Is suffering necessary? In our last blog we responded to this question by explaining how suffering must be experienced with a certain type of insight in order to dissolve it. We could say that “Suffering is necessary to see that suffering is not necessary!” In this current blog I want to explore how we can experience suffering so that rather than it being a blockage it becomes a portal to expanded awareness. When we first practice meditation we may find an initial experience of peace, relaxation and mental quietude. (This is not true for everyone.) But virtually everyone finds that with further practice the initial experience of quietude dissipates and the awareness of suffering increases rather than decreases. Why is this?
The initial sense of peace is the result of temporarily relaxing the mind and the body. If we’re able to do this, it usually feels quite good. However, we eventually experience suffering because we become more aware of the suffering that has always been present—maybe just beneath our everyday awareness or perhaps buried deep in the unconscious—but either way we will eventually become aware of it. When we sit in meditation we are interrupting the usual patterns of distraction that have kept us largely unaware of the suffering that we’ve been carrying for a long time--perhaps most of our life. Metaphorically, it is as though we live our life running half a step ahead of our suffering, and when we stop running our suffering catches up with us!
Many would find it quite difficult to sit quietly for an hour without any form of activity or entertainment, and most of us would find it very difficult to spend a day alone without some type of distraction. Sitting quietly for a while is not inherently painful; many animals do it for long periods of time.
But for humans doing nothing at all is very challenging because it confronts us with our hidden suffering—emotional suffering as well as the physical.
So the first step toward dissolving our suffering is to stop running away from it and fully experience the present moment-- even if it is a difficult experience. Perhaps the biggest reason most humans fail to overcome suffering is their unwillingness to fully experience the suffering that exists right here and right now. Because of the unwillingness to face our suffering we unwittingly perpetuate it—no only in our own life but also in the lives of others. All types of violence can arise out of our unwillingness to simply feel our experience in this moment, without unconsciously acting it out. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
When we do sit quietly for a while we will begin to feel the suffering that is lurking just beneath the surface of our everyday awareness—perhaps in the form of boredom, restlessness or anxiety. As we meet this suffering with awareness and equanimity it gradually dissolves; and then the next layer eventually emerges…and then the next…and the next…. The depth of our suffering is great, but as we learn to meet it with awareness and nonresistance the context of our suffering will change.
As we are able to open our heart to the depths of our own suffering we become more able to be open to the suffering of others as well. Compassion is the fruit of conscious suffering. With compassion we see that our suffering is indistinguishable from that of all humanity—and indeed, that of all sentient beings. This suffering is no longer my suffering, or even our suffering, it is simply the suffering that is inherent in the human condition itself. When we cease to suffer in isolation, the nature of our suffering changes; as the context of our suffering becomes universalized our compassion deepens. Our motivation for spiritual practice then becomes more than the dissolution of one‘s own suffering: our motivation becomes the transformation of the suffering of all beings.
The ideal of the Bodhisattva becomes the natural outgrowth of our practice; not because we choose to be a saint or a martyr but simply because we recognize than my suffering is essentially not different from the suffering of all sentient beings. Wisdom and compassion gives us eyes to see suffering not as a personal obstacle to overcome, but as a vehicle to realize our innate oneness with all beings.
The following is a prayer that we say at the close of each Monday night sangha at Unity Village.
By the power of this practice:
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness;
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering;
May they know the sacred joy that arises in the space beyond suffering;
May they rest in equanimity that knows no grasping or hatred;
May they experience the equality of all beings;
May my practice be of benefit to all.