A crying heart in pain

No pain no gain! Why?

As you may have noticed, deep pain and suffering are always a catalyst for transformation. On the contrary, good luck and positive experiences often lead to complacency. So why do we almost exclusively take the personal growth path once the shit has hit the fan? Can’t we expand our awareness through positive experiences without having to suffer? These are the questions I try to answer in the article today.


Do I really have to almost get killed to get stronger?

In a nutshell, the body is designed to grow through adaptive responses to adversity. For instance, you can’t grow muscle unless you injure the muscle first (through weight lifting). Similarly, you cannot become cardiovascularly fit unless you stress out your heart first (through running, cycling, swimming, etc.). As it turns out, periodic (not chronic!) stress on the body is much needed for health and growth whereas constant peace leads to rigidity and degradation. Thus, heart rate variability is advantageous (and can only be achieved through a series of adaptive responses) whereas lack thereof leads us rapidly to death. Periodic famine (now rehashed as “intermittent fasting”) is another example of short-term stress which activates growth factors and leads to regeneration and renewal. Similarly, hypoxia (a state achieved when holding your breath and therefore lowering the oxygen levels in your blood), in the right dose of course, can stimulate regeneration by activating stem cells.

Given the above, it seems that we are hard wired to grow through pain, at least on a physiological level. Now, my question is whether the same argument can be made for personal growth and transformation. Did nature design us to only be able to experience sweetness and light through intense suffering? Maybe, but maybe not! Remember that saying “Pain is eternal but suffering is optional”? If we go by that statement, then it turns out we could (at least in theory) expand awareness and achieve higher levels of consciousness without suffering. Sadly though, while in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.

So although there is a theoretical possibility that we can achieve personal growth and transformation without suffering, in practice that is rarely the case. And here I ask WHY?

I have been toiling with this question for quite some time and have come to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with duality. Duality is our experience of contrasts: hot and cold, here and there, me vs you, good and bad, more or less, beautiful and ugly, etc. By comparison, non-duality (also called oneness) is the absence of contrasts: it is what it is. Now, which one of those is our real every-day experience (i.e. which one do you practice at home, at work, in a traffic jam), and which one is mostly a theoretical concept? Of course oneness is mostly a nice theory and we are primarily left to practice duality. Notice that even the “positive thinking” movement is a duality practice! It’s right there in the name – the fact that there is something deemed as positive and we are striving for it, implies there is something negative that we are trying to avoid. If that’s not a contrast, I don’t know what else is! A non-dual perspective would be more like “It is what it is and I don’t care if it’s positive or negative, I will take it”. Now, be honest with yourself – how many times throughout the day do you adopt the non-dual perspective? I will tell you how many times I do that – not that many at all!

So if non-duality is this higher level of intelligence where the contrast is completely eliminated while our current consciousness is practically still dual, then personal growth through suffering makes total sense: If I go through something intensely ugly, I will have to manifest its total opposite at some point; this way, the two experiences neutralize each other and I can come to the middle, i.e. non-contrast, non-duality, a state of oneness where it is what it is and I don’t really care what it is… Except I do care, and I keep manifesting the see-saw effect because I simply don’t know how else to practice non-duality.

So will I ever make oneness a prevalent and effortless experience that my human body lives daily? In my view, the extent to which we can experience non-duality (without going through the see-saw drama) is the extent to which we can cultivate non-attachment. Notice that non-attachment doesn’t mean (at least in my understanding) being void of emotions or dropping into a space of resignation. Non-attachment means you still have your emotions but you are not attached to them. Ironically, the road to non-attachment is full of see-saw experiences that rock our world emotionally. These ups and downs, I think, provide us with opportunities to exercise the non-attachment muscle. Importantly, we cannot practice non-attachment if we have positive only or negative only experiences. We have to have both so we can learn to de-attach from both and ultimately achieve a non-dual/neutral perspective.

On the face of it, the elation that follows the suffering is not the next level; both the elation and the suffering are leading us to the next level – the level of awareness where I am not attached to either one and I take things as they come without reacting to anything because it’s all one (and the same). Now, don’t you think we are already witnessing a manifestation of that next level of intelligence in the form of AI?

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