In his first Noble Truth, the Buddha asserted that “life is suffering.”
This fundamental precept is an acknowledgement of the inescapable difficulties that life on earth presents to all of us. No matter what we believe life should be like—or what we plan to make of it—suffering of all sorts will befall us, most of it unexpected.
A huge step forward in spiritual maturity is the realization that while we cannot prevent suffering in all its forms, we can learn to respond to it in a way that lessens its impact on ourselves and others. In a nutshell, we can learn not to suffer over our suffering.
This is the beginning of transcendence.
Despair is an extreme state of suffering in which the ego’s sense of loneliness and impotence is most reinforced, convincing us that we are fundamentally alone and suffering more than anyone else ever has or could even imagine.
It is the state in which people commit suicide, because they see no way out of their current predicament or they dread even worse times ahead; “clinical depression” is the standard diagnosis of psychological despair and recent statistics indicate that it is not an uncommon condition.
One key to undoing despair is to remember that our suffering of the moment, however intense, is probably not unsurpassed in human experience.
I remember a time, years ago, when I was very anxious about my work and finances and had gotten so worked up over the situation that I felt nearly paralyzed, ready to reverse course on my career and retreat from the world in general—anything to reduce the pressure I was feeling.
Coincidentally, I was assigned a magazine story that required interviewing people who had survived political torture. Hearing first-hand reports from people who had been shot, beaten and terrorized for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was shocked out of my own self-absorbed despair. Comparatively speaking, I realized that I didn’t have any problems and got back to work.
Comparing one’s suffering to another’s is not always useful—especially if you conclude that yours is worse or more important—but sometimes, it can reduce an unbearable despair to a tolerable suffering.
Bearing our suffering well is one of the chief tasks of soulfulness.
As we grow beyond the egocentric perception that our personal suffering is uniquely immense, we are better able to develop a compassionate understanding of the suffering that’s inherent to the human condition. We become less and less likely to project our pain or “take it out” on others and less obsessed with ending our pain, at any cost.
There’s a teaching story of an enlightened Zen master who, for all of his training and great understanding, was always physically ill.
A novice student came to him and innocently asked, “Master, if you have seen the nature of reality and understand the cause of all suffering, why are you always sick?” The teacher replied, “I will be sick as long as all human beings are sick. I will be well when we all are well.”
This is a lesson in the spiritual quality of transcendence; the root of this word means “to climb over” but the effortful part of transcendence is often forgotten by those who use the word lightly.
The Zen master understood a key element of “climbing over”; he knew that one’s personal suffering is important only insofar as it can be usefully identified with the suffering of others. From the transcendent point of view, the only healing that matters is healing that contributes to the well-being of others. Or, as A Course in Miracles suggests, “When I am healed I am not healed alone.” [Workbook Lesson 137]
This is not as distant an ideal as it may sound at first.
Many therapists are “wounded healers” who have followed the path of private suffering and recovery into helping others with similar afflictions; the pain that initially isolates us can become the bridge we cross to a life of transcendent service.
Like all of the higher spiritual qualities listed in the “Directions of Spiritual Growth” chart, complete transcendence is rarely sustained for any length of time. But, we can all experience surpassing moments that will dramatically accelerate our spiritual progression.
I was sometimes stunned to find myself feeling joyful at moments of great pain during a serious illness that spanned most of my thirties. The spiritual work I was doing at this time sometimes enabled me to experience suffering—not only without anger—but also with an ecstatic sense of change and possibility.
In my moments of greatest frustration over the slow process of healing, I found myself thinking, “I refuse to endure this difficulty without learning something from it that will help others heal.”
This was a challenge to myself to pay closer attention to everything I was going through and it helped me direct my anger about being ill toward a transcendent purpose.
Too often, people imagine their spirituality will provide an escape from suffering or a set of magical solutions to all the problems that bedevil us as individuals, societies and a species.
But a spiritual perspective is meant to help us climb over our own suffering—not banish it and live out our lives in an idyllic, pain-free paradise—but to surpass the nihilistic hell of despair and learn to appreciate our own strengths and capacities in a way that inspires others.
*This column is part of the Sense & Spirituality series on the “Seven Directions of Spiritual Growth.” Read the introductory column here.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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