When the Road Gets Rough

Jan 16, 2020

When the Road Gets Rough

Each week I eagerly look forward to finding The New Yorker magazine in the mailbox.  I love the thoughtful articles on a wide range of subjects, intelligent humour and a smorgasbord of reviews on film, music, theatre productions and restaurant fare – not a fraction of which I will ever sample - but sill I like knowing what’s happening out there. And additionally, their usual slant supports my liberal leavings.

This week I started into an article on: Is Suffering Useful? I anticipated reading something very intelligent and insightful about a topic we commonly wrestle with.  But the article was disappointing as it went on to describe a person, who through some anomaly of nature, didn’t have the capacity to experience pain – physically or emotionally.  The neuroscientists are having a hay day doing research with her, to help inform how this genetic mutation could lead to relief for the rest of us.  Well I look forward to that, but no doubt there won’t be immediate relief. 

Growth Through Suffering

It’s a common held belief that one purpose of suffering is that it offers an opportunity to grow.  At least we have the potential to do that when life send us difficulties.  Collectively we accept that pain is just part and parcel of the human experience.  We’ll each have our portion of it as the years go by.  How we choose to respond to do with the losses, disappointments, betrayals, or injustices also determines the level of our suffering.  I appreciate the Buddhist instruction which points out – pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. 

Accepting What Comes

Part of not suffering is to develop and muscle of acceptance.  Life is uncertain and we know it’s a 50/50 experience – by this I mean there will be both pain and pleasure so often in equal measure.  But by nature, we want the pleasure but not the pain.  But could we be more neutral in receiving what comes our way.

Often, I look to the poets for guidance in life gnarly moments. Ellen Bass an American poet so often just tells it as it is.  One poem I’ve committed to memory is called Relax!  It opens with – Relax bad things are going to happen.  She then goes on with a laundry list of unfortunate events of a smaller or bigger significant nature.  See the full poem below.  It puts things in perspective. 

Pleasure Poems

This poem is also what I call a “Pleasure Poem” because as the poem continues Bass recounts a short Buddhist story about a woman being chased by a tiger – you may have heard it.  The upshot is – in every “bad” situation there will be small moments of pleasure, joy, and unexpected resources will appear.  But we need to have the eyes and ears to see and hear these moments; to notice their presence.

Noticing Goodness
When we’re stuck in fighting our experience, the non-acceptance, we won’t be open to the goodness that exists right along with the difficulty.  But it’s always there.  I say always because in my experience its true.  When unfortunate things happen always there’s a counter balance present that supports us to move through what’s happening.  Our job is to stay neutral to each experience – in truth so often we don’t really know if what appears to be unfortunate is really unfortunate.  Stories abound about how what appeared to be the most unfortunate of circumstances, eventually brings an abundance of goodness.  However, if we don’t catch that “negative brain bias” that expects the worst, we won’t stay open to the unknown which is as likely to be fortunate as unfortunate. 

In the Unlock Pleasure process I offer practices that support building new neuro pathways orientated toward the goodness of life.  We need to strengthen our capacity to see, hear and recognize goodness when it shows up.  This needs to be well in place so that when difficulties do arise we’re not immediately flooded with despair or powerlessness.  Pleasure builds resiliency. 

We can and we do grow through meeting the challenges in our lives, but we can also grow through pleasure.  It’s my belief that we’re on an evolutionary cusp that’s asking us to make this shift from an orientation to pain, to one that includes pleasure.  We need to hear each other’s stories of goodness.  In a nutshell, there’s too much “bad news”. 

I’d love to hear your stories of noticing the goodness that appeared in the midst of sorrow, loss and difficulties. 

Bad things are going to happen.

Your tomatoes will grow a fungus

and your cat will get run over.

Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car
and throw
 your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.

Your husband will sleep

with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling 
out of her blouse.
Or your wife
 will remember she’s a lesbian
 and leave you for the woman next door.
The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease

that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth

every four hours. Your parents will die.

No matter how many vitamins you take,

how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,

your hair and your memory.
If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart

into every live socket she passes,

you’ll come home to find your son has emptied

the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,

and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.

There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.

When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine

and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.

And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out

and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point

she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.

She looks up, down, at the mice.

Then she eats the strawberry.

So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat.
Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,

slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel

and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.

Oh taste how sweet and tart

the red juice is, how the tiny seed
crunch between your teeth.

Ellen Bass

Next entry: Take Responsibility for Your Own Pleasure

Previous entry: Being Present is the Best Present You Can Give

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