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Suffering and Compassion

Due to some interesting tricky circumstances in my life of late, I’ve given a lot of thought to who I really am, and what I really have to contribute. Being a business owner takes tremendous energy, and selling my services and expertise takes not only energy, but conviction. Without conviction, it sucks your will to live. Seriously.

For me, conviction comes from being as authentic as humanly possible in how I present myself, what I have to offer, and what I value I believe it brings. Maybe there are people can sell anything to anyone, but I can’t.

Getting to this point is the result of many years of soul-searching, study, and most importantly, making lots and lots of mistakes. Often, those mistakes cause me to suffer. Sometimes things I totally can’t control cause me to suffer. And sometimes my own way of dealing with the world causes me to suffer.

I worry a lot. I worry mostly about how other people feel, and how what I do or say affects them. I worry about the things I can’t control like sickness and death, and the things I can, like money and relationships. Worry is really just another word for fear. I experience fear pretty regularly. Being me, and not anyone else, I have not idea of the amount of fear I feel is “normal” or not. I suspect that feeling it is, but admitting it is not.

I’ve found that some people react badly when I’m transparent about the fact that I experience fear or anxiety. I find this strange. The leaders I most admire are the ones that are open about their frailty, their weaknesses, and their fears. I feel I can trust someone who admits they are human, admits that they make mistakes. I don’t trust the people who say they have the answers to questions that only I can answer for myself, and people who claim to know more about me than I know about myself.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I believe that fear, which is a form of suffering has value. We live in a society where emotions like fear, shame, sadness, and despair are considered undesirable at best. But these emotions are part of the palate of our experience. Imagine if food was only salty or sweet. Would we enjoy a lemon bar if it wasn’t a little sour? Or a grapefruit if it wasn’t a little bitter? If music was only consonant and harmonious, we’d be listening to the Grateful Dead for all eternity, and Stravinsky never would have composed The Rite of Spring (that actually sounds like the third ring of Hell to me).

And so I believe it is with suffering, and yet we brand those who can’t hide or escape their suffering as depressive, codependent, reclusive, or anti-social, as if we ourselves do not all experience those feelings too. How much harder is it then for those who seek help coping with suffering to find the courage to ask? And how narrow is our definition of what is healthy? I sometimes think that while diagnosis of mental disorders is immensely helpful for alleviating suffering, it also has been misused as a way for us to externalize emotions that are inescapable and innate to the human experience.

I’ve run across a number of people in my life who essentially told me that I suffer/think/fear too much, and to get over it (often with dire pronouncements about my fate if I fail to take their advice). And then they told me exactly how to do this (usually by emulating them). I have always found these exchanges disconcerting and kind of scary. I try so hard to be empathetic and open that sometimes I let people in way further than is healthy for me, and when I get scared sometimes I can temporarily lose my ability to draw healthy boundaries.

This has happened a couple times in recent years, and in spite of the fact that I have much better boundaries and self-esteem than I used to, it’s still thrown me for a loop. It’s gotten me thinking about my emotional world and its value to myself and to others. There is no doubt, I tend to worry, and when things upset me I often hang on to them for a while. If I’m feeling anticipatory of some unpleasant event, I’ll imagine possible scenarios even though I can’t predict what is actually going to happen. When something bad happens, I’ll often replay it mentally, imagining how I could have prevented or changed it. When my feelings are hurt, they hurt a lot, and it sometimes takes a while for the physical symptoms to leave my body. Basically, I feel things very strongly.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think that feeling things strongly and struggling with fear is bad or wrong. Is it pleasant? No, not really. But does it have value? Absolutely.

The fact that I struggle with these feelings and behaviors means that I experience them fully. I don’t just taste fear, I chew on it, go for a swim in it, and take it out to the movies. I know the dimensions and colors and smell of my fears, and that means that when I see someone else suffering from fear, I know how hard it is for them, and I also have faith that they can get past it. Because I do, every day. Every time I fully face my fear, or guilt, or shame, or sadness, I get a little nugget of compassion for myself. And those nuggets become the ground upon which I continually realize how little separates me from other people. We all suffer. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is suffering. And without suffering, there would be no compassion, and no joy, and no love.

So the next time someone tells me I’m neurotic, and difficult, and that I should just “get over it” or “let it go”, I’m going to remember all my feelings have value. I’m going to remind myself to have faith in my internal process. That fully experiencing uncomfortable emotions is courageous, not weak. That compassion, one of my core values, means connecting to others through our shared humanity, which includes suffering. And that my ability feel compassion for that suffering is a gift, not a disease.

I told you there'd be more

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is a woman in a film that one of my professors showed us. She had advanced leprosy, had lost facial features and limbs, but when someone asked her how her life was, she said she was full of joy because life was beautiful and God was with her. At the time it was incomprehensible to me, I saw it as delusional – a defense mechanism against the harshness of reality.

But now I think something else entirely. Life can be physically and emotionally ecstatic when we’re connected to ourselves and to our source, and I think that we are capable of remaining connected even when we’re in terrible physical, emotional, or mental pain. Even if my foot is aching, the rest of my body can still feel good. Breathing feels good. My aching foot doesn’t nullify that experience. Some pain is probably more insistent, but I think it’s amazing that this woman whose life was unbelievably terrible by most “standards”, had an ecstatic experience of life.

I think that pain is most frightening when we are cut off from our source (which I can only reach from within myself) and feel totally alone. Some people find that suffering strips them of belief – if God loves them, why do the innocent suffer?

Innocent or not, I have experienced emotional and mental pain, all the more because I didn’t believe in anything beyond my awareness. For me the key word is “believe”. I did not reach this different place in my spiritual journey by changing my beliefs. My experience of existence changed. I don’t believe in God, I am experiencing God. For me, experience is not contingent upon a belief or lack of belief. Hopefully this means that as my awareness expands, I don’t have to fight my own self-imposed boundaries. I don’t believe, I experience. That means I also don’t have to argue with anyone else about the validity of my experience, since it’s entirely subjective. If I share my experience, some people will find it interesting, some will label me deluded, and with others it will resonate. This doesn’t change my experience, and it is not meant to change anyone else’s.

All the same, I wonder if belief is easier to maintain during difficult times. I’m finding that when I’m stressed out or depressed, my connection to spirit is tenuous at best. I find myself grasping, trying to re-capture the sense of happiness and peace I’ve experienced lately. It turns out that a shift in my perspective does not obliterate all of my baggage in one fell swoop. Damn.

Instead of grasping, I’m trying to remember a few basic things: I can only find peace within myself, it does not come from externalities. I don’t have to cling to suffering, I can let it go when it’s told me whatever it’s there to convey. I can let go of the illusion that I can control things that I cannot. The ego is a tricky thing — it sneaks back into the equation when you’re not looking, and convinces you that your limited awareness is the sum of reality.

Last week I got into Baylor Law School for the spring. My ego, tricky little bastard that it is, told me that this meant I was destined to go there, and that everything was working out because of my newfound spiritual resonance. Silly rabbit. Then I found out that Baylor was giving me exactly nothing in scholarships, and to pay for it I would have to max out my student loans for thee years and take out additional supplemental loans. The degree would cost me 90k. Suddenly Baylor did not look like my pre-destined path. And my ego decided that it must be because I did something wrong – didn’t study for the LSAT enough, got over-confident. It felt like my fate was rejecting me, and it stung.

But here’s the thing: it’s always a trap when you think good things happen to you because you’re good, and bad things happen to you (or someone else) because you (or they) are bad. If the Universe is guiding us through multiple incarnations to enlightenment, as the Upanishads say, or God has a plan, as many Christians believe, the point is we’re really not going to see the point when we’re up close to it. Our egos like to feel like they understand, that they’re in some kind of control, but they’re not. My ego wanted to believe that Baylor was the plan, because my ego really dislikes the unknown, but the flip side of that over simplification is the emotional smackdown I end up taking when things do not go as I desire them to. I feel that, as the Upanishads say, God or Self is beyond duality, and our egos are all about duality. Something I need to remember the next time I convince myself that suffering=punishment and pleasure=reward.

Pema Chodron says that life is a big, smelly, interesting mess of experiences, and that none of them, whether they are pleasant or painful, are intrinsically bad. They’re just the stuff of life. Literally.