Art, in its most essential form, is creation; the combining of disparate elements into an entirely new entity that reflects the truth of its creator. Art is how we manifest our souls to the world. For me, this broad definition unleashes possibilities to create and recognize art and beauty in everything we do, everyone we encounter, and everything we encounter. The formation of our relationships, in combining our individual experiences, hopes, and dreams with those of another, become, in and of itself, living, evolving works of art. Raising our children, pulling weeds, cooking a meal, meditating, praying or hiking can all be considered works of art if defined in this way. If this is so, our lives, by definition, are a mural comprised of our own varied and diverse artistic works lived out day by day.
It is also true, then, just as with all artistic endeavors, that improvement can only be achieved through learning, practice, and repetition of our own artistic skills and techniques. For truly skilled and accomplished artists, this learning and practice is carefully designed, highly focused, deliberate, and life- long. And so it is with our lives. Although we all choose to create different works of art over the arc of our lives and none of us are given the same raw materials with which to create that art, to truly be successful, we must be taught and we must practice.
Although we are all provided with diverse raw materials and mediums with which to create, there are common threads that link us all together; shared experiences and perspectives that provide the foundation of our communion together on this earth. One of the most profound of these shared experiences is suffering. It is the dark shade all of us have on our palette and provides the contrast to the vibrant colors that gives our paintings depth and meaning. As with the shading on a painting, suffering provides the contrast to happiness and joy to bring depth and meaning to our lives. Without suffering, joy and happiness would be hollow and meaningless just as without the shading on a portrait, the subject would hollow and meaningless.
The ability to use the suffering that all of us must endure as a means to create something beautiful and truthful in our lives and the lives of others is the art of suffering. It is one of the most important skills that we can develop over the arc of our lives, for if applied incorrectly, the dark shade of suffering can overwhelm all other colors of joy, happiness and satisfaction and render our life’s mural dark and formless. And so in our never-ending quest to perfect our ability to create art from our suffering we must practice suffering.
The question then follows, how does one practice suffering? The thought is admittedly jarring and rightfully so. I am certainly not suggesting that we should cause harm to ourselves or those we love for the sole purpose of practicing how to suffer. However, there are proxies for real human suffering that provide us the opportunity to practice the delicate strokes required to turn our suffering into works of art.
Suffering becomes destructive, rather than creative, when an imbalance of negative emotional energy poisons the soul. The soul, combined with our minds and bodies, forms the trinity that makes us who we are. As three parts of one whole, when one of these are weakened or destroyed, all are weakened or destroyed. The essential skill in the art of suffering is transforming negative emotional energy into positive energy and action so that the soul is strengthened, rather than weakened. The repetitive strengthening of our souls, in turn, strengthens our bodies and minds, which in turn enables us to master the art of suffering. It is a process akin to the tempering of steel. To make steel, iron is combined with different alloys, depending on the use of the steel, and put through what is essentially a suffering process. Cast iron is good for some things, but it is not very tough or hard. Tempering is a heating and cooling process which is causes the metal to suffer so much its internal crystal structure actually changes. Depending on what process is followed you can change brittleness, ductility, elasticity, tensile strength and other characteristics. Done right, it is an impressive change. Done wrong you end up with a useless blob. Just as the metallurgist fundamentally understands the process and designs it for the precise outcome, we need to understand and design our own journey and how to use the tool.
This is one of the primary reasons why becoming a triathlete has changed my life. For me, the skills used in training for an Ironman have been, and continue to be, a very effective proxy for teaching me the art of suffering. Anyone that has attempted this can attest that training the soul and mind is just as, and probably more, important than training the body. From the moment the alarm clock goes off in the morning, requiring you to leave the comfort of your own bed to go train, to constant vigilance in eating properly, to the pain incurred in countless miles spent on the road or in the pool, transforming negative emotional energy into positive actions is a constant task.
What I found is that as I master these small, constant, repetitive episodes of suffering I am able to apply these skills to other, larger more complex and intense episodes of suffering in my life. While these episodes are still painful and difficult, I am getting better at turning them into the shading that provides texture to my life’s work. I am by no means perfect, so I will continue to practice.