I Chose This? The Purpose of Suffering

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There's nothing worse than blaming the victim, right? But what if radical responsibility is the first step towards personal freedom? What if it isn't bad genes, bad luck, that toxic relationship, or your dysfunctional family?

What if cause and effect can be reclaimed as something entirely within your control?

I used to believe in the mechanistic model of the universe. The one that puts forth a logical, ordered framework for nature and humanity. From this perspective, the automated world is understandable through the objective lens of science, and any problems, mishaps, or deviations from the plan are to be promptly managed, suppressed, and resolved.  There is no room for the perception of anything more than this pragmatic agenda. In fact, meaning-making is a psychiatric symptom called referential thinking! There is only what is knowable, objective, and real.

In this model, there are medications for symptoms, there is technology for the nuisance of eating, and there are chemicals for everything else we might need.  We are meant to go to school, get good grades, get a respectable (high-paying) job, marry, have children, and raise them right while continuing to look 25 for the two decades that takes.  We hide our problems from our neighbors, we judge ourselves for our struggles, and we keep our heads down, focusing on that endless to-do list. Then... one day you wake up.

Maybe it's a lightning bolt of tragedy. Or maybe it's a volcanic explosion of unexpectedness with lots of hot molten lava flow in its wake. Maybe it's quiet and private, and slow.

Walking Into The Light

First you might wake up to the illusion of the Truth that we are fed by media, government, and social constructs. You understand that what you hear, read, and are told, may not be a reflection of what is real. Once you have this dawning of consciousness, there is likely no going back behind the veil.

This type of awareness often leads to pain. Feelings of injustice, righteousness, and even rage can accompany the knowledge that structures in our society seem unstoppably devoted to hurting and harming people, plants, animals, and the very majestic planet we stand on. You might even resent being awake and long to go back to unknowing. You wonder if it might very well be true that ignorance is bliss?

As we move through the process of waking up, at some point, we may be invited to wake up to another layer of illusion. This is the illusion that this life, this world as we see it, "just happened", and that everything going on in it matters as much as it seems to matter. For it to matter less and for it to feel more graceful, you have to zoom out. You have to believe that we are part of something bigger, and that the feeling of gratitude, and unconditional love, are like little touchstones that remind us of this fact. If you've ever had a moment, even a second of authentic experience of those emotions, you know how freeing they are, and how your ego crumbles in their presence.

This was the hardest passage for me. There have been days I have cried myself to sleep over the fluoride in our water, the glyphosate in our food (and rain, and soil, and air), the medicating of our children, the births turned to trauma, and the carnival-like performance of a medical-industrial complex shackling innocent victims to its wagon. I have felt hopeless. I have wished I never brought children onto this sick and dying planet. I have longed for a time when things didn't feel so completely and terminally wrong.

Then I began to see that maybe it's not quite as it looks. Maybe things are this way for a reason. Maybe this is all a necessary part of collective growth. Maybe this conflict is something that is necessary for us as individuals, and for our shared experience. Maybe, just maybe, this is something we have chosen.

Choosing It

Perhaps, as my Kundalini teacher shared, we are like raindrops leaving the clouds and traveling to the sea, manifesting as seemingly discrete entities also capable of merging and dissolving. In our journey, though, from cloud to water, how much agency do we have in the path? Is it possible that your journey is your journey for a reason? And that suffering has a purpose?

The Purpose of Suffering

There are some great visionaries who seemed to have much of it figured out. Alan Watts was one of them, and he often suggested that we are electing to play this particular game of life, exactly as we are playing it. He states:

So then, let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and that you could for example have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time, or any length of time you wanted to have.

And you would, naturally, as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure during your sleep. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each you would say “Well that was pretty great”. But now let’s have a surprise, let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it's gonna be.

And you would dig that and would come out of that and you would say “Wow that was a close shave, wasn’t it?”. Then you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further- and further-out gambles what you would dream. And finally, you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.

That would be within the infinite multiplicity of choices you would have. Of playing that you weren't god, because the whole nature of the godhead, according to this idea, is to play that he is not. So in this idea then, everybody is fundamentally the ultimate reality, not god in a politically kingly sense, but god in the sense of being the self, the deep-down basic whatever there is. And you are all that, only you are pretending you are not.

This may seem preposterous - why would anyone choose to struggle through a life with trauma, tragedy, and adversity? Perhaps to learn that the resistance of these experiences is where the real pain lies. Beyond the pain is growth, growth that may not have been possible without the trial. In this case, it seems like the only choice we may have is to see what it is that we are living, accept it, and open our hearts to feeling why we might be exactly where we are. Then we might be free enough to shed what skins we came here to shed, and to come closer to exactly what we were born to do.

"The journey of awakening is just remembering who and what we are, remembering what we've always known."

- Adyashanti

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More