Choosing whether to suffer

There is an oft-quoted Buddhist proverb: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Emotions and sensations rise up and fade, and our choice lies in how we respond to them. Whether we are dealing with intense physical pain or overwhelming emotions, the more we resist what is happening and try to push against it, the more we will suffer as a consequence.

A few weeks ago I took myself off on a weekend yoga retreat. Like many people, I seem to be a tiny bit too busy at the moment - working, studying, house-hunting, and fitting in all sorts of other things between. It was time to take a breath and press the ‘RESET’ button. The programme for the three days revolved around rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. We enjoyed guided meditations, evening yin yoga classes countered with Ashtanga in the mornings, massages, walks through the local countryside, and time spent simply being quiet and still… It was exactly what my body and mind needed.

On the morning of the final day we began with a 30-minute meditation. This was followed by a short break - time enough for a piece of fruit and a tea before our last Ashtanga session. Our resident chef took enormous pride in her offerings, and on this particular day she rolled out towering glasses of chia and coconut pudding topped with fresh fruit. Naturally, I was happy to oblige, and, despite the words of caution from my fellow participants, I polished off my entire serving. Absolutely delicious!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the different yoga styles, Ashtanga can be pretty energetic and physically demanding, so filling my belly immediately before a two-hour session was perhaps not the smartest of moves. Sure enough, 45 minutes later, as the heat was rising in the studio and our movements were becoming more challenging, my breakfast began to repeat on me, and my stomach was questioning what on earth I thought I was doing with all this bending and twisting and stretching, effectively wringing my innards out with each asana. I spent the rest of the class feeling sorry for myself, and at one point I surrendered and lay down on my mat to take some steady breaths and do some stealth banana burps.

This was the last time we would all be together, so at the close of the session we gathered in a circle to share our reflections on the weekend. How were we feeling now? our instructor wanted to know. Were we rejuvenated and revived after the weekend retreat? Whilst I watched and listened to my companions sharing their experiences, my main focus was simply on how horribly nauseous I was feeling, coupled with regret that it was all my own doing for guzzling down my breakfast. But as time went on, I breathed into my belly and the self-pity began to ease, as did my indigestion. It helped me to recognise that our feelings - whether physical or emotional - pass with time. There were people on that same retreat suffering from far greater pain than mine. One woman shared her anxiety over her two-year-old’s recent heart surgery; this was her first weekend away since her daughter had been born. Another described the fear that had arisen due to her osteoporosis diagnosis. A third was nursing heartbreak after her marriage of almost thirty years had ended.

We all carry pain of some sort, whether it’s self-induced stomach cramps, or a deep, intense heartache. It is up to us to choose how to respond to what life puts our way. My indigestion was only with me briefly, but by breathing into it and allowing my body to relax, it passed more easily. Our lives are in a constant state of flux, and there will always be moments that are easier to handle than others. By learning how to embrace these difficulties, distress, and discomfort, we can lessen our suffering and ease ourselves back to our natural state of bliss.

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