We find ourselves naturally drawn to spiritual practices when we suffer because of our innate need for meaning. We may want to know why people kill or abuse each other. We may want to know why we suffer so much when those we love die. We may want to come to terms with our own victimhood. We may have inescapable pain. Being driven by suffering towards a spiritual path is not unusual and is surprisingly healthy.
Yet, if we are suffering and pursuing a spiritual path as an escape from our pain, it can be a dangerous route. There will be no end to the suffering of the body and mind on the path. There may be peace, but it is a different peace than the peace we are prone to imagine. As we grow, we may come to terms with suffering and find meaning in it. We may learn how to help others with their suffering. We may even learn how to avoid certain types of suffering, but we will never not suffer. Yet, we can be free from having it shape our lives.
As we stare at the suffering in our lives, we can ask ourselves about the nature of the particular form of suffering we face. Not all suffering is of the same material and yet all of it is unpleasant. The causes and the meaning of it in our lives can differ greatly, so it can be helpful to reflect upon the nature of our suffering and how it affects our spiritual practice.
Examining Suffering in Our Lives as a Practice
Whether our suffering stems from grief, homelessness, starvation, abuse, addiction, pain or illness, we should first pursue a way out of our situation as part of our spiritual practice. Some forms of suffering can be avoided, healed or transcended and other forms can only be accepted. Our practice must include cultivating the wisdom to know which is which.
As a first step, we have to get our out of control suffering in a manageable condition. If you aren’t in a condition of abject suffering, be thankful. Read the following as a guide for future reference when a hurricane of suffering engulfs your life.
If you are suffering intensely, first seek to understand and not to escape. Many people have touted meditation as a form of escape from pain and a means to go to a peaceful place. Although there is truth to the statement at face value, it is largely misinterpreted and its healthy execution requires considerable spiritual maturation, so rather than seeking to escape our suffering by using spiritual practices we must face it head on and accept it. By doing so, we cultivate compassion towards ourselves and eventually others. This is by itself a highly transformative spiritual practice.
In order to look at our suffering plainly, we can do a simple exercise. Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Write down your single biggest cause of suffering in a single sentence. Try not to use too many connecting phrases like “and”, “because”, etc. Make the statement simple. Here are a few examples:
The nerve pain is stealing my life and I can’t do anything.
I lost the last chance to be loved and I’m worthless.
My son is dead and I can’t change that.
I can’t take back the pain that I caused – I fucked up their lives and I can’t take it back.
I’m so fucking depressed that I wish someone would just shoot me.
My life has no meaning and no future.
Stare at it for some time. It is okay to cry.
Now, underneath it write one of three phrases: it can be changed, it can’t be changed, or I don’t know if it can change. For things like addiction – change is hard but possible. For things like chronic pain, there is little an individual can do to change it. For mental illness, the answer may be “I don’t know if it can change.” Be as honest with yourself as possible. Be as sincere as the last moment of your life and answer this question.
If you wrote it can change, then changing this single thing can be a good initial goal of your spiritual practice. For if you can overcome this, you will be able to help others when they face similar suffering. This will lead to a virtuous cycle that will help to open our heart to further awakening. Your situation will be specific to you and there is little advice one could give in general for solving your specific situation. Seek for the answer. Pray for the strength to persevere. Keep trying anything and everything you can until you see what must be done.
If you wrote it can’t change, then you have no choice but to accept the suffering as an immovable pillar in front of you that cannot be avoided. Your path is to accept and let go of resentment, feelings of unfairness and anger. All beings suffer but the degree in which they suffer varies. The only meaning to it is the meaning we bring to it. Look at this suffering deeply. Stare into the dark bottomless well until you see the fear, anger, pain and envy connected to the suffering. Keep staring until you see the fear, anger, pain and envy are shared between all who suffer like you.
Avoid attachment to your suffering for it doesn’t define you, yet use it as a tool for seeing beyond your limited sense of self. Understand that what you suffer from may impede your spiritual practices and accept it gracefully. With steady effort and with an open heart, you will find new ways to practice that work for you. The truth is ever present and revealing itself. Even if you don’t have eyes to keep open when meditating, the truth can still be seen.
If you wrote: I don’t know if it can change, first approach your suffering as if it can’t be changed. If change starts to be possible, then steadfastly guard yourself against attachment to your suffering and do what you can do.
In order to build a strong practice, we have to get to a place of stability. This means healing or mending ourselves so that we are no longer in the state of crisis. The long shadow of suffering can be helpful to our practice, but the flailing of crisis isn’t. This is why we must do whatever is necessary to come out of such a state. It is okay to pray for help. It is okay to accept help from others by putting aside our pride. It is okay to let go. Do what it takes. You will find the strength.
Natural suffering is the suffering that happens to all beings due to being alive. It is the suffering of illness, injury, grief, disappointment and sadness. There is no avoiding natural suffering because we will likely succumb to it before dying.
This suffering is natural because we are living organisms who eat. In the very act of eating we inflict suffering upon countless beings in order for our life to continue. Be us a vegetarian, fruitopian or vegan, ultimately we must consume some form of life in order to live. This is the reality of life and there is no escaping it. It is only fair that as our body degrades we suffer like those we eat.
Yet, this form of suffering is the most unfair because it is the suffering of a broken leg and of the sixteen year old with terminal cancer. It happens to good people and bad people with seemingly random frequency. There is little reason for it and we are powerless to change it for there is no escaping the pain of spinal injuries nor is there escaping the grief of the death of a child. We must face such suffering in order to continue living.
Amidst this suffering, we may seek for the meaning of the horrors we are facing. When such meaning is found, it can drive us towards acceptance and service because the meaning is coming from within us and isn’t just a thought. The values of acceptance and service when actualized, allow for the quality of suffering to be transformed. Suffering transformed such becomes a tool for our growth. The sting of the suffering doesn’t cease, but now it has context which allows us to meet it in a new way.
The hole in which pain carves in us can create an opening which allows us to be a beacon of light to others. It can drive us forward to change the world by manifesting compassion in a way that only someone who has been through such suffering could. This is the miracle of the lives of the ordinary who awaken because each person comes to an awakening with a history of a very specific chain of suffering. The particular forms of suffering that they have experienced allow for them to be of service in ways that reflect that history. For example, someone with a history of spinal pain can have a unique capacity for helping others who suffered the same. In this way, we shouldn’t be too down on ourselves about our past traumas for they can be transformed into a ray of light that can shine through our lives.
Suffering that comes from our own acts of egotism is avoidable.
Before explaining avoidable suffering, it is important that we look at the word egotism because it has more depth than its common usage. Egotism as the term is commonly used refers to when we think too much of ourselves. The first dictionary that I picked up defined it as:
the practice of talking and thinking about oneself excessively because of an undue sense of self-importance.: “in his arrogance and egotism, he underestimated Jill”.
synonyms: self-centredness, egocentricity, egomania, self-interest, selfishness, self-seeking, self-serving, self-regard, self-absorption, self-obsession, self-love, narcissism, self-admiration, self-adulation, vanity, conceit, conceitedness, self-conceit, pride, self-esteem, self-importance, boastfulness, boasting, bragging, blowing one’s own trumpet, amour propre, looking after number one, braggadocio
For the purposes of this post, we will be adding nuance to the usage of the word by widening the definition to include when we think too little of ourselves. This widening of the definition is natural because “ego” in Latin simply means I and “-ism” means the state or condition of. Looking at a term as a way to describe the state of excessive self, it makes sense that exaggerating the value of ourselves in all directions would be included in its meaning.
This definition is important because both views are inaccurate and pathological. I’m the best and I’m the worst are both statements which are rarely true. So often both views are driving each other forwarding in a vicious cycle. Due to feelings of our own inferiority, we may bully someone we view as inferior to us. Later, we may reflect on our actions and how it doesn’t match our own image of self and begin to feel worthless. This feeling in turn can set off more inflated feelings of importance driving the cycle to repeat.
Understanding avoidable suffering requires understanding the negativity that such false views can wreck upon our lives. If we believe that we are worthless, we will make decisions that cause lasting damage. We may seek ways to bolster our sense of self worth temporarily with drug abuse, violence, self-harm or poor sexual decisions. After the high of our actions subsides, we will find that our sense of self worth is lower than before. The suffering we experience as a result of these choices is avoidable. If we were able to not give into egoism we wouldn’t be suffering as we are.
If we were able to let go of being the best, we would have never raced our car and found ourselves paralyzed. If we were able to let go of being worthless, then we would have applied for colleges rather than giving up and working at our mother’s company. If we were able to let go of being the toughest, then we would have never gotten into the fight which led to our criminal record. If we were able to let go of being strict upon ourselves, we would have had fun singing and dancing.
If we believe we are better or worse than everyone else, we make a fundamental error in judgement. Our sense of superiority or inferiority damages our ability to form genuine connections with others. It makes us unable to be a real parent to our children for we will be only interested in ourselves. It makes us unable to be a friend to someone in need because we are too fixated at looking at our own face. It makes us unable to love because we find ourselves seeking love rather than giving it.
As we carry our overconfidence into decisions, we will drive too fast, exercise too much or work hard. In the process, we will damage our body, our wallet and our relationships. All of which would have been avoidable if we had made different decisions. Thus, overcoming the layers of egoism that permeate our life from the crudest to the finest is an important part of any spiritual practice because it saves our energy from being spent on unneeded pain.
This is why developing the ability to recognize egoism in the moment in which it is happening is an essential early stage in our spiritual development. Each moment where we see it clearly acting within us or within others, opens a portal to new possibilities. Only after seeing the egoism that grips us is change possible. Effecting that change is not easy and it may take years of maturity to be able to actualize it. However, the act of seeing in and of itself is transformative for it forces a choice upon us.
When you see clearly how your own egoism harms your life and others, you are forced into making a choice (even no choice is a choice in these circumstances). You can choose to assent to your selfishness or you can choose to do something different. The choice for doing something different is remarkable because all that is required is not giving into selfishness. In the moment where you are in front of the television with your six pack of beer and about to get violently drunk, nearly any choice other than getting drunk is positive. You could start clucking like a chicken walking out the door and it would be a radical statement of growth.
As we start to change things in our lives by reducing our egoism, we also start to change things in others’ lives. Even if we don’t realize it, who we are starts to change and our effect on others becomes more positive. This change is a baby step that leads us towards service and it further allows us to become more receptive to spiritual awakening experiences because it reduces our fixation on self.
Only at a later stage after sufficient awakening, does the ability to do something about the source of egoism in us become possible. Yet, we don’t need to strive for that because the simple transformation of improving our decisions is sufficient to transform ourselves and the world. Further growth is something for those who will be teaching and serving others in a spiritual capacity. In the meantime, we can guard ourselves against egoism by clinging to our values and conscience remembering that our life is created by the decisions that we make.
When we embark upon a new task in the hope of achieving something, we voluntary suffer in order to obtain something. An athlete who attempts to set a new record running wakes up early every morning and runs. A student who wants a degree in chemistry works hard doing homework. A person with a gluten intolerance stops eating bread in order to improve their health. A parent puts in long hours at work in order to pay for their mortgage.
Voluntary suffering is healthy and normal. Suffering in this way allows us to make money, grow our abilities or to heal our bodies. It is a direct suffering done in order to obtain a result. As we progress on our spiritual path, many find that the amount of voluntary suffering increases because there are many areas of our lives that need strengthening.
We may be prone to colds, so we need to exercise to keep our immune system strong. Perhaps we want to help others by writing about our spiritual experiences, we will need to practice the craft of writing in order to make our message clear. As we are called to increasing amounts of service, the need for simple strength in our bodies, minds and hearts becomes greater. In order to strengthen our abilities, we must suffer as we learn, build muscle or heal. Yet, this suffering isn’t mandatory and we typically have a great deal of choice available to us in how we choose to suffer and to what end. This is why it is referred to as voluntary.
Of all of the types of voluntary suffering, the suffering we endure when being of service is the most transformative. Whenever we take upon a task or bear a burden for others with no benefit to ourselves, we are intentionally choosing something greater than our self. The action may be small like helping someone clean their house. The action may be as large as giving one’s life to a cause. Regardless of the action, suffering that stems from selflessness due to positive activity in the world is a fire that burns through our egoism. In the process, it transforms the world. I’m reminded of the old proverb:
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
Yet, the cynical will quickly point out that every action a person takes benefits them in some way. Perhaps that may be true, but there is no requirement that such a benefit is known by the person acting. Even if the benefit is known, there is no reason why the person needs to be attached to such a benefit. Suffering can be a deep expression of freedom because when we suffer in this way our intentionality is directed outside of ourselves. If we are attached to the benefits that we would get of such actions, then the suffering undergone is due to our own egoism like those who chase martyrdom.
Pause a moment and reflect on what this means. If you can accept that a person could do things for others without any hope of reward both inwardly or outwardly, what effect would such an action have on our spiritual life?
By suffering for others, we have to directly face our negative values and affirm our positive values over and over. At times this struggle is internal and at times it is external. The repeated choice of positive values when presented with real life situations where you are helping is fire that burns out one’s self-pity and selfishness. At the same time, it gives you a meaning greater than yourself.
We become connected to a sense of self greater than just our own life. Our sense of self becomes smaller and our ability to perceive the truth expands. This in turn allows us to be more receptive to awakening experiences because it changes our mental attitude such that we become less focused on awakening for our own benefit. Put another way, intentional suffering is the suffering we experience as a result of practicing compassion. This is why you find the teaching of compassion emphasized in the teachings of Christ, Krishna, Buddha and Zarathustra. Suffering for others transforms the world and at the same time it transforms our self.
Intentional suffering is qualitatively different than other suffering. This suffering is just as awful as all of the other forms of suffering, but the inner world leading to the suffering is of a different structure entirely. When we experience some significant degree of spiritual awakening, this suffering becomes possible. For once we truly start to see, then it becomes possible to act in a real way in the world. By acting in the world, we take on suffering to effect positive change.
Intentional suffering is never a thing that one pursues. Rather it is a byproduct of being of service to the spiritualization of others. As we awaken, we become connected to all of life in a fundamental way. As we help others, their suffering becomes a thing that we can taste. As our vision continues to grow, we start to not only see but to feel the collective suffering of mankind. Thus, when we take a real stand in the world, we intentionally accept whatever suffering we must bear in order to see our actions through.
At times that suffering may even be foregoing further awakening in the service of others. The right action in our lives at times is not for us to directly pursue further awakening for ourselves, but rather to put ourselves in difficult and intractable situations for the benefit of other’s awakening.
Suffering in this way fundamentally transforms our being because it is a manifestation of the will of the universe being expressed through ourselves that spiritualizes material existence through our bodies. One comes into harmony with the spiritual force beyond one’s consciousness and allows for its manifestation to work through you affecting the world. This very act causes the individual acting as a conduit to suffer. The suffering can be psychological, spiritual or physical. In fact, it may demand the ultimate sacrifice as in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion.
At the surface, for someone who hasn’t had an awakening experience, it is difficult to distinguish between intentional suffering and voluntary suffering. The key difference is that actions that come through us from our deeper spiritual nature, revelation or dharma expression can lead to a person suffering greatly in order to birth a creative transformation into the world.