There is a well-known statement: no pain, no gain—implying that suffering is a way to grow, even to become more spiritual.
Personally we don’t believe this to be true, that pain does not always equal gain, as pain is a natural part of being alive. However, suffering does confront us with the reality of impermanence, as well as the longing for things to be different than how they are, both of which are essential spiritual truths.
But we do tend to get habituated to suffering, forgetting it’s opposite: happiness.
We were sitting in a coconut grove, the sun shining through the broad, flat palm leaves. “Are you happy today?” As the monk spoke he broke into a wide grin from ear to ear, white teeth glistening in his crinkled, brown face, illuminated by his orange robe. “Are you happier today than you were yesterday?”
Despite his humorous tone his question was a genuine one. A group of us were in retreat and had been practicing meditation all that day and all the previous day, and there were eight more days to go. If we weren’t beginning to feel happier as a result, then what was the point of being there?
Every day for 10 days he asked us the same question. And each day it drew us deeper into looking at ourselves while also highlighting our concerns, doubts and conflicts, how difficulties can actually feel more real and meaningful than joy, how hard it was to trust happiness, even that we had forgotten what happiness meant.
What our Thai monk was telling us, in his own way, was that the very nature of life includes change and unfulfilled desire and the longing for things to be different from how they are, all of which brings discontent, sadness and even mental illness, but that happiness was our birthright.
Have you ever wondered how amazing it is that a water lily doesn’t grow in a pure mountain lake but in murky, muddy and dank pond water thick with weeds, and yet its beautiful flower appears on the surface totally pristine? All life starts in the dark, either in the earth, mud or in the womb; the darkness contains the nourishment needed for life to emerge.
This is important as it shows how all the mud in our lives—all the difficulties, fears, concerns, doubts, insecurities, hurts, conflicts, everything that seems so impenetrable and difficult to wade through—is actually the very stuff needed for growth. Without it we would have no ground, no strength, no nourishment. That’s why we can’t just make the darkness disappear or deny its presence.
“What is this nature?” Achaan Maha Dharma Tam asked. “Look at how the rain falls to the ground and makes muddy water. And how the coconut tree takes that muddy water all the way up its long, long trunk to make sweet coconut milk. What is this nature that can take muddy water and make sweet coconut milk?”
The choice is to get stuck in the mud or to use it as nourishment; to let our lives go by in a dream or to awaken with awareness; to wallow in self-pity, hopelessness, failure, procrastination, and the longing for things to be different, or to find a deeper acceptance for things just as they are.
Our ability to use the mud as our means for growth will determine the strength of our plant, for the stem of the lily symbolizes our intention—a pledge to our sanity, to our awakening. When our intention is inner peace and unconditional happiness then we will slowly emerge from the mud, our roots always being fed by it, the bud of the flower heading for the sun. We need never be concerned about the flower opening for that happens by itself as a natural response to the light.
Just as the stem uses the mud to produce a beautiful flower, so the transforming power that can take a difficult or negative emotion and turn it into something positive and uplifting is within us all. Chogyam Trungpa called it the power to turn shit into gold. A peacock eats poisonous snakes and transforms that poison into beautiful of iridescent feathers. It is the irritation of a grain of sand that causes an oyster to make a pearl: no irritation, no pearl.
Can you transform your irritation—all the doubt, fear, anger or frustration—into pearls of wisdom? No one can change your negativity for you. You can change the way you look, where you live, even who you live with, but unless you connect with who you are inside then none of those external changes will make much difference. The commitment you make is not to anyone else—not to a teacher or even to your family—but a commitment to a far deeper joy and happiness within yourself.
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Editor: Travis May
Image: elephant archives