Sunday, February 6, 2011

Day 5: Finding the Nexus of Suffering

During the check-in, it was clear that many people were experiencing a rather deep suffering.  Roger noticed this, named it explicitly and asserted that he didn't think our planned conversation on bioteams would address it.  We instead spent our time together working with the suffering in the room, believing that having the skillful means of effectively working with suffering is directly relevant to teaming and collaboration.

Roger asked, "What is the source of suffering? What is our model of suffering?"

To illustrate the idea of models of suffering, he spoke of two types of developmental traditions--the mystic traditions and the yogic traditions.  In mystic traditions, one's belief is that the source of suffering is outside oneself.  In the yogic traditions, one believes that the source of suffering is inside oneself.

If we believe that source of suffering originates outside ourselves, we can find ourselves attempting to manipulate those around us in an effort to alleviate our suffering.
This manipulation can come in many subtle forms.  For example, it can manifest as presenting a skewed version of the facts in order to influence a decision to one's favor. Strangely, we could also engage in manipulation if we believed the source was inside ourselves.  We could repeatedly tell ourselves a story in an attempt to alleviate our suffering (e.g. "I AM a good teacher, despite my feelings of insecurity." )

Roger gave an example of a friend of his who felt she was crazy in the moment.  She felt she had only two choices--to act out her craziness or to suppress it.  Both have consequences, neither of which she liked.  To enact her craziness would result in all the social fallout of others experiencing her as crazy.  To suppress it would likely amplify the problem by leaking the thing she is trying to suppress into other areas of her life.  You will recognize this dynamic when you hold all the frustrations of the work day only to spill them out upon returning home to your loved ones.

Roger asserted that we often experience this artificial duality of "suppress" or "express"; there is a third option--to suspend.  In this option, we suspend our need to express and observe what happens. This may seem at first glance equivalent to "suppress."  The difference is that in suppress, the outcome is likely to be self-righteousness for one's heroic act of self-control, followed by leakage of that same energy into a different and inappropriate context.  In true suspension, the outcome is learning about one's own hidden motives, feelings and beliefs through a process of experiencing and observing the thought and emotion that proceed from not enacting what you feel needs to be done.  You observe these as one might experience a cold breeze, "Oh, look, a cold breeze.  I can feel the sensation of the coolness. What will happen next?" Not, "Oh great! I am a cold breeze now when what I really need to be is a warm figures that I'd be the wrong temperature," nor "I am a cold breeze, why isn't anyone else the cold breeze? Am I the only one who is providing the needed coolness?"  In other words, you observe and experience the thoughts and feelings without self-identifying with them, judging them or engaging them.

In true suspension, one has a disposition of letting go.  It is possible to strategically suspend one's action in a kind of manipulative hope that something will happen.  For example, one might say, "I'm not going to clean the dirty dishes this time...I'll see how long it takes for those untidy miscreants to notice." This kind of "suspension" is actually "suppressing," as it more likely to produce the "suppress" outcomes (self-righteousness and leakage).

Another way of thinking about suspension is what the Roger calls "fasting." Fasting is essentially a process of not feeding a particular appetite.  It is his belief that the process of fasting allows one to see into otherwise hidden dynamics of one's own habitual actions.  For example, I knew of a person who knew (or thought she knew) a great deal about science.  This "friend of mine" found herself participating in many community gatherings for sustainability attended mostly by well-meaning non-scientist advocates.  "She" had many impulses to speak during these meetings.

One time, "she"decided to fast every impulse to speak and instead, record the thoughts she had at the moment of the impulse.  As I did this, I mean "she" did this, she could see her own arrogance, anger and irritation. (Alright, I'll admit it..."she" is me...oh, the embarrassment!) At first, all my impuse statements occurred to me as unquestionable truths.  But as I sat with these statements beneath my impulse to speak, I could see and feel the fear underneath them.  I was afraid that if I didn't "do my part," I would be responsible for the eventual massive suffering of all those women and children in developing countries who experience draught, starvation, disease and pestilence directly caused by the collective consumption activities of developed economies. I feared I would create a world of suffering that my daughter and others would live in. So my need for speaking was not really my imagined noble cause of scientific integrity; it was fear.  Seeing and feeling the fear helped dissolve it, let it go, choose something different. So this process of fasting enabled me to see the "source" of my appetite and make responsible choices about whether to feed my appetite (or, as the Roger says, it helped me choose between engaging or bypassing my habitual behavior).

Back to the original question, "What is the source or model of suffering?"

Roger believes we generally presume that if we can find the source and eliminate it, things would be better.  This is a bit of a direct "cause and effect" model.   That is, we conceive of the source of suffering like a faucet.  When that faucet is opened, suffering flows from it; the more the faucet it opened, the more suffering would flow (and vice versa).  If we could find this source, we could restrict the flow by minimizing the opening or turning off the faucet altogether.  one might call this a "linear model" due to its implied mathematical relationship as a line...As the cause increases, the effect (suffering) proportionately increases.

Roger challenged us to consider instead, the structural components that give rise to what we experience as suffering.  I will attempt to explain what I think he means by "structural components that give rise to what we experience as suffering."

The structural components of suffering
It might be useful to recall the iceberg analogy used by Peter Senge that illustrates the relationship between events or symptoms, patterns of behavior, structure, mental models, beliefs, assumptions and values. Events are the "tip of the iceberg," the visible results of hidden patterns, themselves the result of deeper, systemic structures which are created by deeply hidden mental models. That is, what occur as problematic symptoms are a direct result of the system functioning perfectly as designed by the unexamined beliefs and assumptions that created the systemic structures that lead to patterns and eventual symptoms.

The question, "What are the structural components that give rise to what we experience as suffering?" is a little like the question, "What causes stop and go traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area when you are driving during rush hour?"  Clearly, the cause is not any one thing or person, but there are many participants, each in part responsible for contributing to the outcome.  You might start with describing the patterns: dramatic increases in the number of vehicles entering the highway during the hours of 3 PM and 7 PM; the dynamic interplay of all the individuals driving their vehicles; vehicles traveling and the highest possible speeds; some vehicles darting in and out at dangerously high speeds; vehicles of varying sizes and designs, leading to varying abilities to see and safely maneuver around one another; drivers distracted by alternative activities while driving; delayed individual driver responses to sudden braking.  Then you might go on to some of the physical structural features: Yes, there is the highway itself and its dimensions; there are the cars and other sundry vehicles; there is the speed limit. Maybe there is an accident or a stalled vehicle. All these features arise from the interaction of many individuals who have a shared belief around the value of time, the reasonable hours for work, the belief that faster is better. There is a whole set of cultural values that created the system of where one lives and works, individual freedoms and convenience of driving oneself, economic activity that utilizes highways and all the distractions of talking on cell-phones, multitasking while driving and so on. 

In case you're a math junkie, this "cause and effect" relationship is mathematically non-linear because there are multiple "causes," all interacting with one another. 

So the question, "What are the structural components that give rise to what we experience as suffering?" is meant to illicit the entire recursive structure that you are creating by your own action--the thoughts, feelings and actions that you have manufactured.  At the same time, look to see what is not uniquely in you, but systemic. By seeing the structure, you can see your responsibility in creating what you experience as "suffering."  Another way of getting at this is by asking, "What are the implicit and explicit agreements I have made that have made me participate in this system of suffering and experience it now as an object of the systemic oppression?" (Apparently, this is a good question to ask in relationships.)

Roger pointed out the cyclical nature of our suffering (I think he was referring to Cal Poly in particular). He didn't quite say this, but I will assert that the cycle is 11 weeks long. 

The homework we were given is the following:

Homework on suffering
Find a place where you are offended. Lay out the structure of that offense. If you had to teach someone else how to reproduce that same offense within themselves, what would they have to do, think, feel, believe? 
Extra credit: What would you have to teach them to create this suffering cyclically? What is needed to sustain the suffering?


  1. Hi- I have not finished reading the post yet. As alway, thank you Linda.

    I wanted to make one simple correction. In a mystic sort of tradition the source of consciousness, or source in general is consider 'outside.'. In a yogic tradion, 'inside.'. The models of suffering follow from that, being perhaps some version of sins, or ignorance, etc.

  2. Thanks Linda. You are talented at not only capturing the activities and dialog, but also at illustrating these concepts with your own stories. Thanks for this service.

  3. hi-
    as I take this 10 week thought journey, suffering is another piece of the puzzle to consider as I am faced with truths about myself I don't much like. Identifying how suffering manifests itself in holding onto and letting go of said truths makes for heavy thinking. I typically get a headache and have to stop--thinking that is.

    I found it curious in class today. Linda noted that no one commented on the blog, but then folks chimed in that they read it and it was great-recount the class well (which you do phenomenally well). After the later disclosure about not needing new strategies on how to deal with said individual, it made me wonder if Linda wanted more than simply validation in her earlier comment. Perhaps the comment was something other. My inference was to discourse about the discourse that happened. To extend the conversation and have reflective thought about the experience. I may be very wrong, which is more often the case, so I'll end here.

    Except to say thank you for your time in spelling out the experience.