Suffering, in all its variations, is a part of the human experience. We suffer when we are in physical pain, when we don’t feel appreciated by a loved one, when we don’t like the way we look in the mirror. We suffer from the inability to feel relaxed within body and mind. We suffer with regret from the past and hold anxiety in anticipation of the future. We feel we often don’t measure up to standards we set for ourselves. We long for the company of deceased loved ones and suffer from confusion about what to make of their deaths. All in all, so much to suffer with.

I truly wish I could relieve the suffering of every individual. I believe most people share this desire. So how do we face this task? How do we as individuals who are suffering help relieve those around us who are suffering? Is this a foolish endeavor? Does the desire to end suffering actually cause more suffering? How many times in this post do I have to mention the word ‘suffering’ ?!

Well, if someone was reading this thinking I had the absolute answers to these questions, sorry to disappoint. But perhaps there are some shared truths that may at least point us in the direction of having answers. And if not answers, then maybe new ways of perceiving suffering that may change how we relate to it.

Let's try and stay away from the ‘what is the meaning of suffering’ type of thinking and bring things down to a more tangible level. Basically, how do we feel joy and peace in this present moment? What is preventing tranquility and freedom in our lives at this moment? Why am I suffering right now and how do I fix it?

Like a tree, suffering is rooted in deep issues that grow and branch out and blossom into our every day life. For example, maybe the root issues revolve around our inability to love ourselves unconditionally (just maybe?!). The branches of that issue may manifest into something self-defeating such as anorexia or even smoking. I like to think that the leaves that stem from the branches are like the little thoughts and worries that shade our mind from the sunlight of joy (aww…). Now we can spend all of our time cutting leaves and branches, but if the roots of suffering are still firmly planted it will be a useless endeavor. 

So, how do we get to the root of suffering and fix it right now in the present moment?  After all, we have people to text, projects to finish, people to flirt with, gossip to spew! We don’t have time to get to the root of suffering! Can’t we just download into our souls cessationofsuffering.doc? Can’t we get an acupuncture needle that fixes suffering once and for all?

There is one truth and many paths. The path I have taken has lead me time and again, especially in my darkest hours, to transcendence. I have learned that I can find inspiration and healing when I surrender my suffering to that which is greater than me. Greater than the little world I often choose to live in inside my head. A world that is obsessed with my perspective and my needs and my grieving and my shame. A greatness experienced by every living being who has felt the roar of the ocean and sun rise in the morning. The feeling of smallness one feels when staring softly into the sky at night when the stars are abundant. The feeling of wonder when watching a newborn enter the world or the feeling of connection and mindlessness one has when making love…this is the very greatness I speak of. 

Some people chase wonderful experiences around as a vocation. Having experienced the joy of a hitting a home run in baseball or the blissful freedom of skydiving, they spend their time in pursuit of the transcendental experiences. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and throw in your child getting into an Ivy League school. We seek happy experiences to overcome the pain we feel at other times. 

But this is not the transcendence that is sustainable. It is too fleeting, too short. It is not enough to lift us from the muck and mire. The transcendence I speak of never runs out. It is eternal and all encompassing. It heals the wounded and uplifts the tired. It is always available and always enough. It is perfection realized.

And this perfection is within every individual. Through my own suffering I have been gifted the opportunity to open the door to this inner transcendence. The keys I have used are as simple as can be. They include prayer, aspiration, and meditation. Of course the idea of prayer is very awkward-sounding to most modern city dwellers.    But I would define prayer as the song that comes from deep within that in some capacity, in some language says, “Take this pain away from me!” It starts from our desire to end our suffering and is directed towards a greater source that we hope can help us. This greatness can be perceived as an all knowing and personal God or even a peaceful silence within our own being. It can be a universal shared energy or it can even be a change in perspective that just says, “look how small I am next to the vastness of the universe.” It is a cry for help to something beyond and within, something experienced and imagined, personal and universal. In the words of Master Yoda, “It is the Force you speak of!”

Prayer heals in part because it affords the one praying to step outside the fixed perception of the world. It adjusts the focus of the individual from the misery of disease and injustice and opens the possibility of an alternative focus. The time spent in prayer loosens the rigid state of perception that we are in a fixed state of suffering and replaces it with hope. Hope that our deepest desires for healing and peace can manifest here and now. Soon that hope turns into faith, a state where change is not only hoped for but is actually anticipated. With faith, things that seem impossible or unattainable break loose and our perception opens into a new awakening.

Another tool that has helped me and so many of my patients is meditation. Meditation can be described as any practice that brings one to a greater state of peace and inner tranquility, usually by means of a repetitive or continual breathing focus. The practitioner can use a mantra or physical point of focus that grounds the breath and quiets the mind. The practitioner makes a point to notice when the mind does get distracted and then may choose to gently refocus the mind and let go of the distraction. This will happen over and over again and becomes the very practice itself.

Lets return for a minute to the idea of suffering as a tree with roots and branches. As a tree depends on air and water to survive, suffering depends on negative thinking and attachment to destructive emotions for its survival. Meditation begins the process of releasing the thoughts and emotions and therefore starts to starve out the suffering tree one breath at a time. We can spend 50 years in therapy uprooting our negative perceptions, but perhaps it is more efficient to just start removing the factors that feed our pain. A quiet mind and body is usually a mind and body without great suffering.

The trap most people fall into with meditation practice is the idea that the meditation is a performance. If we are unable to fall quiet and relax we regard the experience as a failure. This often causes patients to feel that ‘they are just not the meditation type’.  But nothing could be further from the truth! If you had complete peace and silence, you would not need to meditate. The fact that we suffer from distraction means that we are precisely the meditation type. In part the practice is about growing our willpower to withstand the inner and outer distractions. It is also about relinquishing our will to achieve and perform well. You are standing strong and yet surrendering at the same time.  You are the immovable rock and the flowing stream.  This is the balance of yin and yang.

There is no reason for any person to feel that the suffering they bear is fixed. We have tools and resources available to us that can begin to loosen the chains of suffering. In my own journey I have borrowed wisdom directly from many traditions. I have also read many books that I have found helpful. Here is a list of a few of them. I hope that my humble suffering at the very least can help others and that these words may serve some of my brothers and sisters. 

  1. From a non religious style, It’s a Meaningful Life-it just takes practice.  By Bo Lozoff.  A fun fiction book is The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.
  2. From the Hindu and Indian tradition, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, by Deepak Chopra, and Powers Within by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.
  3. The Daoist tradition, The Tao Teh Ching, (many versions and translations, but I like one by John C. H. Wu), The Whole Heart of Tao, John Bright-Fey, and Chuan Tze, translated by Thomas Merton.
  4. The Zen Tradition, The Eight Gates of Zen, by John Daido Loori.
  5. The Buddhist tradition, the brilliant novel Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.
  6. From the Arab tradition, Born Again With Doctor Dahesh, by Salim Onbargi.  Also, anything By the Sufi Poet Rumi.
  7. The Christian tradition, Seeds of contemplation, by Thomas Merton, and a fiction book about a modern Jesus called Joshua, by Joseph F. Girzone
  8. The Native American tradition, The Wind is My Mother, By Bear Heart, and The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda.

Peace and Love and Light!

MeditationFrank VogtComment