The Conscious Suffering of Development

When we learn to drive a car, we are anxious, struggle, sometimes even suffer. Most importantly, we are continuously conscious. Learning is a process in and through consciousness. When learning ends, its final reward is unconsciousness: We can drive a car unconsciously and simultaneously listen to music, look out the window, talk with our friends. Mechanical action means acquired knowledge. However, it also means the absence of learning! For the process of learning is always conscious and non-mechanical. Unconsciousness signifies both the consummation of learning and the end of learning.

In a sense then, the more things we do unconsciously in our lives, the more this indicates the absence of learning. The more we move mechanically and without struggle in our lives, the more we remain outside the process of acquiring new knowledge. Taking this very simple idea to its logical conclusion, we first see that effort, exertion, discipline, diligence and other such qualities that are associated with the learning process (and which our teachers of old strove to teach us!) are signifiers of development, of moving ahead. Second and more importantly, we see that at the peak of the struggle, where effort and exertion approach or become suffering and even pain (mental, psychological or physical), we are also at the peak of acquiring  new knowledge or skills. The difficult struggle forces us to somehow “come back to consciousness” and jump out of the automation of everyday life. The athlete, who has already done fifty push-ups and physically suffers to do the final ten in order to reach sixty, knows that it is these last ten that will reap him the greatest benefit. And the student of the Russian language knows that it is in the painful mastering of the almost impossible-to-learn Russian verbs of motion that lies the final conquering of the Russian language.

It is not that the more the pain and suffering the greater the learning. Rather, the degree of pain and suffering is related to the degree of consciousness we bring to the fore to bear upon the process of learning. Just as the athlete must exert the maximum mental and physical concentration to achieve his last ten push-ups to reach his desired goal; and just as the Russian language student must strive to break his old mental maps to create new grammatical mind-paths to master the complicated verb structures, similarly, the profoundest knowledge and the most extraordinary mental or physical skills are acquired through the most conscious experience of struggle, pain and suffering.

But is this suffering true suffering? The athlete himself chose his sport, his goals, his training method, and his suffering! The Russian language student chose to learn the language and then set as a target to painfully master it. Real suffering, irrespective of whether it is imposed from without or is generated within, is suffering for which we can find no purpose or aim. Self-chosen suffering, as is the suffering of the masochist, is not true suffering. So anybody suffering in any field of his life, provided that that field was self-chosen, has no right to blame anybody or anything for his seeming difficulties. The conscious suffering of development is not true suffering. Actually, it is a prerequisite for the opposite of suffering: the joy of learning, the joy of mastering new skills, expanding one’s awareness, moving forward in life.

Here’s a test  to evaluate where each one of us is at any moment in life with regards to learning and moving forward: how conscious am I of the various activities in my life? how many of these activities, processes, jobs are mechanical and automatic? how much struggle, but also, pain and suffering do I experience?

Oftentimes, I hear people say “Now I’m settled down and married; I own a house, have a good job and two kids. Why bother learning a new language/ reading a history book/ obtaining a new skill? I’m done!” Many people voluntarily put a stop to their own development in the name of having less problems. Yet, a person seemingly without any problems or struggles in life, is a person who does not develop. Such a person may have achieved the calmness of mechanical unconscious living, the security and safety of the known, the peace of inactivity. But do all these amount to “happiness”? Or does this inactivity and apparent peace, that is identical to the absence of struggle and learning, create a sense of meaninglessness, which in turn becomes the cause of an inner psychological unsettledness or disturbance that feels itself and thus becomes self-defeating? Is the “settled down” individual (as described above) truly more happy than the striving, suffering seeker? Or is there deeply within him a permanent vacuum of meaninglessness that forbids him from reaping the fruits of his alleged peace of mind? For an unconscious, mechanical living must, by extension, incorporate the unconsciousness of one’s own happiness! The peaks of joy, just as the peaks of pain, are conscious peaks.

Effort, exertion, struggle, pain and suffering are irrevocably connected with our development. They are also connected with how conscious and non-mechanical we are in our lives. Loving the suffering of learning lies at the heart of living with it. And living the “unsettled-life” of the ever-learning lies at the heart of the best possible settling-down: forever developing.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis