TRANSCENDING PAIN AND SUFFERING
The search for a spiritual path is often born out of, or at least accelerated by, what we perceive to be as suffering. And, to be even more precise, the search for spiritual meaning truly stems from understanding and embracing suffering, rather than aversion to it. The avoidance of, the resistance to, the suffering is actually worse than the suffering itself. Most people do not realize this. It is the corollary to the premise that it is not pleasure itself that presents obstacles to happiness, it is the clinging to, the craving of, such pleasure, that leads to our difficulties.
We employ countless devices in our attempts to resist, cover, or run away from what we view to be suffering. It is actually our refusal to accept suffering for what it is that sets the stage for our difficulties. That is, unless we decide to look at suffering in a new way, face it directly and accept it as a great opportunity, or teacher.
When things are going well for us in life, this may distract us from the spiritual path. Temporarily anesthetized by fame, wealth, power and the like, we can become indifferent to the inherent suffering of life and all that it has to teach us, as we are too busy, caught up in our own pleasures. And, what appears to us as pleasure, if carefully analyzed, will eventually turn into suffering at some point. For example, if it is a hot summer day and a friend offers you a nice glass of cold lemonade, we experience great pleasure as we begin to drink it. After a while, however, as we have drunk more and more, the initial pleasure will turn into a stomachache.
Our mind originally labeled our experience as pleasure because the unpleasant sensation of thirst had been abated. Then, our emotional mind takes that and exaggerates it further. This is how the delusion of ignorance operates. A delusion fabricates inherent existence, we see an inherently existent object, our mind magnifies the pleasure associated with it, and clings to the object or experience with attachment. True inner peace cannot be obtained while operating under this delusion. We may even distort things, seeing negative people or circumstances as positive, or exaggerating very small positive traits out of proportion.
The state of being blinded and distracted by what we erroneously believe to be real happiness is like the Buddhist concept of the experience in the upper realms of demi-gods and gods. There, these beings are so caught up in their pleasurable existence of the moment that they do not stop to consider their karma, and the danger that they will fall to the lower realms at some point. They have no opportunity to learn, or progress karmically.
By living in the physical, or human, world as we do now, however, we are afforded a tremendous opportunity to learn and to work on our karma. We can interpret and use everything that happens to us as part of the spiritual path, including what we normally perceive to be suffering. Here, we have first –hand experience of suffering, and if we decide that we want to be free from suffering, we have all the causes necessary — all that is needed is one’s persistent determination to escape. Once our inner realization has been triggered, and we begin our spiritual search in earnest, we will encounter a powerful means to develop compassion towards others who are suffering in a similar manner as well, If one wants the best possible treatment for a disease, find a doctor who suffers from the same ailment, for that doctor will have understanding and empathy.
When we feel that things are “going wrong” in our lives, and we are encountering difficult situations, we have a tendency to label the situation as the problem. In reality, however, the real problem comes from our own minds and from our reactions to it. If we were to respond to perceived difficulties with a positive or peaceful mind, we may eventually come to see these situations as helpful challenges or opportunities for growth and development instead. It is crucial to see that we have the profound ability to transform perceived negative events, circumstances, or emotions, rather than reacting to them in negative ways.
On one level, this makes sense strictly from a karmic point of view – reacting to a negative situation with more negativity only adds to the negative karma which created the situation in the first place. If you can turn your reactions into positive ones, then you will no longer continue to pile negative on top of negative.
In a deeper sense, one can also learn to use the tremendous velocity or “juice” of negative events or emotions by transforming them into a torrent of positive spiritual energy instead. Imagine anger or fear as carrying the force of a gigantic waterfall, like Niagara Falls. Then, imagine transmuting this same energy into a positive force of love and compassion instead. If one can accomplish this, one has completely transfigured a difficult situation and converted it into something entirely different and beneficial,. Alchemists would term this “turning lead into gold” — a very high spiritual practice.
Another way that suffering, or our aversion to suffering, can propel us on the spiritual path, is to allow it to be a constant, nudging presence. Even if our suffering is only simmering below the surface, rather than boiling, it can be a reminder and a beacon to us that there is a better way to live. That there is another reality out there, even if we are not yet sure what that is. Whether steadily whispering in our ears or screaming loudly, it can strengthen our resolve to break the pattern of suffering and cyclic existence once and for all.
As our awareness of the inherent discontent of samsaric existence is awakened, over and over again, we may notice the arising of a deep inner urge to cease this way of being that has imprisoned us for so long. And, as this urge grows and develops, we may also develop a strong wish to assist all sentient beings in their movement toward happiness and away from suffering, as well.
In a seemingly paradoxical way, the very circumstances or emotions we may have once labeled and resisted with all our might as “curses,” can come to be seen as great blessings. All the strength, power and energy we may have handed over to such ego-based negative thoughts and actions is now available for positive use. Like the peacock, who digests and transforms poison into its magnificent plumage. A mighty, beautiful, creative force has been released and awaits its use for positive purposes.
One of our biggest obstacles is that, up until now, we have believed in a false self, and cherished that self above all others. As long as we continue to do this, our suffering will never come to an end, it is that simple. Having been slaves to our self-cherishing minds for so long, we trust it wholeheartedly and obey all of its commands, in the mistaken belief that we will discover happiness by putting ourselves before everyone else. Having been so preoccupied, and worked so hard at this, one might now ask – what do we have to show for all this effort? True, lasting peace and happiness is as elusive as ever, despite any worldly success we may have achieved.
If material success were a true barometer of happiness, all the world’s millionaires and billionaires would be ecstatic, and all poor people would be inherently miserable. And, we know this is not the case. There are many, many beautiful beings in this world that have very few wants and yet, are completely content. Developing a good heart and generating lovingkindness toward others is the path to bringing satisfaction, fulfillment and peace into our everyday lives. If we have a good heart, we have all that we really need, even if we have no more to eat than a crust of bread.
We must relinquish our instinctive views that we are somehow better than, superior to, or more important than, others. This kind of judgmental, dualistic thinking closes the door to happiness and stands in the way of our being able to perceive the true nature of reality. It keeps us in separation rather than unity with all beings and forms of life. We are all the same, we are all trying to find happiness and avoid suffering. We are all interdependent and could not survive without each other.
Cherishing the “I” is like having a chronic disease – it gives rise to all of our suffering and all the difficulties of this life, and is at the root of all our delusions. It is one of the greatest hindrances to developing love and compassion and is the primary delusion from which all other delusions are generated. No matter how diligently you practice and pray, your efforts will not be effective until you have conquered this point of view and shattered your long-held and dearly-defended concepts of who you are and of what constitutes reality. There is just no other way to arrive at your destination of lasting happiness.
To be happy, we must free ourselves from delusions such as anger and hatred. We may feel anger toward a person’s actions, but it is important to remember not to feel anger toward the person themselves. They are only acting out of their deluded perspective, we should see delusion as just that, and not who the person is. When we perceive ourselves to be suffering due to the actions of others, we should learn to view these situations as opportunities, and these people as great teachers, rather than enemies. We can learn to develop a tranquil mind and to practice patience – two of the most important components of the spiritual path.
It will be our loss if we bear anger or hatred toward others. It takes quite a bit of energy to maintain such deluded emotions and drains us of our positive resources. As soon as the chains of delusion arise, see them for what they are and do not allow yourself to be in bondage to them. Use the opportunity to actually practice, not just talk about, having a good heart and compassionate outlook. Often, our unhappiness or anger is a response to our meeting with unpleasant circumstances. If we do not get “our” way, our uncontrolled mind immediately spins out. We do not see that what we may perceive to be as harm from another is not what it seems. All perceived shortcomings arise from the force of circumstances and conditions. The angry person, the anger itself, and all things in general depend solely on causes and conditions. So, when we feel we have harmed by another, we should look to see what is really going on.
If it was in the inherent nature of our adversaries to be harmful, there would be no real reason to bear anger toward them – when we burn ourselves in fire we do not blame the fire, because we know the very nature of fire is to burn. And, if it was only a temporary fault of our adversary which led him or her to harm us, there would be no reason to be angry either. When it rains, we do not become angry with the sky, because we know it will soon change, and that the rain is not part of the inherent nature of the sky. Rain only results from changing, temporary circumstances, such as the amount of heat and moisture in the air, etc.
If we can learn and put into practice the proper way of enduring what is unpleasant, unhappy thoughts will never arise to disturb us. If we are impatient with our suffering, however, we will only make ourselves more miserable. For example, if we develop an illness and become depressed or angry about our condition, not only will our physical discomfort increase but we will also experience the additional suffering of mental torment as well. We will have made our present situation worse, and created the causes for suffering in the future as well. But, if we can see clearly, we will know that, once again, we are presented here with an incredible opportunity. By transforming what could be viewed as a very upsetting and uncomfortable situation into a more positive one, we can create the causes for
happiness instead. Also, looking beyond ourselves, there is a very beautiful and powerful practice which can be done, whereby one dedicates any suffering they may be experiencing to the benefit of others. In doing so, you are not only accumulating merit for yourself, but you are helping to ease the suffering of many others as well.
Training our mind to look at frustrating or difficult situations in a different way, we can liberate ourselves and others from much unnecessary suffering. Looking at life like a river of changes, if we accept the flow rather than resist the currents, we will not be swept away or drowned. We can learn to float instead, in tune with the rhythms of whatever comes along. Just as water cannot flow in a stream that has been blocked, anger cannot arise in a mind that no longer entertains unhappy thoughts.
Whether we view our problems, enemies or demons as external or internal phenomena, they will dissolve when exposed to the laser light of informed scrutiny. The wisdom to see things for what they really are, coupled with genuine compassion toward ourselves, all beings, and all phenomena will be our gateway to sustained happiness and freedom. And, one of the most fruitful ways to realize this is to begin by recognizing suffering as one of our greatest teachers, rather than being haunted by it, lifetime after lifetime. Learn to embrace all that arises.