Once upon a time, in 2017, I started a month of really hard things with one of my best friends, Armand. He was the guy who I could always count on to do crazy shit with. If there ever was a culmination of us seeking out Type 2 fun, it would have been this engineered, month-long commitment to not just go outside our comfort zone, but make camp there.
I will always cherish what we started together.
But I want to make a statement about what Suffertember is, and what it is not, for those who are new to this.
This is NOT a self-improvement scheme.
This is not a month for you to commit yourself to healthy habits. If that's what you're looking for, see: every January ever when everyone wants to be a better version of themselves.
Suffertember shouldn't about self-improvement. It should be designing for our own personal hell, even at the expense of productivity. In fact, the hardest part about Suffertember is having the self-awareness to know exactly what your bogeyman is. Everyone is avoiding something, and it's different for each of us.
This is a time to break yourself down, physically and mentally, in order to make yourselves more vulnerable to the bogeyman. Maybe sometimes in unhealthy ways that will make you go insane and question why you even did this in the first place. If you feel this by day 5, you're doing it right. If you feel this by day 3, you're doing it better.
From my journal in 2017:
If you ever find yourself negotiating for an easier path, you’re missing the point.
My first Suffertember fully embraced this spirit. I noticed that I tend to consume a lot (music, podcast, YouTube), probably to avoid engaging with my own thoughts, but I was self-aware enough to know when I was avoiding something.
In architecting my own hell, there were a bunch of exercise goals to really break my down physically (bike 300 miles, 3000 push ups) and break me down mentally (no caffeine, 5 am wake ups, no comfort of a warm shower, energy deprivation from intermittent fasting). But the most ingenious of them all were to turn off every input stream that I clung to for comfort (no music, no podcasts, no videos, no reading anything except for books), while forcing myself to face some inner demons that I noticed I was avoidant of (I had to write 1000 words a day). It was designed to weaken me from all angles, while I faced my bogeyman.
I thought the writing would be the hardest, but every year, the combination of no music + no caffeine + sleep deprivation + intermittent fasting alone drives me to insanity. I didn't realize how much music gave me energy. I definitely didn't realize how much harder all of this would be if you are social and are with friends who eat and drink coffee and stay out late.
In the spiritual canon of Suffertember is this Outside Online article about NBA player Kyle Korver partaking in a misogi, a Japanese ritual purification via personal quest. He's running a 5K underwater while "carrying" an 85 lb rock in the Santa Barbara coast. One could argue that this is the complete opposite of basketball (underwater, less gravity, a rock you can't even throw, obviously different amounts of shark danger, etc.). His basketball skills weren't guaranteed become better for it, but he left with a new sense of his own limits.
You need to do something crazy. Not productive. And don't expect to gain anything from it.
Suffertember IS a spiritual pilgrimmage
I distilled Suffertember down to this quote in my journal (2019, Suffertember 2):
We have to revisit our edges once in a while, to remember the shape of who we are.
It is about purifying ourselves of this narcotic we call comfort. This whole thing started because of a discussion that my friend and I had about how everyone is constantly living in avoidance of discomfort, never coming close to what their limits are, nor knowing what they might look like.
We started Suffertember out of disdain for a society full of Lotus-eaters, consumed by the intoxicating promise of less discomfort, more pleasure, and less pain.
Suffertember started during a period of my life when a lot of "dumb shit" was happening. I had just gotten over a relatively big breakup, my main grad school project got scooped a year prior (someone published before me), and national politics was electric, to say the least, and I became so much more attuned to the inequities and injustices in the US and around the world. On top of all the "dumb shit", it was my third year of living out of my car, and I was training for my first triathlon while also climbing as often as I could find a partner. There was a lot on my mind, there were a lot of inconveniences (from living in my car), and there was a haze of physical toil on top of that.
Despite all that, I still felt like I was too comfortable. I was lucky to have learned to cope with all that stress, but deep down, I wanted to know exactly how much I could cope with. I had this nagging feeling, that spiritually, there was more beyond the edge of the horizon, and wanted to know how far it went.
It scared me to think that I could go the rest of my life without really knowing myself without knowing myself at my worst... Who am I when I am beaten down and exhausted? What thoughts run through my head when all I want is a warm shower, but I'm resigned to only cold showers until the end of the month? How do I cope when I desperately want music or some exogenous source of energy?
The Hero's Journey necessitates a traversing into the unknown, with real challenges and temptations. Only then can they discard their old self and return as a new one. You can't fake your own spiritual journey, no matter how much you try to convince yourself.
"The second power sink is generated by the Ego and involves self-image. The Ego goes to great pains to maintain the fiction of a constant, unchangeable self. This is a manifestation of the Ego’s hunger for security. Just as the Ego likes to brag about its achievements, showing it is better than others and thus worthy of value and survival, it likes to cling to the past and create a complex, detailed identity out of past events. The warrior literature calls this element of the Ego, personal history. Identification with personal history creates this power sink." - The Rock Warrior's Way
Respect the word
Every September, I will be less productive, more grumpy, more zombie-like. My muscles will hurt, my brain will be a haze.
No caffeine or warm showers and borderline sleep deprivation are playthings compared to the real suffering goes on everywhere else in the world. I know that, deep down to my bones.
To play at suffering is inherently a privilege (that's what we're doing!), and I will always do my best to respect that when I appropriate the word from those who actually suffer.
Otherwise, I'd just call it "January".