Joan of Arc
WHAT IS IT, TO SUFFER? Is it to allow myself to be as I am, to stay with myself as I am? To suffer my neighbour to be as he or she is – to stay with them closely, not expecting them to be other than how they are? First I need to find the possibility of allowing, of accepting however I find myself to be, before I can extend that sympathy to another being. In such suffering may be born a moment of being more of who I really am, experiencing who my neighbour is, and through that may come for a moment the joy of everything being more in place, a sense of order appearing.
When I say that I “suffer”, it usually comes from emotions telling me that “I cannot bear my situation,” that “I cannot bear that person’s stupidity,” that “I cannot bear my pain.”
So, physical, bodily pain: If the body is really caught in a tornado of burning, searing pain, with my attention only on that, then at that moment there is only a tiny person in the centre of its personal holocaust, the head (mind) having lost sight of its possibility to attend to the situation. Why can I not bear my pain? Is it because I fight it when what I most need is to embrace it with a wider attention and stay? Stay there, and let that attention care for both the part and the whole, which is what it most needs. That needs a very real “working” by the attention.
Are the needs of emotional pain any different? When I am plunged into that ever truly sensitive part of myself, in the very heart of the body, there then seems to be nowhere to go except to collapse into a place of spurious wallowing. But in a moment, by that same work as before, sometimes without any warning, heaven can suddenly come down and one is blessed with a joyous quiet, rarely experienced.
That poor old head, my mind – what place does it have in the realm of suffering? Mostly it sounds out a string of panicky chatter. Take a painkiller? Which one? Watch TV? Who might help me? Or trying to interfere by bringing a half-remembered remedy from the past. No – the body needs an attention that another part of the mind has the possibility to bring. Not easy when my habitual attitude, partly engendered by much of the world around me, is to get rid of, rather than to include.
It seems that suffering can be the most squalid of all depths of a negativity towards life, insidiously leading us to a place in which we have no awareness of what we have come to. Or can it also, when faced, be the means of an opening to a new direction in our life? Whether from a petty drama with a colleague, or when faced with one of those devastating events that may happen to any of us – the loss of a child, one’s familiar health gone – I can experience fear. All fear needs to be experienced and taken in. At the same time, negative suffering can be seen for what it is, for it seems always to be a slip away from “NOW” and into my future or my past.
There can also arise a sudden completely uncalled for moment of pain over some long past “dried out” experience that becomes suddenly alive, living in me as if “NOW”. So what then?
There is only one possibility and that is in the way of taking in, never rejecting and always querying my wish to reject all these sufferings, enabled in this by this gift that we have of the working attention.
This article was orginally published in Parabola Volume 36, Part 1, and is reproduced in In Between by kind permission of the editors of Parabola and the author.