Pain is Inevitable But Suffering is Optional

“Metaphor is no mere trope, no simple subject of parody. Metaphor is magisterial, essential. Metaphor is the pliant and universal force, the active dynamism, involved in all the universe. The inherent similarity in dissimilars is that power whereupon creation acts, and that light whereby the mind understands creation. The important thing to see here is that metaphor is not a passive tool of thought, used in a craftwork of poetry only to be put aside later. In metaphor we find the self-revelation of being, for metaphor is that power of relationality through which things reveal themselves, and it is through metaphor’s revelation that the mind knows itself” – David Mutschlecner, Poetic Faith

Yoga is a massive teacher to me. It’s a metaphor for the way I live my life. The way I approach the practice brings so much clarity about how I behave and think off the mat. In a quaint studio in Boulder Colorado, looking onto the forests lining the base of the Rocky Mountains, lit by early morning light and under the instruction of a somewhat unsettlingly feisty Hatha teacher, I saw so clearly how pain is inevitable but suffering is optional and how this spills over into all of life.

rocky mountains, Shakti soma, Amy Attenborough, wild again

A view towards the Flatirons lying to the south of Boulder. Shakti Soma, Sofia’s incredible sanctuary, looks onto this section of the Rocky Mountains.

A view of the third Flatirons taken from atop the second Flatiron. These formations are part of a rock unit known as the Fountain Formation, which was deposited approximately 280 million years ago.

Sofia is a really strong woman. She has the capacity to be soft and gentle but mostly she’s fierce. Her love feels so real and her teaching so much a part of who she is that she approaches you with an intensity and honesty that I have not found to the same degree in another teacher. I approach her classes with some level of trepidation because her approach tears at the ego, at times triggers deep anger in me and invites me to look scrupulously at my limitations.

On all fours, toes tucked, with knees lifted and balancing on the tips of my fingers, elbows bent behind me, my heart reaching through the gap in a sort of abstract origami shape, Sofia kept saying, “this asana is easy. Lead with your heart and you will find ease. Anything you find difficult about this pose is something you are adding to it”. My arms quivered, my jaw tensed, my fingers strained, my core clenched, my breathing tightened and then of all things she said, “smile!”

“Find the humour,” she said, “find the joy. It’s there. The suffering you are feeling you are creating”. I  mustered a terse smile but mostly I just wanted to drop my knees and tackle her.

“Breathe into the area of greatest resistance. Find it. Recognise what you need to release, breathe into that place and release it up your spine.” And in the pain and strain of that position, my body followed her command and the relief was instantaneous. My mind cocked it’s head in confusion, “surely that can’t actually work” it questioned in confusion. But it really did. Not completely of course, some of the exertion remained but there was a greater ease in it. Maybe even a touch of joy, an acceptance of where I was. And every time I did it, the bliss of a somewhat torturous asana only grew.

Breath is the key to finding peace in somewhat awkward positions, whether those be in a yoga asana or in life in general.

Breathing into the discomfort, the pain, the anger, the resistance, the moment, the posture, made everything more enjoyable.

Sofia then instructed us to drop our knees, place our palms flat on the floor and notice. See what arose in the moment of rest. And what I noticed was just how delicious that moment of rest became, because of the edge I had just been at. What was funny though was the realisation that the moment of rest was no better or worse than the moment of difficulty. It was just different. It just was.

And this is so true of life. We have experiences that are difficult; that push us to our edges and challenge us physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. These moments are part of the human experience and not something we can avoid but if we can meet them with an open heart, with a sense of surrender, with breath and maybe even a smile curled at the corner of our lips then we can find bliss even in those moments. In Byron Katie’s words, “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”.

Things do not always go our way. It’s just the way it is. But breathing into the discomfort and being ok with that is where we start to really enjoy life. Maybe just maybe every moment of life is like that origami-like posture and is inherently blissful and whatever is not is something that we’ve just added to it.

Being ok with the moment has nothing to do with circumstance- it is based on disposition. Remembering this is life’s greatest practice- both on the mat and off.

David Mutschlecner says, “it is through metaphor’s revelation that the mind knows itself” but through the metaphor of my yoga practice I think it goes beyond that to say that it is through this that the very self comes to know itself too.

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