Acknowledge Suffering by Ram Dass

Posted November 18, 2011

One of the things that makes relationships so difficult is the way in which we protect ourselves from suffering — from our own and from each other’s. Because when you love someone you don’t want to lay your suffering on them and your fears. Also you are afraid if you open your heart too far their suffering will overwhelm you. Because when you look at the world, you just see suffering everywhere.

If you scratched the surface of every person in this room, you will find that there is some suffering. Some people who are walking around here smiling at each other and sitting down and having wonderful, gentle conversations, inside have very deep pain and deep fear. But they have learned so well how to mask it from each other. The culture reinforces that saying, don’t bring your pain to me. I only want your happiness. I’ll put up with a little of it but not much of it because you will scare me.

Now just as I said before, if you are going to be able to deal with seeing someone else’s beauty, you have to be able to acknowledge your own beauty. In a similar way if you are going to able to be available for someone else’s suffering you have to be able to acknowledge your own suffering and be able to understand the nature of suffering in such a way that you have converted the quality of suffering in yourself.

Gurdjieff, the Russian philosopher, said there is nothing that can be attained spiritually without suffering in life. But at the same time, if you are going to proceed on the journey you must sacrifice suffering. You hear the dual nature of it. You have to have suffered because the suffering is what burns through you and deepens the compassion and opens the door. Suffering brings you closer to the mystery. At the same moment if you hold on to the suffering and grab at it and sort of wallow in it or cling to it, it stops the journey.

There is an understanding of suffering such that you don’t invite suffering into your life but when it comes you work with it and transform it. The extreme of it is the Christian monk who is saying, “God, God give me more pain. Give me more suffering because I want to get closer to you.”  And Maharaj ji saying, “Do you like suffering or joy,” and saying, “I love suffering – it brings me so close to God.”


Befriending the Trouble by Jack Kornfield

Befriending the Trouble

The good news about these powerful inner forces is that you can use awareness to understand and tame them. When you mindfully recognize your fear, anger, desire, or loneliness, you come to know it, and then it begins to be workable. If you are lonely, for example, study it. The Sufi poet Hafiz warns, “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut more deeply. Let it season you as few ingredients can.” If you cannot bear your loneliness, your boredom, your anxiety, you will always run away. The moment you feel lonely or bored, you may open the fridge, or go online, or do anything to avoid being with yourself. But with loving awareness you can endure, honor, and value loneliness and aloneness. And they can be informative. They can teach you about yourself, your longings, what you have neglected for too long. They can help you find a deeper freedom.

Grief is the same. The Lakota Sioux value grief highly; they say it brings a person close to the Great Spirit. When they want to send a message to the other side, they ask a member of a grieving family to deliver it. Whether you feel grief or anxiety, jealousy, addiction, or anger your freedom grows by turning awareness toward it. Zen teacher Myogen Steve Stücky told his friends and students, when he was in great pain, dying of cancer, “I’ve found relief from suffering not by turning away but by turning toward what is most difficult.”

In my own life, I’ve had to learn this with anger. My father was violent and abusive, a wife batterer who dominated all of our family with unpredictable outbursts of rage and paranoia. When he was most abusive, I would run away, and my mother hid bottles behind curtains in every room so she could reach for one to defend herself against his blows.

I determined never to be like him. I became the family peacemaker, mediating arguments when I could. So, when I went to live as a young monk in a Thai forest monastery, I thought it would be easy and peaceful. I was unprepared for the intensity of my own restless mind, the uprising of grief, desire, and loneliness I felt. Most surprising was my anger. In not wanting to be like my violent father, I had suppressed all my anger – it had become dangerous to even feel. But in the awareness of meditation and solitude, all the things I was angry about came up. It was more than anger; it was fury. First at my father for being so hurtful to our family. Then, because it frightened me and I had denied it, I was angry at myself for all the times I had suppressed my anger.

Ajahn Chah told me to sit in the middle of it, to wrap myself in robes even on a hot day, and learn to tolerate it. Later my Reichian therapist had me breathe hard, make sounds, shout, grimace, rage, and flail, until I expressed fury’s pain and wept. In these years of meditation and therapy I learned to work with the anger and discovered that it’s an energy that can be known and tolerated, not feared. I had to acknowledge when it was present and realize that I could feel it fully without becoming vengeful or violent like my father.

I also realized that when understood, anger has value. It is a protest when we feel hurt or afraid or when our needs aren’t met. At times, it even brings clarity. The ancient Greeks called anger a “noble” emotion, because it gives the strength to stand up for what you care about most. As I began to understand anger, I could see more clearly the frustration, hurt, and fear that were behind it. My sense of freedom grew as I became more intelligent about it, and slowly its energy was transformed into compassion for myself and others. Now I help others with their emotions as a part of my profession.

“The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Jack Kornfield

“Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature nor do children as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

– Helen Keller

One day Ajahn Chah held up a beautiful Chinese tea cup, “To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”    When we understand the truth of uncertainty and relax, we become free.

The broken cup helps us see beyond our illusion of control. When we commit ourselves to raising a child, building a business, creating a work of art, or righting an injustice, some measure of failure as well as success will be ours. This is a fierce teaching. Margaret is an aid worker whose clinic in Kosovo was burned to the ground, yet she began again. She knows that her work is helping people through success and failure. Emilee, who lost her most promising math student to a gang shooting, was broken hearted. But she doesn’t regret having tutored him and now she is tutoring several others in his honor.

We may lose our best piece of pottery in the firing, the charter school we work so hard to create may fold, our start up business may go under, our children may develop problems beyond our control. If we only focus on the results, we will be devastated. But if we know the cup is broken, we can give our best to the process, create what we can and trust the larger process of life itself. We can plan, we can care for, tend and respond. But we cannot control.  Instead we take a breath, and open to what is unfolding, where we are. This is a profound shift, from holding on, to letting go.  As Suzuki Roshi says, “When we understand the truth of impermanence and find our composure in it, there we find ourselves in Nirvana.”

When people asked Ajahn Chah questions about enlightenment or what happens at death or whether meditation would heal their illness, or whether Buddhist teachings could be practiced equally by westerners, he would smile and say “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” Chögyam Trungpa called this uncertainty “groundlessness.” With the wisdom of uncertainty, Ajahn Chah could simply relax.  Around him was an enormous sense of ease. He didn’t hold his breath or try to manipulate events. He responded to the situation at hand. When a senior western nun left the Buddhist order to become a born again Christian missionary, and then returned to the monastery to try to convert her old friends, many were upset. “How could she do this?” Condused, they asked Ajahn Chah about her. He responded with a laugh, “Maybe she’s right.” With these words, everyone relaxed.  When called for, Ajahn Chah could plan the construction of a great temple or oversee the network of over 100 monasteries started by his monks. When disciplining misbehaving monks, he could be decisive, demanding and stern.  But there was a spaciousness around all these actions, as if he could turn to you a moment later and smile – like a wink – and say, “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?”   He was living proof of the secret of life described in the Bhagavad Gita, “to act well without attachment to the fruits of your actions.”

The trust expressed by Ajahn Chah comes whenever our consciousness rests in the eternal present. “From where I sit,” he said, “nobody comes and no one goes.”  “In the middle way, there is no one who is strong or weak, young or old, no one who is born and no one who dies.  This is the unconditioned. The heart is free.”  The ancient Zen masters call this enlightenment “the trusting mind.” The Zen texts explain how to do so, “To live in Trusting Mind is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.”  The world is ‘imperfect.’ Instead of struggling to perfect the world, we relax, we rest in the uncertainty. Then we can act with compassion and we give our best. Without attachment to the outcome, we bring fearlessness and trust to any circumstances.

When Carl began Buddhist practice, the internet company he worked for was in trouble.  His marriage felt stale.  And he still suffered the effects of growing up with his father’s long-term depression. He looked to meditation training to help him with his anxiety about the future, the insecurity in his marriage, and how often he felt disconnected from himself.

Since childhood Carl had also had a deeply mystical sense of the world. One of the most important moments in his adult life came in a dream about Katie, his youngest daughter.  At age four, Katie was hospitalized for viral meningitis and went into a coma. Carl and his wife spent their days at her bedside. The doctors were cautious about her chances of recovery.  After five weeks of no change and endless worrying, Katie came to Carl in a dream and told him, “Don’t worry Daddy, it’s all ok.”  The next morning as Carl walked into Katie’s room, she opened her eyes and smiled at him. Now she is a healthy fourteen year old.

Carl had glimpsed the truth that there is a grace beyond all our plans.  Learning meditation reawakened this trust in him.  With mindfulness his stress lifted and he began to feel his body and his senses open. In one sitting Carl said his body felt like tall, graceful kelp floating beneath the waves. His feelings of being stuck and anxious transformed into moments of interest, curiosity, appreciation. He became less worried, more present.  More “juicy” he called it. “Letting go of my fears is like removing an overcoat of self.  When thoughts and problems that I can’t solve arise, they don’t stick.  I rest like kelp in the ocean, in the trusting mind.”  Periodically Carl said he forgets this and his insecurity returns. The worrying mind takes hold.   Should he stay in his marriage? Should he continue in an uncertain job? Then he remembers the dream of his daughter and Carl relaxes and trusts the not knowing.  “Every marriage and every job is insecure if we are honest,” he said.

Eight years later, Carl is still in his marriage and still working at a now successful internet company.  His meditation has taught him a trust that is not separate from the insecurity and paradox of life itself.


This excerpt is taken from the book, ” “The Wise Heart”

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