While we were traveling in India we were constantly confronted by how difficult life can be there, over one billion people in 1/3 the size of the US. We would give food to beggars, shoo rats away, and saw dead bodies being cremated on the banks of the Ganges.
A monk we met told us the story of a woman who came to the Buddha in tears as her only son had died. She begged him to bring her son back to life; the pain of his death is too much for her to bear. Finally, the Buddha agrees. He says he will bring the boy back to life, but only if the woman can get him a single mustard seed from a house where no one has ever died. The distraught woman rushes off and proceeds to go from door to door trying to find a home that has never experienced a death. Of course, she cannot find a single place.
Has anyone lived a life through without some measure of loss, grief, pain or hardship?
The point here is that suffering is a normal part of being human. Life is also filled with beauty, joy, daffodils in the spring, the dew on a spider’s web, the depth of intimate love. We hang out with happiness as much as we can, but getting to know suffering is not what we normally like to do.
If no one wants to suffer then why do we? We were teaching a workshop in England and we asked the group: Is anyone holding on to pain and suffering? To our surprise, everyone raised their hands! They agreed that they didn’t want to suffer yet they held on to it because it felt so familiar. Indeed, if we are honest, most of our time is spent either pushing suffering away so as to avoid it, or holding onto it and using it as a means of distinction, a way of getting attention and sympathy. Deny or indulge, pretend nothing is wrong or exaggerate the pain.
The word suffering comes from the Pali word dukkha, which means not only suffering but includes all its varied family relations such as discomfort, pain, anguish, dissatisfaction, failure, conflict, hurt. What do we do when one of these comes knocking at our door? How do we relate to it? Do we push it away, cover it up or seek distraction? Denying suffering is what society does all the time. Look at how ads focus on the young and beautiful, ignoring the process of aging; how we insulate ourselves from the weather, from too much cold or too much heat.
The denial of suffering means that our feelings get repressed, held in, squashed down, which results in us getting cut off from all our other feelings as well, not just the uncomfortable ones. Life becomes more superficial and empty because any depth of real feeling has been put out of reach. Resistance to suffering means no vital life force flowing through us, who we really are is hidden away.
Or do we make our difficulties the centerpiece of our conversation, creating an image as one who suffers? Please don’t feel guilty about this, as it is not unusual! In an over populated and competitive world we all seek ways to appear different and special in order to gain attention. Doing it through highlighting our suffering is no better or worse than doing it any other way. But it does mean that suffering becomes imbued with importance, it becomes my suffering, my pain, my problem and given the choice, we might not even want to give it up. Who would we be without something to complain about, something that generates such attention?
In the same workshop in England, Mary admitted that the idea of being free of pain and, therefore, having less involvement with doctors and therapists, meant she would get less nurturing; Chris said that being happy meant he would have nothing special to focus on. Liz summed it up when she said, “I have the support of some very loving people to encourage, assist and love me. But if I get well, will I still have as much support? I often fear my husband may leave me if I were to get better.”
Ideally we should neither push suffering away nor indulge in it, but simply understand suffering for what it is: an ever-changing, impermanent condition that arises as a result of other conditions. Life is constantly changing, moving, flowing. One minute there is sunshine, another there is a storm; one minute there are leaves and flowers, another the branches are empty. As nothing stays the same then at some time there will be pain and at other times there will be pleasure; pain is not an isolated or permanent state, just part of a greater flow. When we allow suffering simply to be then we can know it for what it is, not as my suffering or your suffering, not as something owned, but as an expression of circumstances. Pain need not dominate our life or fill our every waking moment. Suffering is suffering, grief is grief, discomfort is uncomfortable. They are a part of being alive.
We don’t have to do anything about our suffering. We don’t have to develop great skills in dealing with it or spend hours of diligent practice to eliminate it. We do not have to go anywhere to enjoy our breath, to appreciate the beauty in the trees and flowers. All we have to do is be present with what is.
See our award-winning book: BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You and the World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors Marianne Williamson, Jane Fonda, Ram Dass, Byron Katie, and many others.
Our 3 meditation CD’s: Metta—Loving kindness and Forgiveness; Samadhi–Breath Awareness and Insight; and Yoga Nidra–Inner Conscious Relaxation, are available at: www.EdandDebShapiro.com