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Suffering and Thriving – #1 getting beyond two dead ends


My last newsletter was a bit of a rant about how self development books tend to avoid suffering. A long-time blogging friends responded along the lines of: Maybe you should write that book Evan. I don’t know about a book but here is what I have to say.


In this post I want to surface what I think are the usual dead end approaches to suffering that are prevalent in the self development blogosphere (and many other places too).


Dead End #1 structuring our lives around increasing pleasure and diminishing pain.


Having increasing pleasure as the goal, I call, in my less kind moments, the ‘wealthy addict model of self development’. And I should say that I mean addiction to things other than substances (yes, including self development courses and such things). If an addict can get enough of what they are addicted to then they are happy. If there are side effects then they pay for things to remove the side effects or the pain they bring and they are happy.


The ‘diminish pain’ idea leads to what I could call the ‘anaesthetic model of self development’. If you can find something that blocks the pain go for it! This makes sense – it is hardly reasonable to want more pain, it isn’t exactly sane to enjoy it. Often enough these anaesthetics are substances of various kinds. But relationships can be used in this way too.


[There are times and places where enjoyment of pain is a natural and predictable response. This is another topic. In my view those who do find enjoyment in pain can have a broader and richer experience.]


But this doesn’t lead to much sense of being able to engage with life. To avoid pain leads to an increasingly limited life (as you learn which things can cause you pain – which is just about anything after all).


I am of the view that pleasure is delightful and pain to be avoided where it can. The idea that pleasure is bad and pain is “good for you” is a nasty kind of moralising that I hope will soon disappear from our world. For a thorough and insightful critique of this kind of moralising read Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good.


Perhaps the best critique of this model I have seen is a slogan on a t-shirt: “Reality is only for those who can’t handle drugs”. I think this slogan points to an important truth.


Dead End #2 Discipline and Punish

The flip side of the ‘maximise pleasure and diminish pain’ model of self development, is the ‘pain is good for you’ model of self development.


Where the ‘maximise pleasure and avoid pain model’ emphasises an internal experience, the ‘pain is good for you model’ often emphasises personal achievement. The external achievement in some sense legitimises and justifies the pain invested and ok’s the pleasure felt when the goal is achieved.


The promoters of this approach don’t usually call it ‘pain is good for you’. However most of what passes as ‘discipline’ is about being unkind to ourselves or others.

  • Young people these days, I had to go through it so what are they complaining about? = I suffered so you should too
  • Taking pride in how much you suffered to achieve something
  • You need to stretch and be uncomfortable (because the guru says so) = pain is good for you


In my view the positive sense of discipline is awareness of ourselves and the way we can relate most effectively to what we are dealing with (whether a substance, movement, thought, relationship or whatever). However, in my view, this is not the sense that ‘discipline’ is usually used in. Usually discipline is code for punishment.


And this kind of discipline is no better when it is self discipline. A wonderfully insightful critique of this approach comes from a monk that a friend of mine heard speak: I ask you, if someone is going to criticise you, and you beat them to it, I ask you: Where is your compassion?


And in my view we naturally enjoy getting better at things. The important distinction is that the desire to do more and work hard arises spontaneously and for the sake of the work – not to please others or gain external rewards (from gold stars on charts on the wall in primary school to various honours bestowed on adults).


Which is not to say that delight is bad and is not to say that we will not sometimes embrace difficulty. Both delight and hard work are part of a satisfying life.


Beyond The Dead Ends: Authenticity and Thriving

For me an authentic life will mean, resolving frustration, staying with pain sometimes to understand its cause (and pain relief may well help clear thinking), and delight in meaningful tasks (pleasure is very two-dimensional – there is no sense of different qualities in the exterior world or our inner experience – an ice-cream is equivalent to an elegantly executed drawing, a drug is equivalent to the establishment of a successful charity). It certainly embraces sensual delights and it is open to the different levels of what is precious to us.


The best word I have for this kind of life is ‘thriving’. It is not to deny pleasure or praise pain, it is to shift the focus. The focus is more whole. Happiness will come from being absorbed in what matters to us, we may find a purpose that sustains us even when in pain.


In the next post I want to get to grips with our experience of pain and suffering. (I am aware that this slightly heady post may have been my way of avoiding this. However I did want to surface what I think the usual approaches are and why I think they are wrong. This post has been about ‘clearing the decks’.)


Comments, as always, are most welcome. This isn’t an easy topic, so any comments or feedback you may have are especially welcome.

I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don't hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Mary 2013/03/14, 6:36 am

    Ah. The serendipitous, the Pollyanna thirst and search for happy. I agree, first, with the outward glare of what could possibly be missing from self-development, Evan. Write the damn book. The way I see it, people need, more (yes), more than ever the rocks that jut out of the ledge for something to reach for, hang on to– something, anything that represents something other than just chasing after happy. Happy would never be brazen or rude enough to jut outward off a ledge. Only courage would. In the guts of honorable movements, we thrive. I like the word vitality, vital. I also like the word guts. God, may I never be remembered as happy. Let them say she was courageous, she swore a lot, she worked hard, she was strong, she laughed loud and from her belly, she had guts. Anything that accentuates the doing. Happy comes, happy goes. When I fall down, let me swear hard and brilliant, and then get to work.

    This is along the lines of rant. That’s how much I don’t like the self-help that dangles the happy carrot. Because it most matters what we do.

  • Evan 2013/03/14, 9:22 am

    Thanks for the rant Mary. I liked it. I like those images about rocks and ledges too. And I like that you relate our thriving to honourable movements too. I nearly laughed out loud at “God, may I never be remembered as happy.”

    Will I write the book? I don’t know. It would be a big task and I haven’t looked at what’s out there already in any detail. A book I haven’t read but which gets rave reviews (and that deal with the content, not just ‘oh wow this author is so wonderful’ kind of thing) is Havi Carel’s Illness. http://www.amazon.com/Illness-The-Art-Living-Series/dp/1844651525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363216569&sr=8-1&keywords=havi+carel. I heard her interviewed and think the book would be great.

    I know several people dealing with long-term degenerative illness, some of whom are in chronic pain. In one sense I guess self development isn’t directed to these people – most people aren’t dealing with this situation. In one sense this is a plus – dealing with the everyday is important. In another sense it is a worry that self development doesn’t have much to say to these people.

    Many thanks for your comment Mary.

  • Mary 2013/03/20, 8:05 am

    I’d like to hear their stories, Evan. And also, the steady, empathetic, knowledgeable observations of the person who is listening to them, watching them, and can write about those pieces that are between the ends of degenerative illness and pushing ourselves to overcome and continue. I’d like to understand more what their stories offer the bigger picture and our plight to live with our senses, instead of becoming senseless. There is no burden like the weight of pain. And weirdly enough, understanding someone’s pain, someone who is not ranting ‘i just want to be happy,’ but one in the clutches of perseverance, can lessen someone else’s pain and free up some rock-solid pieces within themselves.

    Perhaps that didn’t make much sense. I came here today, Evan, because when I was at the barn doing chores this morning, and taking some useful time to think, I was thinking about how some vital and genuine people turn to drugs and alcohol to sustain what they– I don’t know– neglected to persevere against, forgot to challenge themselves with, figured this was good enough?

    They’re missing out, Evan. In fact, their miss makes me miss out. There goes a friend. There goes a potential date. There goes some great camaraderie and meaningful interaction. Makes me very sad, and at the same time, very content. I never thought about that route. I like my mind and challenge is what it’s all about, as growth is always the main meal.

    But as I was working, the thought came out: I am happy. I do things that make me feel euphoric, happy, strong, vital, memorable. I’m actively doing things so that I can feel it when I bloom. That’s how much I want to bloom, and that’s how important the feel of that is to me. And all this happens: before I die.

    So, I still stick with my happy thing, Evan. It was correct when it flew from my mouth. I don’t ever sit here and say ‘i just want to be happy.’ I fill my moments– I never expect them to be filled.

    Are there things that I don’t have? Plenty. Am I going to whine? No. Am I going to fight because I’m worth it? Yes. Just me alone is worth it because I can touch 1,237 people when I feel worthy. I touch zero if I don’t. So I do this for me and for everyone else…..because we all need each other’s vibration.

    I also want to thank you so much for your comments. Really wonderful, Evan. I was scared to read your comment because I felt like I surprised you. Thank you for allowing me the privilege of being myself, and responding to that so gracefully.

  • Evan 2013/03/20, 9:50 am

    Hi Mary, yes a personal connection in our pain can help.

    Sometimes drugs are the only things that work – I am in favour of marijuana for medicinal use (at least) – it apparently helps with some kinds of some that nothing else can. Apparently alcohol is useful too for some chronic pain conditions. I think drugs are used for the benefit they bring – if someone wants to ‘get out of it’ then it is clear that “it” is not a nice place to be. Sometimes they are anaesthetics, other times they give intensity or overwhelm. Finding a viable replacement can be tricky and involve work from several people. I have never lost a friend to drugs but some of my friends have, it is really awful.

    It’s wonderful to hear that you are blooming. You raise an important point I think about how we influence others. In Australia we are pretty reserved and so probably don’t hear about this as much as we might. Perhaps things are better in the US.

    Here on this blog, and with me, you are most welcome to be yourself. I find your contributions valuable and enjoyable. I hope many others have felt encouraged to be themselves from this blog.

    Many thanks for your comment.

  • Mary 2013/03/20, 10:22 am

    Just so we’re on the same page– no, Evan. I’m w-a-i-t-i-n-g (emphasized) to bloom. It’s around a bend…I just have to get on that road, damn it. Is it Route 43 or 27? Highway 14, Lounsbury Street? I’ll let you know when I arrive at the frontier of b-l-o-o-m!

    Australians are reserved. Hmm. I wouldn’t have thought. I listen to the UK a lot in my work. Sound just regular to me. If reserved is good, then I would suppose the land is very content to live upon.

    Drugs and alcohol, yeah, huge subject. I had just had kind of a downer because I thought this guy was maybe going to ask me out. I mean I outright told him he could. He’s my age and has a business. But come to find out he’s hooked on meth. Not really my style of conversation. Sometimes, though Evan, drugs and alcohol is a hard wonder.

    Thank you, Evan. And now you just need to answer my email and give me the correct address and we’re all set!

  • Evan 2013/03/20, 10:29 am

    Thanks, ok, clearer now. Someone into drugs in a big way doesn’t really have much room for people in their lives (or the ability to connect with the deeply and consistently) in my experience.

    I have answered your email. (Check your spam folder?) Evan

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