One of my favorite children’s books is There’s No Such Thing As A Dragonby Jack Kent. It’s the story of Billy Bixbie, who finds a tiny dragon sitting on the foot of his bed. His mother is firm in her assertion, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.” Yet, the more she denies the dragon and, in turn, convinces young Billy to ignore the dragon, the bigger he grows. By the story’s end, the dragon is filling the Bixbie’s home, with his head and tale spilling out of the top and bottom windows. Finally, Billy can no longer deny the dragon and points this out to his mother. As soon as they acknowledge that there indeed is such a thing as a dragon, the fire breathing fellow returns to his original size–small, like a lap dog. Mrs. Bixbie asks how it was that he grew so big. To which Billy ends the book by saying, “I guess he just wanted to be noticed.”

Suffering can be a lot like this dragon. Suffering is an interesting concept to ponder. Patanjali and other yoga texts remind us that pain, physical or emotional, is real. The more we run after pleasure, the deeper we enter a state of illusion. There is no such thing as a pain free life; no such person who has purified themselves enough, prayed enough, or made enough bargains to avoid pain. However, how we approach pain is our choice. Suffering is not a given result of pain; suffering is a choice we make. Zen philosophy contends that suffering happens in the space between how things really are and how we actually desire them to be.

Suffering is often a state that arises because we choose to ignore substantial information, clues, etc. that arise in our life. This information comes in the form of a gut reaction when we want to say no to a request; as the burning sensation in our stomach when we eat food that disagrees with the body; as the longing for something more–deeper connection with friends, a different job or mate, some tangible change. When we ignore these and other signs, they don’t go away; instead the suffering that accompanies these ignored signs becomes a giant dragon that fills our life and body.

Recently, I experienced a very painful event that left me in a fog for some days. I did everything I could think of to avoid feeling the pain that accompanied this event, trying in vain to hide and deny that I felt anything. What resulted was that I spent several weeks feeling physically and mentally drained. When I finally allowed myself to notice what was happening, to feel and walk through the emotions, the “dragon” started to shrink. It didn’t have as much power over me when I looked it in the eye.

Every one of us experiences suffering, often because of our choices or because of our expectations. A yoga practice can help us to become present enough to be aware of changes in our body, mind and breath that reveal when things begin to go south. And, though it often requires a lot of honesty, if we choose to observe the problems, watch as sensations arise and persist rather than ignore things, at least some of our dragons may never get to be nearly so big as we fear.