Indulging In Suffering

When beginners read about sadomasochism, they often find it easy to understand the attraction of polarity but are more sceptical about pain, and even more the idea of sacrifice. In the previous chapters, I explored pain as a function in the physical body. Now let’s look at the symbolic realm, best described by the word suffering. First in everyday life, then in sadomasochistic play.

The relationship to suffering in daily life is very distorted, especially in comfortable societies like Sweden, where significant hardships are rare. We are not primed to ready ourselves for suffering, and to accept it when it comes. The nature of instant gratification on social media teaches us that we can expect only positive outcomes –  and instantly. Like, like, like! Our cushy societies are no longer set up to deal with complex and challenging experiences on an everyday level. 

Suffering In Religion

The concept of suffering is deeply rooted in Christianity and Judaism. One interpretation of their teachings is, when Adam and Eve left the garden of Eden, they became mortal, and their bodies and minds would gradually decay until their eventual demise. This realisation is, of course, a form of suffering. So what can we do about it? In the Bible, the concept of nihilism is discussed, which suggests that life is ultimately meaningless. However, the idea of hedonistic pleasure seeking does not provide a sense of purpose and meaning. Instead, another proposal was made – to make sacrifices for something worth the suffering. This is an exceptional insight, and it is similar to the Marshmallow test for kids. A behavioural study conducted in the late 1960s involved placing a single marshmallow in front of a group of five-year-old children, informing them that if they could resist eating it for twenty minutes, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows. The suffering in their innocent faces is both hilarious and heartbreaking to watch as they muster every little bit of self-control to withstand the tease and denial game. If they were consenting adults, I might have labelled it as a sadomasochistic play, but now it’s cruelty in the name of science. Anyhow, the children who managed to delay gratification and resist eating the marshmallow were found to be more successful in their careers and education in the future. However, it remains unknown whether they also became poets and dreamers.

The more eastwards we move, the more the attitude towards suffering changes. A Russian friend told me that in their culture, love is suffering; suffering is practically in the Russian constitution as a national obligation. For them, love is something that turns one’s life upside-down and makes one do crazy things. Love is not like the romantic comedies of the west. Similarly, in Chinese medicine, love is part of the fire element, and too much of it causes suffering. One ideally learns how to balance these inner elements such that energy stuck in the fire element shifts into the more grounding earth element, represented by, for example, a long-term relationship. And yet in the modern western world, we no longer learn how to suffer, and certainly do not see the beauty in it, nor that it offers potential for growth. This is why it becomes an alluring, almost mystical experience to suffer in sadomasochistic play for most of its western participants.

Suffering In Sadomasochistic Play

To understand suffering in sadomasochistic play, I’ll frame it within the five taboos we discussed exposing at the beginning of this paradox. Control, pleasure, pain, ego and devotion. Suffering is letting go of controlling every aspect of our surroundings and trusting that the dominant will care for us. And it’s also about embracing the pain rather than trying to avoid it, knowing how our body is prepared to handle it if only we surrender to the endorphins. Suffering is also emotionally allowing another to define who we are, often touching upon the aspects of ourselves that we are trying the hardest to hide behind walls of shame and pride. Knowing that most of the time, our self doubts are self-made and self-sabotaging. And that devoting ourselves to the dominant’s will allows us if just for a single moment in time, to let go of having the universe circle around us.

The defining element of suffering is that it happens for a reason. In my play, the deeper reason is often the enjoyment of the dominant and the relationship it creates within the session. So the suffering is a display of submission, something that quickly becomes provocative in our western society where submission is the opposite of independence and we strive continually to be independent. So independent, in fact, that also ends up very lonely. Of course, we can still be dependent without submitting to or suffering for someone, but submission and suffering are essential aspects of sadomasochistic play because it grants access to a part of ourselves that we usually don’t want to see. The key is always consent and freely choosing the time, the partner and the reason to suffer. It is empowering to suffer for a worthy cause.

My experience is also that humans are built to suffer when there is a good reason. The body generally releases endorphins that make us feel good when we accept pain which is non-threatening. When the fear of our self-doubts no longer haunts us, but we get confronted with it and have it proven false, we cry and feel better. The opposite is hiding from our suffering, which makes us tense up and build a protective wall that isolates us from the world. Once, a man in one of my retreats shared that when he was tied in a very exposed way, it made him feel extremely ashamed. But for the first time in his life, he had been seen in his shame instead of hiding it away. For him, this was profoundly healing.

Suffering Is Selfish

A key to understanding suffering is remembering that usually, pain and shame are experienced for our own benefit, with the focus squarely on ourselves. However, we take it one step further when we go into suffering for another person. We can make that person the reason that we suffer. This is when it touches upon devotion.

For example, when people come to me for private sessions, they often ask, ‘Is it going to be painful?’ Instead of naming the level of pain it is going to be, I prefer to answer with another question: ‘What is your reason for being here?’ For it is ‘we’ not ‘I’ who choose for it to be painful or not if we wish to explore suffering.

I’m also curious about how we agree to go on this journey, to make an effort for suffering, vulnerability and devotion. I tie weekly with two to three people, and we are committed to knowing that this is what we want. But with strangers, the ones I meet randomly at festivals, parties and on travels, somehow they can be fully willing to create this kind of space of suffering together – even without putting any of it into words during the flirting, consent and after-talk phases. This has to do with chemistry, with what cannot be rationally described, with a longing that existed in each of us long before we even met and which drew us together. I’ve been to so many parties where most people are running around trying to make time to tie with as many people as possible, while I have been sitting, often alone, waiting for the stranger to sit next to me. It almost always works. I don’t know why. That is also a part of the mystery that I love.

Suffering For Another

For me the most important aspect is emphatically partaking in the suffering that they invite me into, to see and sense what is happening for and in them. One of my partners likes to tease me by saying that she will develop a poker face. I really hope she doesn’t. I revel in the intensity of her feelings, in the attention to the details of all the delicate emotional nuances. Her scream is enjoyable, but the slow, winding road leading up to it is even more delicious. Together we intend to build that bubble, shutting the world outside off and devoting ourselves to this practice. Some call it kinbaku or Japanese rope bondage, and sure, it is that. But it’s also the most delicate fabric of human interaction. It is complete attention to what is. There is an effort to go here, and I can’t do it alone, and I can’t force someone along. The journey into suffering is one that we make together.

So what is my responsibility in this co-creation? To not make fucked up ties? Sure, that is important, but it comes pretty low on the priority list. My primary responsibility is to provide the overall narrative, focused on my pleasure, in the broadest sense of the word. It can be anything from my perverted desires to my asshole/innocent sadistic tendencies or the aesthetic dedication to a ritual. They have to be curious about me, which is essential because it gives them a reason to suffer physically and emotionally. Rope bondage needn’t be about suffering, but it is the biggest motivation that keeps me going in my private practice.