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.