Empowerment: Transforming Our Relationship With Suffering

Introduction: The Function of Suffering

Buddha identified suffering as “The first condition of human existence”. War, violence of all kinds, hunger and starvation, disease, loss and grief – all of these are manifestations of human suffering the world over.

At face value, suffering seems a curse on humanity. No one seeks a life of misery.

However, suffering does serve a vital function in each of our lives: Every human being must experience suffering. As cruel and painful as suffering is, it is an essential vector for growth – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Suffering and Fitness

To consider how suffering functions in the cycle of growth, let’s look at endurance athletic training. Endurance athletes are quite familiar with suffering – but we call it by another name: “stress”. Specifically, the stress of training. We know how vital stress is in the process of building aerobic and endurance fitness through training. It is the first of three phases of the Fitness Cycle:

  • Stress
  • Recovery
  • Adaptation

Without stress, the body and mind of the athlete will not strengthen and develop. The purpose of a training session for the endurance athlete is to orchestrate stress – to deliberately subject the body (and mind) to a specific level of stress (usually quantified as intensity) for a specific duration.

How Stress Improves Fitness

Stress results in damage to the body’s physiological systems. But, the Fitness Cycle extends beyond the damaging “stress session”. It continues with Recovery and Adaptation.

The body responds to the damage orchestrated in the Stress Phase during the Recovery and Adaptation Phases. Specifically, the body repairs the damage during the Recovery Phase.

The most remarkable phase of the Fitness Cycle is Adaptation. This is when your body actually morphs. After Adaptation, your body is stronger – it is better able to cope with and function at the stress levels it regularly experiences. Adaptation results in a fitness gain.

As an example, I go out for a 40-minute run at an aerobic pace – deliberately orchestrating the intensity and duration of stress. I orchestrate some damage to my muscle cells – tears in the fibers. At higher intensity (faster pace), I create more muscular damage, as well as damage to the mitochondria in the cells. (The mitochondria are the “energy processors” – they transform oxygen and nutrition into energy to produce movement.)

During the Recovery Phase, my body heals these damaged sites. The duration for adequate recovery is contingent on the level of damage I orchestrated. Then, during the Adaptation Phase, my body increases the strength and durability of the damaged muscles and connective tissues. It also increases the mitochondrial density in the affected cells. With improved muscle and connective tissue strength and with more mitochondria in each cell, more of my muscles are capable of doing more work (strength) at higher intensity (speed) for a longer duration (endurance).

Successful adaptation for the athlete results in strength, speed and endurance.


This is a simple description of how our bodies are capable of increasing fitness when we orchestrate the three phases of the Fitness Cycle. Disciplined athletes know that training is more than the actual training sessions – the Stress Phase. They are just as deliberate and focused on the Recovery and Adaptation Phases as they are on the Stress Phase.

Excessive stress can result in injury or illness. Conversely, avoiding stress altogether (in this case exercise) may result in obesity, immobility, or illness, and may accelerate the aging process. The balance lies somewhere in between too much or too little.

No, Not Suffering!

We humans have an aversion to suffering. We seek comfort and security. No one wants to experience the horrors of war, the desperation of famine, or the despair of disease. After all, we’re only human!

Affluent societies strive for surplus food supplies, elaborate medical services, powerful militaries, comfortable environmentally-controlled living and working environments, all in an attempt to avoid suffering. And not just physical suffering.

We strive to avoid mental and emotional suffering as well. For these, we create abundant diversions to avoid “looking in the mirror” so-to-speak. By diverting our attention outward, we attempt to ignore the inner suffering of our minds and hearts. This is most characteristic of affluent societies that have adequate resources.

Affluence is Not a Cure

It may seem ironic that the U.S. – regarded as the most affluent and “secure” nation – has the highest per-capita rate of mental disease and the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the world. While the nation has successfully avoided hosting any wars or famines for over a century, and has the highest rate of resource consumption, it cannot eliminate suffering. It seems to creep up through cracks in the floorboards. Why?

We ceaselessly strive for solutions to suffering – personally and globally. Yet every solution just seems to result in a new problem. Buddha was right: Suffering is the first condition of human existence. No matter how much money, intelligence, technology or entertainment we throw at it, we cannot eliminate it.

As an example, liberal use of antibiotics may yield a short-term relief from diseases, but eventually these same diseases adapt and become resistant to these antibiotics. In this real-life scenario, we are providing a source of stress to these pathogens that enables them to recover and adapt. They gain fitness – thanks to our orchestration of stress!


Again, suffering is vital to the health and growth of all life forms – individually and collectively. Is there any hope at all for humans? For any and all life forms? Is there any true liberation from suffering? Are we doomed through eternity to experience pain and misery generation after generation?


To consider the possibility these questions conjure, lets start by looking at mastery. Let’s begin our consideration of mastery by recognizing what mastery is not. Mastery is not perfection. It is not a specific event or a definitive, measurable goal. It is not an all-knowing state of being, where there is nothing more to discover or improve upon, and no mistakes to be made.

Mastery is a path – a path with no end, no finish line. It is a life-long journey. In my own Pursuit of Mastery, I have discovered a very simple “compass” to assist my navigation on the path:

I must continue to challenge my perceptive and expressive capacity. Relentlessly.

Infinite Potential

Something else I discovered early in my pursuit – while I was feverishly engaged in the arts – dance, theater, film and sculpture: Humans (and most likely many,helen_keller most, or perhaps all other species) have infinite “experience-ability” potential: There are no limits to our capacity to perceive, and to express. These are the two “vectors” of experience: incoming and outgoing – perception and expression.

Helen Keller may be the strongest proof of experience-ability. She was born without sight or hearing in an age when technology could offer no sensory “prosthetic” or compensation. Yet Helen Keller was able to contribute so much insight and wisdom to our world. We owe a lot to Anne Sullivan for her incredible patience and perseverance along her path of mastery – serving as a sensory liaison for Helen.

Both Helen and Anne experienced a great deal of suffering in their quest to bridge the sensory gap. And somehow, without any guidance manual, they were able to orchestrate that suffering with enough recovery and adaptation to succeed in their quest. Together, they attained a high level of “Life Fitness”.

The “Promised Land”

Our greatest hope to alleviate suffering in our lives and the lives of others is to exercise and empower our choice about stress and suffering, and successfully orchestrate the complete Fitness Cycle: Stress-Recovery-Adaptation. Outside the context of athletics, let’s call it: Suffering-Healing-Transformation.

Returning to the endurance athlete scenario, it is our clear appreciation of the opportunity and promise that stress offers towards growth and fitness that inspires and empowers the athlete’s choice to deliberately orchestrate and experience that stress.
,br> Life Fitness, Spiritual Fitness – these engage the same Fitness Cycle as the athletic training cycle. In my experience as an endurance athlete and in my Pursuit of Mastery, the single greatest benefit of diligent daily practice is my clarity of choice: As I gain experience and clarity in orchestrating the cycle of Stress-Recovery-Adaptation as an endurance athlete, it crosses over into many areas of my life as a “spiritual athlete”: Suffering-Healing-Transformation.

Be Here Now

Pain and discomfort have a powerful way of anchoring us – even tying us down – to the present moment. It is difficult to daydream, reminisce, or disassociate when one is experiencing pain. This is one way in which pain supports us in growth and fitness. Pain forces us to experience the here and now – to perceive and to express the truth.

If we are simply not present in life – navigating through life on “auto-pilot” – there is little potential for, or investment in, growth. In the presence of discomfort, we are very much in the present moment. In this context, it serves as a wake up call.

That pain can be physical, emotional or mental pain. All three are capable of keeping us fixed in the present moment.

Affluence As Opportunity

Returning to affluent societies and suffering, there is undeniable evidence that material wealth cannot prevent or alleviate suffering. It may temporarily divert suffering, but in the interim, that suffering will incubate. However, affluence – material wealth, free time, adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc. – does indeed offer resources to transform our relationship with pain and suffering.

All forms of affluence – the material wealth, free time, adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care – collectively offer us opportunity. If we squander opportunity on diversions, comfort, laziness – essentially attempting to sleep through or escape suffering – we are absolutely destined to fail. We will still – individually and collectively – experience pain and suffering. Even true happiness is not an escape from suffering.

And to the extent that we invest that affluence towards a powerful resistance of suffering (like an antibiotic), that resistance will simply generate more powerful and extreme forms of suffering. That is the nature of polarity in our lives and our Universe. Strengthen one pole, and the other will strengthen as well.

Rather, we must responsibly invest the opportunity that affluence provides us with. We must invest our affluence to choose our suffering and to orchestrate that suffering with recovery and adaptation – with healing and transformation. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to all life to commit to this orchestration – to the pursuit of Spiritual Fitness. This is true happiness and fulfillment.

Power of Choice

In my Pursuit of Mastery as an athlete and as an artist, I have found that as I refine my ability to choose and embrace stress, and to diligently orchestrate the complete cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation, I am healthier and experience less chronic stress (victimization). I feel more functional and brilliant in my day-to-day existence. I find joy and ease in my life of service – one that is balanced with the reward of true happiness.

True happiness is not an escape from suffering – it is a healthy, functional relationship with it.

In stating that I “choose” my suffering, I do not necessarily pick the form, size, color, shape or flavor. Nor do I always choose the time or duration. I simply strive to embrace the stress I experience as opportunity for growth and fitness – be it physical, emotional, or mental. In my discipline as an athlete, I strengthen my ability to exercise choice – to orchestrate stress-recovery-adaptation.

In this way, art and athletics can indeed offer medicine and a healing path to our planet. (Although I train as an athlete, I regard myself as an artist. My current primary genre just happens to be triathlon.)

Each day that I am able, I begin the orchestration of the Fitness Cycle as I execute my morning athletic training. A key component of my training is to be present with the discomfort. No auto-pilot or disassociation. I get “up close and personal”. I really investigate the nature of suffering and discomfort, and my relationship to it. I regard each session, and the mindfulness I bring to it, as an offering to all beings.

A Finish Line?

Buddhists pray for enlightenment and alleviation of all suffering. What is enlightenment? The completion of growth? The finish line? But the Pursuit of Mastery has no finish line.

As I contemplate this, I realize that my prayer is not to end suffering, or to end growth. My prayer is that all beings may experience choice in our suffering, that we may brilliantly orchestrate the Fitness Cycle in our lives – individually and collectively.

I pray that we may compassionately share the support and empowerment of companionship as we travel together in joy on the Path of Mastery.


When we collectively orchestrate the Fitness Cycle, we no longer resist our destiny as Spiritual Athletes and Artists. We no longer squander precious resources and opportunities in attempt to avoid and resist suffering. After all, this resistance simply yields more extreme forms of suffering like war and famine.

Rather, our Suffering is de-centralized, local, organically-grown and sourced (in harmony with Earth), small-scale, easily orchestrated, and balanced with Recovery and Adaptation. It is healthy for our environment and all life forms.

As Spiritual Athletes and Artists, we work and play together, we celebrate our sufferings as empowering opportunities for Fitness. And every being is a Spiritual Athlete/Artist.