Comparative Suffering

This week, besides healthcare, screen time, travel unplans, friends, hugs, workspace and the cyclical nature of things… I’ve also been thinking about suffering.

And, I’ve been feeling it. Have you? Where?

In my body, it’s been an involuntary flutter in my eyelids, some pain low in my belly, and, a new one, a shudder like a deep shiver inside my chest cavity. 

In my mind/heart it’s been in comparison. 

I’ve noticed lots of thoughts that include words like: unfair, more, less, easier, harder, justified, and unjustified. And, with those thoughts, there seems to be an accompanying sense of dread, failure, and shame. 

It happens in the pose depicted above too. And, in a lot of poses really, twists especially… the lower body is going in one direction, the upper body is trying to go in the other. If there’s a difference in awareness, strength, or intelligence in either part, balance is impossible. Fluctuations of mind and body threaten our serenity.

Comparative suffering is what I am experiencing, both in the pose and in the mind.

Maybe you are too?

It can sound like: “My situation isn’t as bad as those people’s,” or, “I should be more grateful,” or, “Why is this so much harder for me?” or, “At least you have a (fill in the blank: job, partner, dog, savings account, mom, balanced yoga pose…)” It can feel like falling.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it limits our ability to see the whole picture. In the Yoga Sutras the #1 obstacle to our enlightenment is just this type of non-seeing. Since this limited type of thinking is favored by hierarchical culture, that which dominates this current zeitgeist, we can’t help it. It is linear, it is ranked, it is progressive. It is limited. 

However, our brains, with body and spirit, are structured to see the world, not only with this kind of order but also with a wholly unordered, sensual, spatial, energetic and interconnected intelligence. 

If you are not so familiar with basic brain structure and function related to the two distinct hemispheres that I’m describing, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Her book and TED talk titled “My Stroke of Insight” quite brilliantly and accessibly describes her experience, as a neuroscientist and stroke survivor, with the brain’s capacity. 

For this reason, I use Dr. Taylor’s work when training yoga teachers and counseling clients to help illustrate the importance of whole-brain experience. 

In order to elicit a whole-brain (and subsequently wholehearted) response to the awareness of comparative suffering, I suggest the following practice:

  1. Recognize and allow thoughts and feelings. Use soothing self-talk to encourage freedom and convey acceptance.

  2. Identify a core thought/feeling. It is likely that love, acceptance, ease or wellbeing is motivating the comparative thought. It might also be that fear is dominant. This is ok too. 

  3. Identify the “other” person or people who have arisen in your awareness and hold them with mindful attention. 

  4. Accentuate your connection by repeating the phrase “just like me.”  

So, for example, if we’re thinking…  “This must be harder (or easier) for people with or without kids, (or pets, or parents, or spouses.)” We could say: “Just like me, it’s hard for these people too.” 

When we compare without appreciating our interconnectedness we either devalue our own experience, someone else’s or, our capacity to see that we exist and we belong in this experience together. As a result, we lose our balance and serenity.

If our own experience is not deemed valid, even by our own consciousness, this feels awful. Accordingly, when we don’t connect, don’t understand, must find our place in line, either ahead of or behind someone else, we lose the chance to see the beauty in their eyes. Because we know in our hearts this is possible, it feels awful when it is unrealized. 

Therefore, my wish for us is that we may continue to see beauty and value in our unique experience as a part of this collective that is life.

May you recognize opportunities for practice as they arise in your body, mind, and heart and may you know that every bit helps support this collective. We are so grateful for your part!