Voluntary Suffering vs. Involuntary Suffering

To suffer is to bear. The bearing we suffer is ordinarily painful. Pain is a sensation and mental state experienced as harmful to us in some way. However, pain can actually be of two sorts: debilitating or constructive. The latter is often called "growing pains." Spring training in baseball terms is that time when players get their muscles in shape to prepare for the opening season. The process can be painful as the kinks are worked out. The etymological root of pain in the West also gives rise to the word punishment. In Sanskrit the root has to do with purification. In spiritual terms we go through the inevitable pain of this great journey to purification, eventually to union with our Divine source.

So, there can be suffering through pain leading to happiness. Suffer the pain, physically and mentally, of getting in and staying in shape in your gym and you’ll experience some semblance of happiness.

Getting back to suffering, there are two types. One has deleterious effects for⁄on us, the second spiritually elevates us. The first I call "involuntary" suffering, the latter "voluntary" suffering. Involuntary suffering consists of habitual, conditioned, repetitive behaviors with their attendant disturbing feelings and sensations. In this case we don’t take charge of the suffering; it takes charge of us. For voluntary suffering the case is different. Here we choose to take charge and agree to accept and weather the distress inherent there, for we have an intention toward something we regard as more valuable to us. We undergo willingly short–term pain for long term–gain. In involuntary suffering we are conditioned to seek a short–term gain resulting in long term-pain. The gain here comes about through efforts to avoid pain as quickly as possible. That's the mantra of early life conditioning we all suffer when we are not in charge and others are in charge of us.

Spiritual life recommends taking the path of voluntary suffering, putting yourself in charge knowingly for a long-term gain through short-term pain. There are no shortcuts to spiritual illumination. Pain is a normal part of the process, for be it Karma from the East or Justice from the West, we have made and do make errors, the debts so incurred have to be met and paid up. In addition, there is a future calling we all hear early in life. Very few answer this future karmic beckoning regarding it as painful in some way. It goes against our conditioning and habit of wanting pleasure and avoiding pain. Then, we retreat to the comfort of illusory "security" and "safety" of our materialistically based life, which somehow doesn't seem to stem involuntary suffering and, in fact, perpetuates the pain in most instances.