The denial and the acceptance of suffering: Compassion, Part 4
“Lord, save us while we are awake.
Protect us while we sleep;
that awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep we may rest in peace.”
~From the Office of Compline
This is a very common bedtime prayer, variations of it are read every night all around the world. And rightly so, for it reveals our greatest wish and desire: security and safety.
Wouldnt it be great to shield ourselves, our loved ones, from all the suffering, all the injustices in the world?
Yesand no. There are many things I wouldnt wish upon my worst enemies. But sometimes, just sometimes – suffering has to happen.
Suffering is an inevitable part of the human experience. As we move through life, we make mistakes, we make enemies, and we experience some form of emotional pain. Sometimes pain just happens for no discernible reason. And the funny thing is – this prayer, this desire to be free of it – is one of the sources of our suffering. The greater part of our sorrows are caused only by our own thoughts, they are made worse by our mental resistance to it. The acceptance of emotional suffering – that is the paradox – that is when we can transcend suffering.
Are they mistakes, or are they lessons?
And be aware, that for this next part, Im only speaking from my own history.
All the mistakes Ive made, all the injustices Ive suffered, all the anguish Ive inflicted on myself – they are mistakes only from my limited perspective then. I look back at them now, I look at the biggest ones – the ones that dropped me into depression, into rage. I notice something strange, a certain pattern. They were all pushing me into developing something useful within me, into learning some lesson.
“How is this so?” you ask. “How can it be?“
This is one of my favorite analogies: Bodybuilders and other gym rats use heavy weights to push their muscles against. Pumping iron creates little tears in our muscle fibers. But with the proper rest and nutrition, these little tears begin to heal, and they grow back even stronger than they were before.
Isnt this the same with the suffering that life inflicts on us? Adversity builds character; pain is sometimes our best teacher.
And that leads us back to the question: wouldnt it be ideal to shield our loved ones from all forms of sorrow?
What would the results be? Empty men and women, devoid of character, without true strength and courage.
Nudges and pushes
There are a few events that stand out as the most deeply painful in my history. Some were subtle betrayals, some were outright cheats, others were abusive thugs – but one thing struck me when I looked closely. The lessons that I had to learn from them were exactly the same. They revealed the same wounds, they were the mirror for the same patterns of unconscious behavior. Life is always giving you exactly what you need to awaken, I have heard, and I am beginning to see the truth in that.
Is it possible that in the grand scheme of things; well be hit again and again by the same lessons until we learn from them? Is it possible that all these lessons started as little gentle nudges, and when we dont listen, they grow in force until they become shoves and slaps?
Many ancient traditions state some variation of this. I believe my purpose is the one I am living right now – spiritual and personal development. How would I have found it, if I havent suffered all these betrayals, heartaches and sorrows? If I had been shielded from all suffering, I would still be living a life of emptiness, a life of quiet desperation, as Henry Thoreau put it.
Forcing our ideals onto others
And in this roundabout manner, we return to the topic of Compassion. How does this apply to others? Andrea Hess – one of the most insightful bloggers Ive met – recently spoke to me about this: doesnt this apply to other people too? What if we are interfering with their lessons?
Her comments were really enlightening. What if they are growing as a result of this – this very event that we have deemed as bad? Do we know more than divinity? How could we force our ideals, our concepts of how their life should be, onto them? Were they in the process of learning some lesson, something that was shaping them, the way our past have shaped us?
And in that same vein – how do we know what they want, how do we know what is best for them?
I remember meeting a man once, when I was a teen. At that age, I had been socialized into wanting riches, fashion models, big cars and mansions. This man had a photographic memory and a genius level IQ, but preferred to work in a simple bartending job, one he loved, earning a modest income.
What a waste! I thought to myself. If I was him, I would use it and get rich, or maybe Ill go study real hard and win a Nobel prize! I shared my thoughts about this dumb little man with my friend the next day. She looked at me, puzzled at my description of him. How is he stupid? Hes perfectly happy where he is.
I didnt get her simple wisdom at the time – and I went on thinking he was a waste for many years. I think back now, and I see the silent strength of character he had. He was a man of courage; he lived according to his own ideals, and no one elses.
What do we do?
So what do we do? Be aware that I am not saying that we should just let bad things happen. Do your best, strive hard, get and give help whenever you can. But sometimes, realize that these mistakes are exactly what they need in order to grow.
As Ive mentioned in the Insult of False Compassion, Ive found that the best way to help those in suffering was to just be there for them – to help them do whatever they have to do. Move, speak – from a state of presence, not from the ego. And in that state is pure acceptance.
And when we are in acceptance, of them just as they are, in that moment – we can truly help them to be themselves. We can truly love them as they are – we can give them the strength to do what they have to do. If they have to leave, to escape from a bad situation, then your support will help them do so. And if they have to heal, to rest, and grow back stronger, then our presence will help them heal.
Acceptance and resistance
And this talk of acceptance brings us back to the state of resistance.
One of the most ironic things about suffering. Resistance to suffering, what weve been conditioned to do our entire lives, is the one thing that makes it worse. And yet this is what most of us do, in one form or another. When we go through a horrible breakup, for instance, our ego is screaming and raging – all relationships should last forever, how dare she betray my trust, how dare he cheat on me, he should be exactly the way I want him to be!.
These thoughts in our head resists the event, making it worse. It is no different than a bodybuilder who refuses to rest and recuperate, letting the tears in his muscles recover. And when we are in a state of acceptance, yes, there will be sorrow and sadness. But in that acceptance something is already beginning to transform.
This is one of my favorite stories about Byron K, creator of The Work. I cant recall the exact details, but:
Katie was visiting a woman in hospital one day. The woman was suffering from a disease that made one leg swell to twice the size of the other leg. And the other woman was crying.
Katie looked and looked at her leg, but couldn’t find anything wrong with it. The patient asked “What do you mean? Can’t you see how big it is? It’s deformed!”
Then Katie began laughing. “Oh, you mean you’re suffering from the thought that it should be the same size as the other leg!”
This is a very common thought when discussing acceptance:
“This is all very good for the normal trials and tribulations of life. The car breaking down, arguments, failing to pay the rent. What about the true tragedies – AIDS, widespread poverty, child abuse?”
And my answer is: I honestly dont know – Ive never been through any of that, and its not my place to speak about any those. Still, there are many stories that might be able to shed some light.
The name Victor Frankl pops up everywhere, and rightly so. His story is truly one of the most inspiring, and I cannot do it justice here: He was a survivor of the Holocaust, and suffered along with the other Jewish victims in the infamous concentration camps. And yet and yet, he managed to find deep meaning in the suffering. He drew upon it to found his own brand of psychotherapy, he used it as fuel for his powerfully influential book, Mans Search for Meaning.
I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.” ~ Victor Frankl.
Examples of courage in the face of tragedies on a smaller scale can be found everywhere, if you look closely. I know a woman who had been sexually abused by a trusted family member. She went down a spiral of drugs and other self-destructive behavior for years, but one day she turned it around and used her pain as fuel to become a therapist, a healer of suffering in other people.
Another man I know – one of the most courageous and generous Ive ever met – told me that he had a disease, one that left him in constant pain and only a few years left to live. And the amazing thing was: He called himself a waste of air, before he contracted the disease. It was only after contracting it, that he found meaning and purpose to use the old cliché a new lease on life.
The damage and the healing
And this is not to say that just because you have been hurt, you will be a strong, loving person. Most people who hurt others do so precisely because they have been hurt. What is the difference? The healing, the journey out of the valleys and up to the mountains.
Everybody who has lifted weights knows this: the majority of growth takes place outside the gym. The tears in the muscle fibers happen during the weightlifting process, but with proper sleep and nutrition, the fibers grow back, stronger than they were before. Without the healing process, though – youre worse off for having done the gym work. Nurture yourself, nourish yourself – and you will find that compassion within.
There are two brothers – they might have been twins – who have been mentioned many times in many different books. They were raised by an abusive father, and one of them became an equally abusive man when he grew up. The interviewers asked him why he did so, and his reply “With a father like that, how could I be anything else?”
The other brother became a big hearted man, an outstanding man of character who loved his wife and children. When they asked him why, his answer was astounding, simply because he replied in the exact same way. “With a father like that, how could I be anything else?”
There are three fellow monks that I want to highlight. The first is Jean B from Cheerful Monk. Much like my own blog, she is focused on pure happiness, in all areas of life. A very nice mixture of real world writing and spirituality. A recent favorite of mine would be: Creating our own inner guide. It ties in very well with what weve been discussing. Her simple and sweet writing style, combined with her wisdom, really makes this blog stand out.
The next would be Adam K from Monk at Work. Another blog with a great mix of the real world – in this case, productivity, efficiency, performance at work – and spirituality. I love this blog, its one of my favorite Getting Things Done blog out there. In Secrets of the Worlds Happiest Man, he starts out by describing our inner qualities, and then encouraging to take it into our external. A great example of his material.
And last but not least would be Mary J, from Good Life Zen. While a relatively young blog, it has so much potential – good design and content, and is exclusively Zen in perspective. A recent post I liked would be 3 Ways to be at Ease. Again, another clearly written, beneficial, and to the point article. Bite-sized Zen, how can you not love it?