The art of suffering in the digital age

Many people know me as the world’s most connected human, wearing gadgets, measuring everything I do.

But what journalists never captured, the measurement I've not made public, is how that data helps me explore my suffering and map my sorrow.

 

Until now. Tonight, Showtime will show the world the depth of my suffering.

It will be hard for my friends and family to watch.
Even the New York Times recoils at my story. 

“For me, relationships are difficult,” he admits. “I see people as just a pile of information.” He compares data to heroin: Having it only makes you want more. The same technology that made him physically fit is dehumanizing him.

So now that the world is about to bear witness to my suffering, I think it's time to talk about how to suffer in the age of digital dualism.

Suffering 101

I believe all that is beautiful in life becomes visible in our suffering. Each time I am touched by a movie or a moment or a thing of beauty, I am suffering, because in that moment I am touching love. And to love is to suffer, in the most tender and tragic sense of the word.

It is time to talk about how to suffer

Unfortunately, it seems that creating a space to swim in sadness is a gift reserved for philosophers, poets, and artists. 

In an age where everything we do is digitized, suffering is something we all share in real time. It cannot be quantified. It knows no algorithms.

Suffering is the original viral media.

Some Eastern religions categorize suffering in four ways: birth, old age, sickness, and death. In this Western life I live, I further narrow suffering down into three types of misery:

  1. Not getting what I want
  2. Getting what I don't want
  3. Not being able to hold on to what I have

Heartbreak, anxiety, depression, relentless rumination, intrusive dark thoughts, negative self-speak. Instantly I recognize the sensations like the smell of smoke creeping under a doorway. The paradox is that suffering, that most universal of feelings, is the one we take the greatest strides to avoid.

And then I find myself wondering, what really is the difference between being truly depressed and truly happy? Both are marked by groundlessness. Both cause me to reach the depths of feeling. What is the dividing line?

At 47, I now can say that my life has been a battle between suffering and distracting myself from suffering. It's only been in the past three years that have I purposefully started to cultivate and practice the art of suffering.

My process started with an examination of my suffering

By separating the physical from the mental, I slowly allowed the root cause of my suffering to rise and become visible.

Time is the root of my suffering. Controlling time, managing time, making time, spending time.

Time is life’s greatest practical joke; eternity’s satire is a clock that functions only upon the heart.

So how do I practice suffering?

It starts with some basic rules to consider:

  1. Suffering can’t hurt me
  2. Suffering is part of joy
  3. Suffering is temporary

By practicing these three rules whenever I'm in pain, I find I start to understand the art of suffering and willfully create space for sorrow. And sorrow has lessons for us we were never taught to see.

Ironically, the tools to lean into pain are being taken away from us in digital spaces. Recently Facebook created two different tools to manage “ex relationships” and to edit out “painful memories” from our lives.

If you’ve ever wondered why you feel so lonely when you use digitized systems, I can help you with the answer. The act of recording something changes it. The act of editing a record changes it. Each of these digital layers creates a new “record” of impermanence.

Social media is “realtime grief”

Tools to manage online fear or offline pain will only amplify anxieties. Learning to focus on them is the only way through. Each time I experience that twinge of fear, anxiety, or depression coming on, I apply the three rules of suffering and give myself space to see the reaction.

For me, this has been a slow process of letting the darkness settle in, allowing the blue hues after sunset to take over my mind.

I purposefully start to move slower. My speech, activity, gaze are all appropriately adjusted downward to look upon the sorrow that creeps up in my day.

As I begin to be more comfortable with this new pool of pain, I no longer fear the depths, temperature, and variations in my body and mind.

The second phase to practicing suffering is to act upon it

The most direct and purposeful action to access suffering is meditation. But there are other tools all around that we can use before jumping into the river of meditation.

Chris Dancy Showtime 2016

Like journaling. 

Many people feel they don’t have the time to write. And maybe there's some fear of what will come up when we write the tomes that are our inner lives.

Journaling gets a bad rap. But maybe there's a different way to understand what it is to record our days. Maybe some of our greatest journals have already been created.

  • Register receipts
  • Old emails
  • Photographs on your phone.
  • Voicemails saved.

Open your documents, sort them by created date, find the oldest thing you created. Read it.

Go to Google and download your browsing history. What was the first thing you ever searched for?

Revisit register receipts, old emails, photographs on your phone, voicemails in your inbox. 

All of these are a mosaic of your life, a multimedia presentation about you. And the gifts of these insights are the companion suffering is looking for.

It is in reviewing our “journals” that we realize life’s greatest mystery: we are suffering; we will suffer.

Suffering is not something to escape from, nor is it something to run to.

Suffering is proof we are alive, suffering is our heart's journal.

Digital technology is the single greatest opportunity to practice suffering in mankind's history 

By creating time to practice suffering, we become closer to our true selves.

Technology only opens us more fully to our suffering. When our phones ring, we race to silence them. With each new email alert, we feel the sense of urgency to address it, file it, respond to it. For every moment we see someone looking longingly at their mobile device, wonder with gentleness how much pain they must be in.

 

Create the compassionate heart of a warrior while you work with and not for your technologically-assisted life.

The best thing I ever created was a relationship with my suffering. Go on, hurt, it’s ok.