16 - The Essentialness of Suffering - Part One
Look, I know I’m asking a lot. If you're still reading, and didn’t get scared off by the title, then I’m asking that you stay with me long enough to see that there’s something valuable to be learned by delving into the meaning and purpose of suffering. If you’re a human being, then you’ve already experienced suffering. And if you’ve experienced suffering, don’t you want to know what it’s about, and whether or not it’s worth anything more than the pain you had to endure getting through it. From our first breath to our last, screaming out of the womb and back into the grave, we will live a life punctuated by pain. But what if that pain wasn’t something we had to just endure, survive, and try to move on from. What if suffering had the ability to give life it’s deepest meaning, purpose, and value? What if there was a point to suffering? I think there is, and it’s something I’ve only discovered the last four years, after my breakdown, in the lines and life of contemplative thought and practice. Let me explain, and thanks for staying with me this far. I promise, if you suffer through this with me, you won’t be disappointed.
Let’s start out hot and heavy, with the most obvious and most difficult question. I’m going straight for the jugular here, so to speak. It’s probably a bad move going this deep this soon, but I’m all into making a bad move for a good reason. The obvious and difficult question is; why do we suffer? It’s probably one of the most pressing and avoided questions in the universe. We all suffer. We can’t avoid that, and yet we often do everything we can to avoid facing our suffering and the questions it poses. We often hope, if we just ignore it, maybe it will go away. It’s like that mean cat at our friend’s house who’s just looking for any excuse to claw our eyes out, and we think, if we don’t make eye contact, maybe it’ll just leave us alone. So, we can spend our whole lives trying not to make eye contact with our suffering. And yet, I believe it is that avoidance which creates our greatest suffering. If we can but learn to turn around and face it, look it straight in the eye and see it for what it is, then we can actually learn how to overcome it. Some spiritual teachers call this facing our shadow-side. That is, when we stop running and stare into the void long enough, our eyes begin to adjust to a different way of seeing those things we thought would destroy us. Then we learn how to bring them into the light, expose them, and live with them in a way that grows us into a whole person. It is in embracing our suffering that we overcome it, by learning from it instead of running from it. What I’m saying, in answer to the question of why we suffer, is that we suffer because we don’t want to suffer. I know just how absurd that sounds. But, what I’m saying is that suffering is not meant to be our oppressor, but our teacher, and as long as we’re running from the lessons, we’ll never learn how to overcome the things causing our suffering, which our suffering is trying to point out. Does that make sense. Think of suffering like a warning light on your car’s dashboard. Who in their right mind would simply put duct tape over the warning light in an attempt to fix the problem? But that’s what we do with our suffering when we see it as something to get past and get away from. What if our suffering is simply trying to tell us when something is wrong with us, inside us? Doesn’t that make sense. Suffering is like an emotional, mental, or spiritual means of revealing our inner woundedness, the same way that physical pain tells us something is wrong with our body. When I touch a hot stove, I don’t usually associate the cause with the pain I’m feeling, but the source that’s creating the pain. Then, I instinctively identify the source and move away from it. If I didn’t feel the pain, I would continue touching the hot stove and get even more hurt and wounded. When we understand suffering in this way, we begin to see the great value it has in order to liberate us from our suffering. So, the first thing we must do, in light of this, is begin to pay attention to our suffering. Then it is no longer something to be avoided or ignored, but something we must learn how to sit with, listen to, and learn from. In this way suffering can begin to be our best teacher, helping us learn how to live better lives, by revealing what within us is not healthy.
As a spiritual director, one of the most important early lessons I try to pass on is the necessity of simply sitting with our pain. There’s really not a lot we can do with our pain, unless we first learn to sit with it instead of run from it. This is just one of those hard, spiritual truths, but it is also a very necessary one. When we view pain and suffering simply as something bad, and something to get away from as fast as we can, then we’ll never be able to sit with it long enough to understand what it is and why it’s happening, in order to learn what to do with it and about it in order to truly leave it behind. When we just keep running from our pain, we never solve the underlying issues causing it, and then those underlying issues just continue to regurgitate that pain over and over again, because we’ve never stopped long enough to look at our suffering in order to learn from it. In this way, suffering can become our greatest tool for transformation. There is nothing like suffering to stop us dead in our tracks, nothing that has greater potential to painfully grab our attention and say, “you need to do something about this.” That’s why I’m saying, primarily, that we suffer because we do not know how to suffer. The first thing we must understand about suffering is its potential to point to underlying problems in our lives. It is not meaningless pain. It is a very meaningful tool, crafted to help us face the true cause of our pain. When we understand suffering as a useful tool, instead of a useless feeling or experience, then we can begin to at least settle down into our suffering and let it do its proper work. But the truth is, there’s not a lot of messaging in our culture about the necessity and usefulness of suffering, not even in our religious culture. But there is a lot of good messaging about the purpose of suffering in contemplation, and that’s in great part how I ended up learning about this pursuit.
When I had my breakdown, just over four years ago, exactly a week before Christmas 2015, I hit so big a wall of suffering that I couldn’t get around it. To put that experience in one word; it was devastating. It was like my life broke into a million pieces, and there was no glue good enough to put it back together again. I couldn’t make anything good out of this brokenness. I was just too broken. I’d struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life, and my religious upbringing had helped me deal with that in some ways, but it never really prepared or taught me how to really deal with it in ways that revealed and healed it. In many ways religion, for me, was just another coping mechanism, which allowed me to rationalize and frame my pain in ways that made sense of it, and helped me feel more comfortable in it, but never really solved the underlying issues of that pain. In one way or another, what I really learned to do was numb myself to my suffering, and I think that’s really the best I knew how to do. It’s the best most of us can do, really, until we learn how to do better. And I don’t blame my culture or my religion for not giving me the tools to deal with my pain. I was simply surrounded by a bunch of people who didn’t know how to do any better than I was. No one in my life knew there was another way. But now I do know, and I want you to know too. There is a better way to deal with pain and suffering, which actually solves it by working with it and through it, instead of just learning how to get away from it by pushing it below the surface. But I would never have learned this if I hadn’t hit that impassible wall of suffering, and that’s the hard truth. It took a suffering so great for me to face my suffering, and learn how to get out of it, because that was the only thing that could have forced me to face it. And I’m grateful for the immense suffering, which is what happens when you truly learn the beautiful gift suffering can be. It sounds crazy just saying it. Suffering is a gift. But you know what else, it also sounds like a big sigh of relief. To know that our suffering serves a purpose, and that this purpose actually helps lift us up out of our suffering is the greatest news we could ever hear. It’s actually why Jesus came, to liberate us from suffering, through suffering. It’s one of the things I like most about the example of his life. Jesus is one of my favorite spiritual teachers, even if I don’t always like some of the things the Christian religion has built around him over the last two thousand years. That is the good news he wanted to share. Jesus came to lay out a road map through our suffering in order to help walk us to greater joy. If Jesus did anything, what he did the most was suffer, more than we might realize. But, in his example we can see how we are to suffer as well. When the Jewish mystics predicted what Jesus would be like, one of the phrases which identified him the most was as a man of sorrow who knew pain. Not only that, but one who would take our pain upon himself in order to transform it into something good. More than anything, what has helped me most in overcoming my pain is listening to God the way Jesus did, as God instructs me about my pain. God is the great revealer, whispering in our ears at just the right time, saying what we need to hear the most, when we most need to hear it.
The last two weeks I’ve had three mid-night episodes of panic attacks. Before this, I haven’t had any panic attacks since my breakdown, where I experienced them for three days straight. That was the event that propelling me into the darkest place I’ve ever been my whole life, but which has also led to the brightest place I’ve ever been. However, these recent panic attacks have revealed something interesting to me, which shows just how far I’ve come. When I had those initial panic attacks, over four years ago, it’s like I got hit by an invisible Mack Truck and knocked down so hard the whole world was spinning. I had no idea what was going on, or what to do. All I really could do was lay in bed and cry out to God for help. It was devastating. But these recent panic attacks have been very different from the first, almost night and day. Why? Because I know what they mean, I know what to do about them, and I know I’m not going through them alone. During the first of those more recent of panic attacks, God whispered in my ear, “don’t run from this.” It’s exactly what I needed to hear, and it enabled me to stay grounded and calm even when my body was running half crazed towards fear. What I realized, very quickly, was that if I had tried to get away from what I was feeling, I would have increased my panic. What God was really saying to me, in that moment, was; “settle down, face this fear, look it straight in the eyes, and know that it’s not anything you really need to fear.” In another way, it enabled me to know that, despite what I was feeling, bodily, in that moment, I actually was going to be okay. I knew in a deeper way, beyond my own mind and understanding, that this experience was not going to hurt me, even though it felt very hurtful to go through. Three times the panic attacks came, and three times I felt them, let them be what they were, and slowly fade into the darkness. They also stayed confined to my body. I let my body feel them, and then they were gone. Neither my mind or heart jumped into that space with my body, which was also extremely helpful. The point I’m trying to make here, is that, in that moment of suffering, I knew what to do, both because I knew how to hear God, and I learned how to face the suffering, work through it, and let it teach me something new. And what did I learn? The first thing I learned was that I don’t have to be afraid of feeling afraid. What else I learned, I’ll share in the last part of this series. For now, the first important lesson we all must learn in understanding the value of suffering is just how to face it, and let it do its work. The work itself may take time to be revealed, but it never will if we aren’t first able to stop running and just sit with it for a while. I hope this is beginning to be helpful for you, in the midst of your suffering, and I hope your interest is peaked enough to keep wading through this difficult subject with me. Now, on to the rest.