Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Learning to Suffer Well

by Troy Chapman

(published March 04)

We talk often about reducing suffering, and that’s a legitimate spiritual pursuit. Yet it’s also dangerous in that it’s a short step from trying to reduce suffering to thinking that it can and should be eradicated — to thinking of this as a spiritual goal.

I don’t think suffering can be eradicated. It can be reduced because much of it is caused by our own thinking and behavior — it’s self-inflicted. But there is also the suffering of life, that which comes simply from loving. When we love, we suffer. We may try to stop loving or to limit the intensity of our love to avoid this suffering, but that only leads to a worse kind: the suffering of numbness and disconnection.

A certain amount of suffering is inherent in the “human condition,” which leads to the conclusion that, while reducing suffering is half our spiritual goal, the other half must be learning to “suffer well.” Some ways of suffering are better and more healthy than others and adopting these into my life has made me more whole and more connected with my own power.

So how do we suffer well? Here are some ways I’ve found:

1) The first is to come to terms with the fact that we aren’t in control. We can and should make it our business to reduce unnecessary suffering in our own lives and in the world, but when we can’t find a way to do this we can embrace that we don’t get to choose which suffering can or cannot be reduced. When suffering is inevitable we can bow to the mystery of it and seek the strength not to turn away.

I recently learned that my three-year-old great niece is losing her lifelong battle with cancer and doctors have given her 4-10 months to live. On the bunk beside me, I have a picture of her. She’s beautiful in her frilly dress, her strawberry blond hair up in pigtails, ears sticking out, and giant blue eyes looking at the camera.

I want to be angry about her dying. Instead, I remind myself, “This is not my call.” I don’t understand it but neither will I reject it with anger or avoidance. I’ve been meditating on it and it’s teaching me I’m not in control.

2) Another related thing is to refuse to see suffering as an injustice. We’re told too often that we shouldn’t have to suffer. As a result we often look for someone to blame when we suffer and when we can’t find an individual we get angry at life or God.

It’s a lie. We will suffer and it’s not an injustice. It simply is, as death simply is. And anger takes up space that can rather be occupied by compassion. The angrier we are at the “injustice” of suffering, the less room we have for compassion in the reality of it.

Anger at suffering ironically always creates more suffering — in us and in the world where we direct our anger.

3) To suffer well we must see suffering as a spiritual teacher and ourselves as students. Her lessons are hard but, in the school of life, those students who rebel or refuse to listen will be given the same lesson again and again.

Have you ever felt caught in a cycle of “senseless suffering”? I have, and it’s always because I refused to learn what it was trying to teach me.

The one sure way I know to move beyond a particular suffering is to listen closely to it. I do this by asking: what kind of student am I being to this suffering?

Am I sitting in the back of the room with my headphones blaring, staring out the window with an attitude? Am I pouting about how unfair it is that I have to sit through this (don’t they know who I am?)? Am I cheating and trying to manipulate my way through the lesson? Or have I acknowledged that there’s something here that will make me more whole — whether I happen to like the teacher or not?

The mystery of suffering is intricately interwoven with the mystery of life and thus it always has much to teach us. When I focus on finding the lesson rather than my dislike of the teacher, I am more able to suffer well.

4) Finally, we can see our personal suffering as a service to all who suffer. A friend and mentor once told me that I could see my own suffering as pointless or as something I could do for humanity and for life. If I could suffer well by transforming pain into compassion and light, this would be a real service to all who suffer.

Many are blinded by suffering, turning to drugs, alcohol, violence, anger, and fear, in response to it. But when those who are able to do so can suffer in lifeful ways, they begin to make a path that others can follow. And maybe, if enough such paths are created, we can all learn to suffer and not be destroyed or driven to destruction by it.

When first introduced to this way of thinking, I didn’t know if I could suffer well or not. I hadn’t managed to do so in the past and maybe I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I knew I had to try.

I’m still trying. Sometimes I manage, other times I don’t, but this is the context that frames suffering for me now. I want to learn to do it well — to set down a path for those many who struggle even more than me in life. If someone is where I was a few years ago and they look to me for hope, I want them to find it. This is why it’s worth learning to suffer well.