems become manageable, our anxiety disappears, and our individual fears reduce to nothing when we hurt those we love. Being the unintentional cause of another’s pain seems to kick us off our paths of selfishness, immaturity, and give us a chance to look up and outside our own best interests. Most of the time we are so focused on ourselves, we forget there are other people in the world who also have self-interests, emotions, and can feel pain as dramatically as we do.

By the time we see the commonality between us, the situation seems simple. The reason we care so deeply about our loved ones is specifically because of their self-interest in us. We, our individuality, are what they care about. Their independent desire, their choice, to love us is why we have fallen so deeply in love with people who care for us in the first place. The critic tries to flip the scrip on our friends, families and significant others, but it’s not the other way around. In the mix of it, the critic convinces us to forget about other’s subjectivity and focus intently on our own demands. When we see others as merely objects, without opinion, then we forget to include the primary reason they love us. What we love about them is precisely their reasoning, their ability to be a subject, choose us, and say yes to our existence. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes destroying a solid friendship over a trivial argument, or a losing relative to cancer, or reaching the end of a relationship through bitter breakup or divorce to unveil the reality of our subjective feud. Sometimes, getting worse is the only way of opening our eyes to our self-conceited coma.

Personally, I have always been most affected by unconsciously hurting the people I love. Of course, all of us can end up on the other side of pain’s end and most of us have likely been victim to our attachments. It’s difficult to imagine suffering worse than that which occurs through our interdependent relations. Parents would gladly sacrifice themselves to save their children’s life and loved ones would equally sacrifice themselves for their spouse. Alas, the choice is not always ours. In these painful moments of unavoidable suffering, the greatest lessons of existence are being taught. All we have to do is be intensely attentive to the pain, to others, and to ourselves to see the whole of what is happening.

Life is seemingly unfair and cruel when looked at through the lens of an individual. The wisdom of integral sight presents a different option: life’s fairness involves a suffering force that embraces and includes everyone. If one person can escape suffering’s grasp, then we all can. God plays no favorites. We are all being watched; everything is at stake. We are all kept in mind and eventually, we are all forgotten. Seeing suffering through clear eyes and in proper attention enlightens us to the harsh reality we live in. When no one is chosen, we are all at the hands and feet of Nature.

Life is not always a fairy tale and a story about Neverland. In time, we all must grow up; reality is about living in the only story you’ve got: one that contains all the happy endings and miserable downfalls that one can possibly imagine.

Gauguin's Meaning of Life

Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Peak’s Failure and The Rising Trough

Suffering’s blessing is that it has always granted me the gift of wisdom through my experience. Suffering has taught me more compassion than love. It has trained me to remember that all is impermanent and fleeing. Suffering soon becomes the reason we should cherish each other’s company and a reminder to be grateful that we are not alone, we are healthy, and the harmony of our lives is as perfect as the waking of each day.

Love’s finer moments give us the strength to withstand any amount of suffering. Being loved by another human being, knowing it, and trusting it wholeheartedly is unimaginably greater and more magnificent than any other feeling we will experience. When two people unite, the world floats beneath them and anything becomes possible during the moment of forever they have reached. Falling in love is the original act.

It’s relatively easy to see where suffering’s failure lies. But, love’s hidden guise lies beneath the subtle layers of the surface in the critic’s self-centered attachment. Here, love fails. Becoming overly attached or emotionally dependent on our loved ones is a trait that many of us have been a victim to. Our expectations of others and of love are limiting and ultimately lead to let down. The moment we forget about another’s subjective independency and objectify them through our expectations, a falling out begins. It’s precisely in this moment of turning a subject into an object of our critical control that emotional and conditioned love fails us and suffering takes over.

Back Down To Dukkha

Suffering’s nagging persistence to attend our lives and its cyclical return remind of us of the utterly important aspect of nonattachment and our inherited impermanence whereas love’s hedonic grasp traps us slowly in a coiling anaconda stranglehold. Pleasure is always fleeting towards pain. The more we struggle to get out of the Way, the worse our situation gets and the further we push those we love away.

Suffering can be likened to a giant reset button. It relocates one’s awareness from his self to his soul, the spirit of humanity, and implicitly evolves us temporarily to higher plane of consciousness.

Suffering mends us, if only by giving us a break from our normal routine. It shakes life into us by shaking us out of our lives and the patterns we never hesitant to follow. There is so much more, you see! Our fetish little routines trap us, separate us, and seclude us from the whole of existence. Life’s picture is so much greater than our miniscule reality tunnels. And every attempt, our every deed is leaning towards the one Great Escape. Every step of our progression is in an attempt to build a better tunnel with the hope of escaping the hive and flying high with wings of liberation. Here, in our reaching, lies disparity.

Suffering rattles us from our cages, boxes, and tiny perceptions of the world. Everyone has a different opinion. It is precisely during our suffering that the soul gains the strength to peak out of its little box and look around with wide, innocent eyes. If one can outlast tremendous suffering bravely, the soul will find a passionate awareness, a fearless social desire, and pure embrace.

Buddha Sunset

The Dawn of Dukkha

The peaks and troughs of personal development are exciting, debilitating, awesome, and downright dreadful at times. The upward swings end seemingly out of nowhere by a deep, inescapable trough which serves to remind us that we are not as strong of a solo swimmer as we thought. Before long, we are floating back on top of the surface backstroking in a bowl of calm sea laden with warm sunshine reminding ourselves that all is well. Believe it or not, this notion too will dissolve, the bowl will break, and all will flow into the back and forth.

In the moment of avoidance, we get lost, scared, and look to the future as our only hope. Our manner of coping with struggle makes it worse. Looking back on the past, life always seems so clear. Our memories easily reminisce about the peaks of our past while we forget about lying helplessly in the mud of the trough. As much as we enjoy looking backward or to the future, there has never been a moment we were not here. Our entire lives have been growing, evolving, and maturing on the same gardening plot of life’s now whilst being pounded and relieved by its constant oscillations.

We are not our sufferings or the pains they bring; we are not our emotional loves or their reward. We are not our pasts or futures. We are a culmination of moments, every now that has ever been and will be. We are the wave that contains them both. We are the movement of up and down. We are that which gives the wave life. And we are only as stuck as we want to be; all we have to do is jump. We can look optimistically to the future, we can remorse about the past, and we can do everything we want to imagine ourselves out of this moment, but nonetheless we are still here. Every downfall must rise. Every rise is sure to dip. Our best attempt at managing ourselves is walking the middle ground and maintaining constant awareness of all sides. Focus on the fluctuations. It’s not that we need to force ourselves to stay balanced in the center of the wave, all we have to do is merge with the rhythm between extremes.

The peak is there. The trough is there. All you need to be is this.

When you have finally seen the entirety of the wave, begin trusting that you are the not a wave and your journey to self-realization is nearly complete. You are not the there and you are not ultimately this wave.


The Imperceptible Whirlpool Where Nothing Drowns

Vacillating, you are vacillating.

The wave is nothing without vacillation. Without movement, what is the wave?

It is seized up, destroyed, and pancaked. Without vacillation, there is no wave. It has become nothing. Only ocean remains. Flattened, the wave is flattened like a flapjack and no longer exists on its own.

Vanishing, the wave transcends itself becoming an ocean of all that’s left.

Always remember: no two waves are exactly alike. Ripples differ. Crashing sounds the same from afar, but up close you’ll see all crests break differently.

Like a crashing wave, our movements lead to reward and suffering. Every action contains peak and trough. Our awareness must remain with every action and its non-action. We must neither enjoy profit nor remorse over loss. There is only moving or nothing else.

You see, you are the unique wave witnessing the entire ocean, if you allow it.

Without moving, there is nothing. Our movements necessarily lead to consequence from commencement. All is a part of the wave and each part has a unique rhythm flowing out of the whirlpool. As a wave, we cannot avoid the sea, it is innate and the more we avoid being what we are the less we become.

Ceasing the stir is anonymous.

About Stephan Stansfield

Stephan is the owner, creator, and editor of Peregrine Poise.
He is currently traveling and teaching around the world. When he is not helping others discover their true potential, he finds time to surf, read, and reflect on the important issues of living a good life.


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