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Can Suffering Be Part Of A Life Well Lived?

Written by: Kristen Lessig Schenerlein, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

In the pursuit of a good life, many may believe that suffering is something to be avoided. There is however another option, one that sees suffering as central to all our lives. Suffering may be a pleasurable experience or at the very least, an essential element to living a life of meaning. Suffering is defined as the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship. The experiences are typically aversive, for either physical or psychological reasons (Bloom, 2021).

There are two types of suffering, chosen suffering and unchosen suffering. Chosen suffering often involves pain, fear, and sadness while also serving as a source of pleasure. This could include experiences like a hot sauna, a long run on a frigid cold day, watching a scary movie, or listening to a sad song playlist (on repeat) following a breakup. This may also include suffering to satisfy social goals, demonstrate our resilience, cry out for help, provide an escape from consciousness, or show off in some way maybe by depriving ourselves of food (Bloom, personal communication, December 11, 2022). As a parent and an entrepreneur, I have experienced firsthand that suffering in the form of struggle or difficulty are essential to achieving the goals I have set for myself in this life. In both cases, I have gone back from round two on my continued quest to live a fulfilling life with great meaning. I have also chosen to run three marathons in my lifetime, sacrificing hours of training for months leading up to race day as well as enduring physical challenges and pain. These personal experiences all enhanced my quality of life and were derived from my setting goals to reach my full potential and eudaimonic well-being (Deci and Ryan, 2004).


These are salient points as we consider what it means to live a good life. Further, similar to the science of well-being, what one person considers suffering may be different than what another considers suffering. This is also true across cultures whereas in the case of Asian cultures, suffering is embraced as an aspect of a balanced life. Buddhism specifically teaches that all human suffering is derived from our attachments, the key to ending one’s suffering lies in breaking our attachments (Haidt, 2006). Taken further, Bloom (2021) highlighted in The Sweet Spot a study where A Zen Buddhist practitioner practiced meditation on the physical tooth pain he was experiencing and through that practice was able to change his reaction to pain. In some ways, we could say he changed his mindset on the pain. Happiness rests in misery, misery hides in happiness, who knows where they end” Tao Te Ching (Bloom, 2021).


Unchosen suffering does not have to preclude a good life however, it is something to be avoided if we can. Examples of unchosen suffering include awful experiences like the loss of a child, maybe the loss of a job, damage to our homes in a storm, etc. Bloom (2021) posits that unchosen suffering can contribute to building a positive trait of resilience, though this type of suffering is not one we would wish for anyone. A key learning on the importance of suffering, regardless of whether chosen or unchosen, is taken from the Buddhist religion that believes there is an importance to human suffering. A desire to live a life free from suffering is not the issue, this supports our desire to live a life of flourishing. When unchosen suffering occurs, taking steps to alleviate the suffering seems reasonable. The greater challenge comes when we view suffering as something unique to ourselves or abnormal in life. We attach fear, rejection, negativity to it and it limits us from being able to get at the root cause of our suffering so that we might begin to live a happier life, one of greater well-being (Cutler & Lama, 1998).


A good life includes a life of both pleasure and meaning. Most meaning in our lives involves a degree of suffering so, it is safe to assume we cannot be simply pleasure-seeking hedonists (Bloom, personal communication, December 11, 2022). A meaningful life doesn’t always have to be one of suffering, however. Challenges are inevitable and will cause stress, true suffering does not have to be part of that. It can often be our perception or interpretation of experiences that leads to the greatest amount of suffering in our lives.


“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” ‒ Buddha

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Kristen Lessig Schenerlein, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Kristen Lessig-Schenerlein, a social entrepreneur, mental fitness coach and yoga instructor, is an expert in nonprofit leadership, forever passionate about the fields of neuroscience, positive psychology, and performance science. After nearly two decades of being driven by a mission, almost to complete burnout and after having experienced the real life effects of working within a toxic environment, Kristen began down a new path in service to others facing similar challenges. She integrated her own personal yoga practice and energy medicine into a science-based coaching practice. She became a trained yoga instructor guiding her clients “on the mat” and also an ICF Certified Professional Coach and a Certified Positive Intelligence Coach to support her clients “off the mat” with mental fitness training and coaching. Kristen has dedicated her entire career to transforming the lives of others and sees herself now as a guide to those willing to do the innerwork necessary to link their power with their passions, so that they can live a life more in alignment with their values, while showing up authentically in aspects of their lives. Kristen is the founder of Koi Coaching and Consulting, serving clients around the world, thanks in part to being part of the coaching team of BetterUp as well, whose mission is to make coaching accessible to all, unlocking greater potential, purpose, and passion.


Born in a small coastal town in Connecticut, Kristen also spent a good part of her career in Richmond, Virginia, where she founded her nonprofit organization before moving back to the coast where she now resides in Southwest Florida with her husband and a blended family of four beautiful children.

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