There seems to be some mistaken universal perception that we aren’t supposed to suffer. At all. And if we are, then something is wrong. On a very basic level, all of us think we should be happy. That it is our birthright. So when life becomes difficult or painful, we mistakenly believe that things have gone wrong. And we are pretty much willing to do anything and everything to fix it. To not feel bad. To make it right. But according to the Buddhist teachings, pain and suffering are ineviteable in human life. For one thing, no one can escape the reality of death. But there are also the realities of aging, of illness, of not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want, of sorrow at losing what you love or someone that you love. These are the facts of life and they hurt. They feel wrong.
When my husband Scott died suddenly, it felt wrong. On so many levels but one in particular that I didn’t expect or even know to expect. It felt unnaturally wrong. That’s the only way I could explain how it felt – unnatural. That one of the most natural things to occur in human life could seem so unnatural was a very unexpected feeling. Forget that this wasn’t supposed to happen to ME, it just felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen. Period. It felt wrong to suffer that much.
The other thing that kept going through my head was how could I have prevented this? What did I do wrong? My mind was searching for the way this could have been avoided. How this suffering could have been avoided. How death could have been avoided. But the Buddhist teachings also instruct that suffering isn’t really what causes us misery in our lives. What causes misery is always trying to get away from the facts of life. The facts are that loss, disappointment, and grief are part of the human condition. Try telling that to our “put on a happy face” society. But we continually try to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Stick a happy face sticker on that, thank you! We believe that there could be lasting security and happiness available to us all the time if only we could figure out the right thing to do or be. As Pema Chodron says, “we don’t suffer this kind of pain because of our personal inability to get things right…” “pain is not a punishment and pleasure is not an reward.” Those words were miracles to me. But that’s what we do, isn’t it? We try to control and manipulate life and the people in our lives so that we can avoid suffering. So they won’t hurt us. So life won’t hurt us.
In my personal experience with my husband, I know I caused a lot of unhappiness for him and myself through the years as I tried to control his diabetes for him. Or rather, get him to control his diabetes for me. I told myself I did it for him and I did, I adored him, but I also did it for me. Because I didn’t want to go through the pain of his declining health or his death one day. Ironic? Yep. But when we are always trying to run away from discomfort, we’re going to be caught in a cycle of unhappiness and disappointment anyway, and we will feel weaker and weaker and less in control of what we are trying to control.
Suffering has a lot to teach us if you let it. Boy, did I learn a lot during the last 3 years. It motivated me to look for answers and dig deeper into my spiritual path, it taught me profound empathy for my fellow human beings that connected me to them in a way that I never felt before or could have imagined, it humbled me to my knees, it taught me how much inner strength and grace I have, it loosened my grip on the steering wheel, it opened my heart so wide – I never realized how closed and protected I kept it. It literally transformed me.
When Scott died, instead of asking, “How can I find security and happiness again?” I asked “Can I be brave enough to touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with my pain and suffering, both my children’s and my own, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss and profound disappointment in all its many forms and let it open me? Or will I freeze up, doze off, hide out, put more barriers up around my heart and my whole being and seek another form of seeming comfort, security, and happiness?”
Coming to know your pain and suffering intimately, not hiding from it, giving it room to be, is what eventually dismantles those walls that you believe are protecting you. Otherwise, you just keep building new ones, trying to avoid all pain and suffering while causing a lot of pain and suffering doing so. Giving our pain our full attention without anesthetizing it or trying to jump over it as if it is not there, is what helps ease it eventually and lets in room for joy again, peace again, life again. I say ease and not end because some things, some hurts will stay with us forever. Living inside the moment you want to run away from takes courage but as Bob says, some people are worth it.