23 min read

The Art of Suffering

I dedicate this article to my father, and a practice that's saved my life on more than one occasion.
The Art of Suffering
Photo by Lahiru Supunchandra / Unsplash

Perhaps if we knew how to suffer well, we'd suffer more quickly, and less harshly.

Then we could spend more time in peace, in joy, in wisdom, and power.

This is for you if you're sick of being sick of the shit that's hurting you.


I was about 15 years old in high school. My father walks into my room and hands me a book called Buddha in Your Backpack: Everyday Buddhism for Teens.

I looked at him, struggling to recognize the man holding this book in front of me.

My entire life, my father had identified as 3 things.

Black. Southern. And Baptist.

He's a worldly man, and spent a lot of time in Asia, but no matter how far he roamed and what he learned, his speech around faith was consistent.

He spoke of God. Of having a faith that could move mountains. He spoke of Church. He spoke of fear. He spoke of sparing the rod, not the child. He believed in that one the most, from what I knew.

Helping him remember who he was, maybe...

"Dad, we're Christian. I can't be Buddhist."

"Actually, you wanna know the cool thing about Buddhism?"

"What's that?"

"It's not a religion. It's a philosophy. Our God is a jealous God, yes, but there's no God to worship in Buddhism. So you can be both."

From there he told me meditation can help us move mountains. Meditation allows us to levitate. Meditation gives us access to our untapped power as mere mortals.

He told me that if I practice enough, I'll find my own untapped power. One day I'll levitate. One day I'll move mountains.

"Have you moved mountains?"

"Yes. I have. But you can't see the way I move mountains with the naked eye. It's not like that for me. But maybe for you, if you practice enough, you'll be able to."

I don't know if it was the very literal way I took that whole metaphor that made me struggle to believe him or not. But I wanted to, because either way, this sounded magical.

And my Dad's always known I believed in magic. It's one thing we always got along about.

So after telling me about meditation and moving mountains, he left me alone with the book and, if I know the man, he sent a prayer up on his way out the door.

In retrospect, I think he knew I was in trouble.

I think he knew it was out of his hands.

This man was a monster to me in so many ways.

He's also the man who gave me the greatest gift of all.

The path home to myself and my own power in any given circumstance.

Touché my guy. Well played. I love you deeply.

The Journey

I dove into the book and practiced meditation to levitate. My ass never left the ground, but my heart did.

Something about the compassionate nature of the practice & literature gave me permission to love myself in a way Church never had.

It helped me split the mountain of suffering around my sexuality in two, so I could finally start moving through it to find my power inside of it.

I initially fell in love with Buddhism because it gave me permission to love myself whole, but it's given me a lot more than that since then.

I returned to the practice & literature on and off over several years. Usually more practice. Less literature.

For me, it was less about emptying the mind for the sake of practicing emptiness. More about clearing clutter for a few minutes for wisdom to come through directly from source, and allowing that wisdom to fill me up.

At first, the practice was medicinal and situational.

I'd use this when I felt low to help me feel better, then I'd leave it for a while, off to roam again.

It wasn't until 2017 (about 14 years into my relationship with Buddhism) that I found I'd roamed too far to cope. Lost myself. And without myself, I couldn't remember I had the practice.

I'd never felt so helpless.

Hitting a rock bottom moment, I left my apartment in the Midwest and went back to live with my parents for what I was considering might well be the final month of my life. The suffering was too big.

Luckily a friend, another person who was active in the Church at the time, no less, sent me the 12 laws of karma, reminding me of my practice. Reminding me of this path home to myself.

I meditated on one law per day for 30 days.

I detached from my pain enough to discover my suffering.

I discovered where it came from.

I discovered how I was feeding it.

How I had the power to stop feeding it.

How I still had time to exercise that power should I choose to, and feed something else instead?

What started as a hail mary's whisper of hope in returning to the practice grew into a proper light at the end of the tunnel within the first couple of weeks.

I was coming back home to myself.

I spent time with my family. My Dad. Practicing forgiveness for myself, for him. For the world.

After 30 days I chose to live, and more: to never roam so far from myself that I forget the practice again.

Meditation, at minimum, was something that had always, and would always, bring me refuge. Wisdom. Insight. Power. A path to joy.

It taught me how to sit with my suffering. Know my suffering. Befriend my suffering. Lead my suffering, instead of allowing it to lead me.

It taught me the art of suffering well.

Now, when I feel the suffering hit, I find myself saying, "God this shit hurts, but it's here to teach me something" and leaning in.

There's a process to it. A step-by-step I'll give you here.

This isn't an article about meditation or Buddhism.

My path isn't your path. Perhaps you'll discover how to practice the art of suffering without these things.

The Buddha didn't pretend to have all of your answers and neither do I. You get to find your own path, your own tools, your own answers.

This is an article about mine, in case they help you along your path. Point you in a direction of your own power and wisdom.

Make your suffering a little shorter and easier for you.

Take what feels true. Leave the rest for whoever else it might hit right for.  

Let's dig into the Art of Suffering.

Pain vs. Suffering

"Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional."

Pain and suffering are two different things.

Pain is a part of life. It's inevitable. We can't control that.

Fighting it is like punching a wave in the ocean. You get your shit wrecked.

Suffering, however, is where we have power.

We can use it to discover how to surf.

Most of us don't realize this power. No one ever taught us to discern between the two.

We marvel at monks who meditate on snowy mountaintops in robes.

We doubt a soldier's ability to endure torture months of torture when we know we'd last under an hour in the same conditions.

We grow skeptical of people living on the street who claim gratitude and to live a good life.

We do this not because they don't know how to suffer well, but because we don't.

We stop believing in magic, all the while the magic of suffering well and how it gives us the power to move our own mountains is all around us.

For me, realizing pain & suffering are two different things was a big help.

Simply put...

Pain is what happens to us.

Suffering is how we respond to what happens to us.

Pain is of the Universe. Suffering is of our mind.

When I sit for a tattoo and the needle scrapes my skin, that's pain. Suffering is what happens if I allow myself to believe I can't handle it, and fight the pain in one way or another.

When I:

  • brace my muscles to try to defeat it
  • beat myself up for not being able to take it
  • ask for an extra break and text group chat about how terrible this is
  • blame the tattoo artist for being too heavy-handed
  • or leave the shop early with the tattoo unfinished.

These are all ways my mind could respond to the pain.

Notice that each one is filled with fight. Fighting the reality that I have to endure the pain to reach my goal doesn't end the suffering. It prolongs or amplifies it.

The fight for control, for temporary strength, for the absence of pain.

These fights are all forms of suffering.

Suffering is what happens when we square up as enemies or victims against a pain we cannot change.

The art of suffering well is to stop fighting pain. Stop trying to change it. All it does is feed the feeling of suffering. There's a different way. A more powerful way to end our suffering.

Instead, we channel the suffering to change us in ways that bring us not strength or force, but power.

When we discover how to lead our suffering, the pain that caused it loses the power to lead us.

So the pain of the tattoo gets to be just that. Needle scraping skin. With the internal reckoning absent, we get to feel how small the pain itself actually is.

This frees us.

Now, we laugh with the tattoo artist about the pain and breathe through the rough spots of the process, knowing we're okay and ultimately, better for it, in the end.

We walk out feeling powerful because we just exercised power. Not by fearing pain, but by leaning into it.

The principles of this are universal. Formulaic, even, with nuance.

I give it to you below.

Think about the times in your life when you fought a losing battle with pain.

  • The relationship you held onto for a bit too long.
  • The parent or caregiver you're still wishing would change.
  • Fighting to stay in jobs & careers that wreck your nervous system.
  • Fighting to pursue a life and lifestyle that's bleeding you dry of creativity, freedom, love, joy, compassion, and rest.
  • Fighting to get validation and support from external sources who cannot give you enough to fill the void fully.
  • Fighting to hold a grudge against the people who hurt you and cannot change the past even if they wanted to.
  • Fighting to teach someone a lesson they're not ready to receive, or perhaps cannot receive from you through all of that fight energy.

How have those fights turned out for you?

Did they feel like suffering?

What happened when you surrendered the fight?

Something does, doesn't it?

A weight lifted.

As you surrender the fight, your body relaxes in a way, even if the pain is still there, you feel the suffering lighten.

You stop fighting the brick wall of pain you can't change and notice a door opening on the other side of the room that you couldn't notice before.

You're free to grieve and recover your power.

  • The relationship isn't going to work out. Now you're free to focus on your relationship with yourself and others.
  • Your caregiver/parent isn't going to change. Now you're free to focus on what's in your control, how to practice boundaries, forgive them, or distance yourself without judging yourself for how you need to love and be loved.
  • The job isn't for you. Now you get to be excited about new opportunities. New careers. Pursuing the thing you've been doubting yourself for. Taking a chance on yourself for possibly the first time.
  • That person isn't ready to learn the lesson, or you aren't the one to teach it to them. Now you get to set the appropriate boundaries and simply hope they learn it on their own without your involvement. You get to feel reassured that you can rest, they'll find a way.

The list goes on.

We say "time heals" suffering. The truth is that we need time to heal our own suffering.
Like with any skill, the better you get at it, the less time you need to get through the task.
Like with any skill, the better you get at minimizing damage and your own internal reckoning along the way.

Suffering well is the art of ending the fight with pain quickly so you spend less time suffering overall.

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