I haven’t posted since the end of October last year. The past four months have been rough, and I’ve had a hard time deciding how to write about them. How to come back to this blog.
This book has travelled with me since I first moved to Korea in 2008. It’s been helpful at least twice before – evidenced by (first) green pencilled underlining and (second) orange highlighting. This year I’ve returned to it again; specifically, to Part III: Transforming Suffering. And I’m coming back to this blog now as a way of understanding my own thoughts on suffering. Hopefully they might be of use to others, as well.
Suffering is natural
If your basic outlook accepts that suffering is a natural part of your existence, this will undoubtedly make you more tolerant towards the adversities of life.
There is this initial feeling of: Why is this happening to me? It’s not fair, I don’t deserve this. It’s easy to forget that, of course, this isn’t just happening to me. Not by a long shot. Everyone – at some point in their lives – suffers. The Dalai Lama even goes so far as to say that ‘suffering is the most basic element that we share with others, the factor that unifies all living creatures’. So why is it so hard to feel this? I think it’s partly because we have an inclination to see ourselves as the centre of the universe. And partly because – at least in Australia – we are so good at hiding suffering (‘as suffering becomes less visible, it is no longer seen as part of the fundamental nature of human beings’). We have become experts at pretending everything is always okay, and that ‘okay’ is the natural order of things. Which results in a crisis when something – inevitably – goes wrong.
These last few months have made me acutely aware of the fact that anything can happen to anyone, at any time. Which, at first, is a terrifying thought. But once you start to realise that this is, actually, the essence of being alive it starts to feel kind of enlightening. Like you are seeing reality for the first time. Letting go of that feeling of abnormality is hugely freeing; it has allowed me to accept whatever I’m feeling, and to experience those feelings as part of life.
Suffering makes us more compassionate
The vulnerability we experience in the midst of our suffering can open us and deepen our connection with others.
Suffering makes us more aware of our connection to other ‘living creatures’, and it also makes us aware of how caring those creatures can be. And, by extension, how caring we ourselves are capable of being. Suffering shows us just how important that care is, even in small doses. I’ve been lucky enough to realise how much of a difference it can make when people visit, or smile, or send flowers, or make you a sandwich. It’s something of a relief to know how much such seemingly little gestures can matter. There is hope in the tiny things. It makes me feel less helpless; like the things I do – in turn – for other people will in fact be worth something.
Suffering makes us stronger
A tree with strong roots can withstand the most violent storm, but the tree can’t grow roots just as the storm appears on the horizon.
I’ve used this quote a lot in my teaching practice, but I don’t think I’ve really understood it until now. Suffering itself tests our metal and forces us to build up our resistance, like exercising a muscle. But it also reminds us that suffering is inevitable, and that there will always be more to face. It reminds us to be ready, to grow our roots during the good times, so that the next time things go bad we will be better able to cope.
I’ve started to think more about suffering. Not in a mulling, depressed way, but more like a meditation. A mental rehearsal. When the next lot of bad news comes, how will I face it? How will I act? In what ways will I want to be ready? Instead of praying that bad things won’t happen, I’m planning for how I will deal with them when they do. It’s a calmer way of being, and one that feels much more realistic. I don’t have any control over the suffering that comes to me – any more than a forest has control over a wildfire – but I can control my response to that suffering.
Suffering strengthens the mind and makes it more flexible; it helps us grasp the big picture, as well as the details. Suffering helps us, by shifting our perspective, to see all of life.
Suffering deepens our experience
‘Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.’ – Rumi
In the past four months or so I’ve felt anxious, depressed, angry and defeated. But I’ve also had moments of real happiness and calm, even during the worst weeks. And sometimes that sense of happiness has felt larger, somehow, than anything I’ve felt in the past. I’ve slowed down. I’ve made time for the things that I love doing, and I’ve enjoyed them more. I’ve noticed things, felt things. Like patting a puppy, or watering plants, watching a good movie, riding in the back of a ute. I’ve heard people say that having a sense of mortality can make you appreciate life; that the quality of life, the way you use it, improves when you realise what a tightrope walk you’re on. I always imagined it would be a bittersweet feeling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it is just sweet.
Life is change. ‘At any given moment, no matter how pleasant or pleasurable your experience may be, it will not last’. Really knowing this, as cliched as it may sound, does make moments feel richer. The Art of Happiness quotes Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned during World War II: ‘Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.’ For me – and I’m only just coming to this realisation now as I write this – I think that meaning is closely tied to suffering itself. Meaning lies in the knowledge that life and suffering are one and the same thing, and that to have life without suffering is not to fully experience it. Like travelling and only staying in fancy resorts, never sleeping on a beach or riding on the back of a motorbike. Meaning is how much more amazing those little moments – reading in bed, running, hearing a song – are when they are juxtaposed with suffering. And meaning is also finding out how compassionate people can be, and how strong, when faced with suffering.
Suffering often seems to occur at random, senselessly and indiscriminately, with no meaning at all.
It does seem that way. It seems unfair, and badly timed, and unnatural. But it really isn’t. And realising this gives it meaning. Reflecting on suffering has allowed me to keep going. To write and work and come back to this blog. It has allowed me to do life, day to day, slowly, not too sadly, and – surprisingly often – sweetly.