Suffering is Optional

by Steve Ryals

On a recent walk I had a remarkable opportunity to experience a deeper level of the truth behind the phrase, "pain is inevitable - suffering is optional." As I headed out on a warm summer afternoon, a steady breeze kept the temperature from becoming unbearable.

About half way through my walk, the breeze also blew some pollen into my eyes. As a contact lens wearer, pollen and other irritants are a regular part of the "isness" (how the world actually manifests, as opposed to stories or beliefs about how it "should" do so) that I deal with. I had even brought a bottle of special eye drops in case my contacts started to bother me. I knelt down at the edge of a grassy field next to some young cedars, then carefully placed my hat upside down and proceeded to pop my contact out. To my surprise, the breeze grabbed my contact and tossed it into the grass. Now, this grass was between six and 12 inches deep, and my immediate reaction was quite a bit stronger than "darn".

There I was on my knees, one contact lost in the grass, trying to locate a tiny, nearly transparent circle of blue plastic not much over a - in diameter. The bright sun shone like gold on the grass as the breeze waved the green shoots around in a friendly frenzy. With my contact gone, I had to get down within six inches of the ground in order to see anything clearly. I was right on the edge of getting really upset, as this was a new contact and would cost $50 to replace. If you really knew me, you'd know that I have spent most of my life with a severe inner critic, and I could feel it wanting to pounce on my apparent screw up. I consciously chose not to engage, and quietly celebrated remembering that I had a choice in the matter.

Invoking my spiritual practice of staying fully present in the moment, I took a couple of deep breaths and begin to notice the astonishing beauty spread out before me. Miniscule flowers the size of an ant's head grew underneath the tall grasses, miniature pink blooms serving as exclamation points for this Lilliputian world. I became increasingly aware of every blade of grass, every grain of sand and earth, each ant and insect busily going about their business. For a moment, I forgot all about my contact and just marveled at the intoxicating beauty of this tiny patch of ground.

After a couple of minutes simply enjoying this extraordinary little world, I noticed the glint of my contact and picked it up. I congratulated myself on my patience, and on my ability to see the gift of losing my contact. I gently set the contact down on the brim of my hat, which was still turned upside down in the grass. I took out my water bottle and my drops so that I could clean my contact and place it back in my eye. As I reached to pick up the contact, the breeze effortlessly picked up that petite piece of plastic and flipped it back in the grass. I could not believe it.

Obviously, I had not become sufficiently present the first time I went through this process, so I had the opportunity to do so again - quiet my breathing, focus on the beauty in front of me, choose not to make myself wrong, and simply be available for the contact to show itself again. After a few more minutes of kneeling in the beauty of the day, bowing to the sacred all around me, sure enough, the contact "showed up." Within moments it was safely back in my eye. As I stood up to head home, I spent another moment in quiet reflection, honoring my experience and grateful that I had chosen to accept the moment as it was without creating any suffering.

If that had been the end of the story, I would have felt it worth the telling, but opportunities for me to keep choosing not to suffer continued to show up. Within minutes my contact began bothering again, and sis so all the way back, about a 45 minute walk. I did not attempt to take it out and clean it again; rather, I simply stayed present, noticing that in each moment I could choose to turn the pain into suffering, or not.

My eye kept tearing, and it was difficult to keep it open through the pain. Yet the beauty of the day called insistently through the hum of innumerable bees collecting nectar from the veritable explosion of blooms. In particular, the hillsides along the road were carpeted with flowers, particularly vetch, a low green vine bursting with millions of exquisite purple blossoms. Whole sections of hillside were blanketed in this glorious profusion, this spring riot of life. I walked along in amazement. Sometimes my eye would clear up for a few minutes, and I felt grateful. Then the pain would return, and I felt grateful that I was not creating suffering for myself in addition to feeling the pain.

As I have written about in Drunk with Wonder, pain and suffering are not one word. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Remember that in each moment we have a choice. We can welcome the pain that inevitably comes with the gift of life as an opportunity to become fully present in the moment. Adding suffering to our experience is simply not necessary. I am grateful to life for every chance I have to explore this perspective, and to share what I learn with you.

Steve Ryals, author of Drunk with Wonder: Awakening to the God Within went from homeless and shooting drugs in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district at 17 to graduating from UC Berkeley on the Dean's List six years later.

Drunk with Wonder was written, edited and designed with almost no help from fossil fuels. Steve is proud to say that Drunk with Wonder is printed on 60# Thor Offset acid-free, recycled paper with soy-based ink. Drunk with Wonder is the culmination of years of research and decades of personal experience.It's been hailed as where "Conversations with God meets What the Bleep Do we Know?"

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