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  • Alicia Waters

Your Suffering Isn't Yours Alone - It's Ours Together

Your suffering is not self-made. We all suffer sometimes - we all feel pain & fear & helpless anger. There’s this idea that our struggles are individual - that the cruel voice in your head / the cycles of submission to and commission of abuse / the subtle and gross ways we harm ourselves and the world - that these things are personal flaws. As in, there’s something specific wrong with *you* that brings you to experience these things. The majority of the wellness industry is built around this notion. Coaches teach you how to stop “self-sabotaging”. There’s the entire idea of “self-help.” And yes, most Western yoga classes perpetuate the idea that you can handstand, Chaturanga, and meditate your pain away, all by yourself on your sticky mat. I’m not saying those offerings don’t have any value. I’ve used them, and I still participate in them. They've helped me and others immensely. What I’m saying is that the individualist perspective behind all these modalities is limited. And that means their potential for getting to the root of the problem and completing the healing is limited.

If you want a weed to stop growing back, you have to get to the root. I used to always say to my students: “You’re not unique in your suffering. Thousands, if not millions, of other humans are experiencing similar feelings to you right now, whether that’s anxiety, depression, grief, despair...” What I meant is that we don’t have to add the pain of self-judgment to the original pain, which I still stand behind. That thought had always made me feel better, less alone. It was a relief not to feel like the inner pain was “my pain” when so many other humans are carrying the same weight.

But eventually I started asking: why is it that so many of us suffer in the same way? Could it be that our culture itself is the root?

None of us grew in a vacuum. Nor did we emerge into this life exactly as we are now. It's true that most human suffering comes from our own patterns of thought and behavior, but perhaps millions of us didn't individually come up with the same painful thoughts. Isn’t it more likely that our collective habits are the source of such widespread dysfunction? I call it dysfunction because I invest a lot of faith in the idea that we as humans are not designed to hurt ourselves / our environment / each other - that we are in fact designed to live in a cooperative, interdependent web. A web where we are an integral part - where we are needed and where we can trust that our needs will be met.

I believe this is the sense of harmony and belonging we’re all seeking. A space where we have a purpose and our worth is recognized. Just like everyone else. And yet it is our commonly-held patterns of inward and outward relating, which we feel are normal because we’re accustomed to them, that are in fact deeply unhealthy and causing us to suffer in this widespread, shared way. Think of this: Who trained the cruel voice in your head? You weren't born with it. So who trained you to judge yourself? Betray yourself? Deny your needs and creative urges? Who taught you to commit harm? To stand silent when you see harm committed around you? And who taught them? That’s the key. The point is not to lay blame on someone else, it's to understand that we are all in this together. We are all fed by and feeding into a culture with violent tendencies.

That might sound harsh, but if we aren't clear about the source of the harm, we can't access true healing. We can only keep treating the symptoms, applying bandages, and hope for the best.

That doesn’t mean don’t work on yourself either. It means that when you’re working “on yourself” you’re actually untangling threads of generation upon generation of habitual harm. It means that often, your healing is going to take you away from the norm. It means challenging the status quo. Which gets uncomfortable. The good news is that the wounds you’re tending to aren’t yours, they’re ours, which means you don’t have to do this work alone. It means communal support for your healing is not only helpful, it is required. And it is much, much more productive (and pleasurable and rewarding) to do this work together than to chase the next “self-help fix” in hopes that you’ll solve your pain once and for all. You won’t. But we will.

[photo of students at the Bali yoga teacher training in 2018, standing in pairs with hands on each other's hearts during an eye-gazing practice to experience connection]

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