I’ve been going through a rough patch lately. My physical and emotional health hasn’t been the best and most days it’s felt like I’m having to push through. I think that’s true for a lot of us — I’ve heard from friends near and far about how burned out we all are and how it’s affecting so many areas of our lives. And while I’m reaching out to my network of healers, friends and family for support, it still sucks to go through a rough patch.
So, today I want to talk about suffering. Why do we have to suffer? And what can we do about it?
Let’s look at suffering from a macro, spiritual POV level and then relate it to what we can do on a more micro, daily, human basis.
Ram Dass has two quotes about suffering that seem at odds with each other at first glance, but taken together are actually one of the great esoteric secrets of enlightenment. Here are the two quotes:
“Suffering is the sandpaper of our incarnation. It does its work of shaping us.”
― Ram Dass
“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.”
― Ram Dass
In the first quote, Ram Dass is alluding to the rule of contrast, or the yin and yang. A classic example of this is that in order to understand the concept of darkness, you need to have experienced light. If darkness is the absence of light, then you can’t understand what darkness is without already having experienced what light is, or vice versa. In the same way, you’d find it harder to appreciate and deeply experience joy unless you’ve also experienced suffering.
Suffering creates gratitude for times of peace and joy.
One time, I had a particularly hard health challenge where I was basically bedridden for months. When I could finally walk again and first went outside, the sight of the trees, the sky, even the miracle of a sidewalk existing so I could walk on it (with all of the technological history and people needed to create it ) was so awe-inspiring that it brought me to tears of gratitude. I don’t think that without a few months of being inside and immobile, I would have cried at the sight of a sidewalk. The suffering shaped me into someone who appreciated things I hadn’t before. Things that we would take for granted as “normal” become a source of joy after we feel their absence. And the cool thing is, that sticks with you. I don’t cry tears of joy at every tree I see nowadays, but I remember that feeling and I can invoke levels of gratitude for things that I never would have before. That is sandpaper that has shaped me for the better.
Suffering also helps us develop compassion for those who have gone through similar experiences.
Compassion is the root of nonjudgemental love and divine action. If we can have compassion for someone, we can see suffering at the root of their actions rather than judging them for those actions. From this place, we can meet them with our common humanity. We are all learning and remembering what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience. Who we are in the world (a.k.a. how we love and care in the world) is shaped by our suffering. In a world where our culture, corporations, and even our genes encourage us to try to “otherize” those who are different from us and “find our tribe,” compassion reminds us that all humans, animals and even the planet are all “our tribe.”
The second quote, “The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering,” is a bit more esoteric and harder to practice in the moment. I’d heard some version of this concept for years before I finally got it on a level that I could use to find peace in times of stress. I’d read the saying “desire is the root of all suffering” in many Buddhist texts and at first I thought it meant desire for material goods, people or situations that we coveted. But it’s not that kind of desire. It’s more like the desire for things to be different than they are in this moment, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant this moment may be. The key is to accept whatever is happening and not desire it to be any other way right now. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t desire things in your life. In fact, I think that intuitive, inspired desire is one of the ways we figure out our life’s purpose. This is why I like this version by Ram Dass. “The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering” means that if we can accept whatever is happening right now and not wish it to be different or better, then our suffering is greatly diminished.
Let me give you a few examples (like I said, this one is harder to grasp as a practice). When I was going through cancer treatment, I had some of the worst days of my life. My body was so weak and damaged that I almost gave up and died. However, this is also when I first started the practice of giving up resistance to what was happening. When I would get bad news from the doctor I thought to myself “Now, this is happening” and find the calm grace of acceptance even in the face of terrible news. I started using it to mark the good things, too, like when my puppy would curl up next to me in bed I thought, “Now, this is happening.” (Side note: I got this phrase from Jack Black in the movie Anchorman, proving that you never know who your spiritual teachers will be.) As I used this mantra more and more, I started to develop a powerful mindfulness, a part of my body-mind that could observe the situation without judgement and with full acceptance of what was arising.
Here’s another example. Recently, I started on a new medication that started causing anxiety attacks after a few months of use. It took a while to figure out that it was this particular medication that was the cause, so for months I was having unexplained bouts of severe anxiety attacks for hours at a time. One of the tools I used to get through was mindfulness meditation. I would lay down, close my eyes and do my best to simply observe the anxiety in my body as it was happening. At one point, I felt my consciousness almost split in two. There was the part of me that was anxious, with my heart racing, panicked thoughts, hot and cold chills and the painful feeling of adrenaline pumping through my chest, and then there was another part, a part that transcended that human experience as I had the thought, “this body is experiencing anxiety right now.” That second part of me suddenly felt so peaceful and all-knowing. I found that I could shift my awareness, or almost lean in, to that peaceful, wise part of myself. In that space there was no suffering at all, there was simply the acceptance of what was happening, which somehow dissolved the desire for it to be any other way. In that moment, acceptance was peace. Even in the face of a panic attack.
Which brings us right back to the first quote — suffering is the sandpaper that shapes us. Without this anxiety, I wouldn’t have been able to deepen my meditation practice and wouldn’t have discovered how deeply I could find peace in acceptance. Those few months of anxiety were the sandpaper that shaped me into someone who practiced mindfulness enough to find peace and calm somewhere that I never thought it could exist, in the midst of a panic attack.
So while I do not wish suffering on myself, you, or anyone else, I do understand a bit of why it’s part of our incarnated human experience. However, even though I know this as true, I routinely forget it and fall back into the desire for things to be different than they are. But the key is remembering at some point — if it’s 2 seconds or 2 days into the pain — that you can experience the pain without resistance, and therefore without suffering. And to become aware that this pain is shaping you into a more compassionate, loving and understanding person. As you understand pain, you will open your heart to others and take this newfound understanding and compassion with you into the world from this day forward, helping those who could use a bit of it directed their way as they make their way through their own pain and suffering.