Thursday, July 4, 2013

When pain becomes suffering

We each have a go-to reaction when we don’t get our way. Maybe yours is to flash anger. Maybe it’s to shut down and harbor a grudge. Maybe you pout, feel shame, lay guilt trips. Whatever your version of emotional reactivity, when in these moments, you stand at the juncture where our highest work begins—the juncture between pain and suffering.

How many times have you heard of someone “coming out” of hardship with new understanding; appreciation for life; efforts that have a tremendous impact on those around them, their community, the world? How many times have you heard the opposite: of someone spiraling from hardship into destruction of self, others, the world? Different stories. Same juncture. One person’s pain leads to liberation. Another's to suffering and harm.
Path back to my cabin in NY at night. Scared.
It is up to each of us to work with our own reactive tendencies. To do this, of course we must see them. We must acknowledge that they exist and stop rationalizing. Nobody can hold your own pain but you, and nobody can alleviate your own suffering but you. (But oh boy, much gratitude to those of you willing to hold the space for others as they grow through these intense periods of pain and suffering. You are the ones changing the world.)
Same path in the light. No fear.
To work at this juncture requires an encounter with pain. This really stinks, and no sane person would intentionally invite pain into their life. But nobody has to; we live in a hurting world. On any given day we can have our feelings hurt, panic, get sick, and so on. But we don't have to confuse the situations or people who trigger pain in us as the reason for our suffering. (If only such-and-such would stop, go away, change, I could be happy!) Situations and people don’t cause us to suffer; we do a fine job of that on our own.

And here comes something very cliché: to work on alleviating suffering, we need only 1 thing: kindness. Call it love. Call it caring. Call it, at the least, civil respect. Call it whatever you like. But until we make friends with our reactive tendencies, we’re going to remain on some level an enemy with ourselves and the world. We will continue to suffer.
Kindness when we're hurting always leads us back home.
I remember as a child when my favorite blue dress with white daisies began to cut me under the arms. I wiggled and pulled at the sleeves, which made the cutting and chafing worse. I tugged at it from the bottom, which popped the hem. The more I pulled, the more I hurt. Finally I didn’t just stop pulling; I took off the dress and didn’t wear it again. 

There is likely suffering that it’s time for each of us to stop wearing. If it helps to try it on to convince yourself that it no longer fits, do that for as long as it's necessary. Pull and wiggle all you want. When it's obvious that you've outgrown it, may you put it aside and see once again how lovely you are without it. May you live at ease. 

Saint Francis and the Sow, by Galway Kinnell

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead 
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessing of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.