The wound is the place where the light enters you.
Our species will not choose life-enhancing behaviors if we cannot grasp why it would be a better way to live. If we cannot accept Rumi’s wounding as part of the process in our own transformation, we are choosing to pitch our tent in the Valley of the Shadow of Death beyond the reach of the Sun.
If life is suffering, as Buddha assured us it is, then suffering must be unavoidable and more importantly, indispensable for those of us wanting to experience the full richness of life. To try to avoid that reality is to become lost in a nightmare. Heaven on Earth awaits those who can find the courage to embrace our wounding in order that the light may enter.
“According to Buddha, there are four great things that we need to understand about suffering: first, the full extent of its existence; second, why we suffer as we do; third, that in reality suffering is not what we think; and, finally, that it is suffering alone that holds the key to genuine liberation. In fact, one of the early Buddhist schools insisted that if we fully understand the first noble truth, the others become unnecessary.”
In the face of all our suffering most of us are usually in a state of denial. We try to escape and deny our suffering through the pursuit of the illusions of the false-self energy centers; through the seeking of security, power and sensations. Most of our futile activity is based on the premise that our suffering can be avoided and lasting happiness attained.
“Suffering insults us by calling into question our self-sufficiency and integrity as individuals. It humiliates us by suggesting that we are weak, powerless and incompetent. Acknowledging that suffering is part of being human—as much a part of our lives as our breath and heartbeat—is not something we want to do. From this viewpoint, suffering is our ultimate enemy. It is terrifying because it shows the fallacy of our entire approach to life. Of course we don’t want to face it. How could we do anything other than try to avoid and deny it? What we do not realize is that suffering’s existence depends entirely on our resistance. It continues as an intractable problem in our lives solely because we are constantly struggling against it. It is thus not suffering itself that is the problem, but rather our relationship to it.”
“The Buddha explained dukkha, suffering, as anguish in the mind that arises in response to the inevitable grief of life. The consolation he promised was the lessening of anguish, not the end of pain. The peace he described is the relief that comes when the mind is able to surrender its imperative that things be different.”
Without your wounds where would your power be?
Buddhism describes suffering not as punishment visited upon the guilty, but rather as the natural outcome of mistaken perception—a failure to understand reality. The insights that artists often have offer unconventional perspectives that might help some of us break through our conditioned reactions related to suffering.
Creativity cannot flourish and reach its deepest potential without the participation of its demons as well as its angels.
What is the relationship of beauty to suffering? In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech William Faulkner said, “The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, [this] alone can make good writing.” We identify with stories in which we “feel” our universal True self.
Only the cry of anguish can bring us to life.
“When one slapped one’s child in anger the recoil in the heart reverberated through heaven and became part of the pain of the universe.” James Baldwin, African American author and truth-teller understood human suffering and Oneness as few of us do.
As a gay man, Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde lived in an intolerant late 19th century Great Britain and came to feel that “hearts are made to be broken: that is why God sends sorrow into the world. To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy. Any materialism in life coarsens the soul.”
The poet Keats saw suffering as a teacher. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’”
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
Skilled painters can depict reality in a profound way that can touch our souls or can use their art to support the denial that many seek. In the The Horizon Book of the Renaissance, the old woman painted by Georgione contains beauty and suffering in the same image. In Donatello’s last statue, “the ravages of both sin and time show in the deeply moving face of Mary Magdalen.” Whereas the idealized and romanticized images of the Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina and Crivelli’s Annunciation are not beautiful because they bear little resemblance to reality—they do not show suffering.
Playwrights can put us in touch with the power of our suffering because we are present in the theatre and can experience what the characters are feeling in such a vivid way. Sidney in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window communicates both his unmistakable suffering and his intuitive sense of how to survive when he says “tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.”
The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you’ll become lovely, and very strong.
“Today [circa 1983] in America—and every day in America—76 million Valium will be swallowed. In addition, 36 million people will glue themselves to soap operas on television. It would seem that our culture is not well adapted to pain. Pain is today’s unmentionable reality, much as sex was unmentionable in the Victorian period. The Creator has given us two wines to drink from: the white wine of bliss and harmony and ecstasy and the red wine of pain and suffering and loss.” Let’s examine, as Matthew Fox did, the causes of pain and suffering in more detail.
All sensations or “pleasures” are a form of suffering except “feeling.” Feeling is a state of being in the present moment and can be “sensed.” Incapable of definition, this state of awareness can only be hinted at by such words as joy, happiness, freedom, peace and compassion. To not be present is to suffer, hence, for most people most of the time, life is suffering.
The Latin root of adversity means “to heed or pay attention to.” Denying our suffering or trying to distract ourselves from or repress our suffering only intensifies it. All suffering begins with craving and or aversion. Aversion is a type of fear. It is faith in what we don’t want. “All suffering is held in place by false beliefs. All beliefs are false. What is, is. Believing it is not helpful. Believing is what the illusory separate self does to maintain an existence outside the present moment.”
As we circle the walled citadel of Truth, we must find the entrance called The First Noble Truth as did Buddha. Looking for gates that do not exist will keep us going around and around perpetuating our suffering and we will never attain the peace found within those walls. The phantom gates, existing only within our own imagination, are labeled security, sensation, power, craving, aversion, having, knowing and doing.
Until we acknowledge that life in pursuit of these phantom goals is one of continuous and relentless suffering, until we find the courage to admit that we have chosen a survival strategy that is ironically self-destructive, until then we will stagger in an endless and increasingly desperate search for shelter from the demons of our own identity.
Suffering is a psychological state from the almost continuous reaction to “getting” what we don’t want or the illusion of pleasure in “getting” what we tell ourselves we want. The Now is a result of our choosing to respond to whatever is happening and as a result transcending the aforementioned aversion and craving.
What do the depth psychologists say about suffering beginning with C. G. Jung? There is a direct correlation between suffering and neurosis. Neuroses or “complexes” are given energy by the mind. They have their genesis in mental reactions, in craving and aversion. These neuroses then can result in more severe violence, jealousy, shadow projections and many other types of reactions. Thus is human suffering born and kept alive. We must develop an awareness of these conscious and unconscious expressions—of these energy-fueled reactions.
The reactions which cause human suffering can be minor eruptions in an individual or major collective catastrophes. The fear of chaos and neurotic fear of their own shadows created just such a catastrophe in Germany during the worldwide economic “Great Depression.” “As the dark images of the unconscious broke into consciousness, archetypes of order were formed in the [collective] unconscious as compensation. The Germans did not recognize the incarnation of their shadow in Hitler since they denied its existence altogether.”
“With individual consciousness, however, came discontent. This discontent is seen as an unconscious reaction to the stress produced by differentiation. It is an axiom of psychology that every psychic phenomenon is compensated for by another. Thus the discontent of the present age can be seen as the tension produced by evolution through the synthesis of opposites. The problem modern man has with psychology is that he refuses to admit its basic tenet: that the psyche transcends man and is, ultimately, unknowable. Instead of demanding from psychology a cure for his discontent, modern man is better advised to look within himself for the germ of unity.”
Much human suffering is unconscious in its origin but an awareness of what is happening even if we don’t understand why it is happening can serve to empower an individual to choose to respond rather than react to the depression, fear or anger. “In the intensity of the emotional disturbance itself lies the value, the energy which he should have at his disposal in order to remedy the state of reduced adaptation. Nothing is achieved by repressing this state or devaluing it rationally.”
“Since the depression was not manufactured by the conscious mind but is an unwelcome intrusion from the unconscious, the elaboration of the mood is, as it were, a picture of the contents and tendencies of the unconscious that were massed together in the depression. The whole procedure is a kind of enrichment and clarification of the affect, whereby the affect and its contents are brought nearer to consciousness, becoming at the same time more impressive and more understandable. This is the beginning of the transcendent function, i.e. of the collaboration of conscious and unconscious data.”
“To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.” Among the gifts of suffering can be an insight and or an epiphany. “A good example of this activity is Paul, who knew not the Lord and received his gospel not from the apostles but through revelation. He is one of those people whose unconscious was disturbed and produced revelatory ecstasies.”
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things itself.
The more complete the identification with form, i.e. the more unconscious we are, the more suffering is created. Hence, there is a direct correlation between lack of awareness and suffering. It is not inaccurate to say that the more we identify with our false self, the greater will be our suffering. Suffering occurs when there is dissonance between our self-concept and our experience. Only when we try to avoid suffering [by reaction] at all costs does our resilience and balance give way as we fall prey to complexes and neurosis.
Jungian analyst Eugene Pascal emphasizes the danger of choosing to react which is suppressing our suffering because this “suppression amounts to a conscious moral choice, but repression is a rather immoral ‘penchant’ for getting rid of disagreeable decisions. Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but it never causes a neurosis. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Finding the courage to respond to and embrace reality begins the healing process. We can never repeat Krishnamurti’s profound insight often enough: “I don’t mind what’s happening.”
“In all genuine religious traditions, suffering is undesired but if used wisely can become an efficacious means to a specific, spiritually worthy end. As a liability that is consciously transmuted into an asset, suffering manifests as an abundance and proliferation of a higher consciousness, the acquisition of a transcendental viewpoint, the ability to see things and human affairs ‘as God sees them.’”
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.
In saying “resist not evil” Jesus of Nazareth was in effect agreeing with Krishnamurti that resistance to “what is” is the source of all human suffering. Evil is that which we fear and do not want. It is illusion. Evil is what we crave but it does not satisfy. Any resistance to these illusions empowers unconsciousness and the failure to be present to reality.
If I am suffering, I am asleep, I am not in the present moment.
Roy Charles Henry
“The individual psyche is the Holy Grail, made holy by what it contains. Consciousness is a psychic substance which is produced by the experience of the opposites suffered, not blindly, but in living awareness.”
Continuing the religious context introduced by Jung, Pascal and Edinger above we borrow from Thomas Moore’s Dark Night of the Soul. We suffer when we ignore our “calling.” “God called Jonah to tell the people of the city of Nineveh that their evil ways were angering him, but Jonah tried to evade the call by sailing on a ship going to the distant city of Tarshish. You are always being born, always dying to the day to find the restorative waters of night [the belly of the whale]. The great Indian art theorist and theologian Ananda Coomaraswamy said, ‘No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.’ In the dark night something of your makeup comes to an end—your ego, your self, your creativeness, your meaning.” The loss of one’s whole world (P-B) is involved in the shift to a new worldview (P-A). The meaning of reality itself changes.
“Your job is to take care not to interfere with the work being done by bringing your day-world biases to it. Let night be night. It has its proper spirits, its tools, and its tough workers. It can do more for you than all your day work could ever accomplish.”
“Many people claim to have integrated their shadow sides, but that effort is itself a work against the dark. To integrate it is to co-opt it into the light. The real task is to live in, and with, the darkness, appreciating its unredeemed value and loving its irreversible qualities. What is needed is a view of life that includes the dark. The new life may depend on painful endings. You have to look through and beyond the literal facts. Failure and tragedy may be the only means by which life can continue.”
St. John of the Cross in his book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, says “that desires tire, torment, blind, degrade, and weaken us.”
“They [the dark nights of the soul] are full of contradictions, and the main paradox is that as much as they seem to plague you, they are your salvation. They can heal in a way nothing else can. They can erase the false logic by which you have lived your life.”
Fundamentally, suffering is the result of a P-B worldview, a failure to understand the nature of reality. To the romantic pleasure seeker, a beautiful woman is the object of desire or a craving, for the wandering ascetic she is a distraction; but for the tiger in the forest she is dinner. The woman is not inherently desirable, repulsive or tasty. The false self is projecting qualities onto her as an object and thereby creating an illusion which ultimately creates suffering. In other words, we choose suffering, we actually create it.
On the other hand, the suffering romantic rejected by the object of his desire if he can remain open-hearted can be transformed by his suffering. “The great unrequited love tears open your heart to the beauty of the world, its small rivers and upland meadows. It also makes you kinder to the next hundred thousand persons who cross your path. You kneel down beside small children and ask them how was their Halloween.”
“Even when one is in the greatest pain, it’s a great salvation in the course of the crisis of life to realize that no matter what happens up there or down here, you are in bliss.” Suffering can open our heart to an empathic connection to others as Garrison Keillor so poignantly expressed it even if it falls short of Joseph Campbell’s “bliss.”
Ken Wilber, of course, would describe the cause of suffering a little differently. “From yet another angle, we have described this evolution as the confusing of Absolute Subjectivity with a particular and exclusive group or complex of objects: This we have called the objectification of Absolute Subjectivity [God]. And that means nothing more, nothing less, than that we mistakenly view the universe as a multiple of “objects out there” separate from and opposed to the “subject in here” that I call my “self.” In short, I have confused the Seer with what, in fact, is something that can be seen. In this confusion, my identity shifts to a pseudo-subject which I now imagine confronts an alien world of objects.” The conclusion is, however the same, we create our own suffering.
Most of us are somewhat hard of hearing when our suffering is trying to tell us something. “Until the message of pain is heard, we are content, dozing creatures of habit, comfort, and dullness. We live in a state of contraction and withdrawal. The pain is the constant motion to reach for something else, something outside of us that will resolve us, but in fact never does.” Steven Harrison in his brilliantly titled book Doing Nothing is exactly right but many of us are loath to admit it.
There is no one on the planet that does not have a teacher.
For 95% of the population it is suffering.
Eckhart Tolle continues with a series of profound insights related to suffering. “When you suffer consciously, physical pain can quickly burn up the ego in you, since ego consists largely of resistance.”
“Another aspect of emotional pain that is an intrinsic part of the egoic mind is a deep-seated sense of lack or incompleteness, of not being whole.”
“All suffering is ego-created and is due to resistance.”
“Enlightenment through suffering—the way of the cross—means to be forced into the kingdom of heaven kicking and screaming. You finally surrender because you can’t stand the pain anymore, but the pain could go on for a long time until this happens. Enlightenment consciously chosen means to relinquish your attachment to past and future and to make the Now the main focus of your life. It means saying to yes to what is. You then don’t need pain anymore. How much more time do you think you will need before you are able to say ‘I will create no more pain, no more suffering?’ How much more pain do you need before you can make that choice?”
“Finally, the presence of suffering created by this apparent dysfunction [egoic mind] forces consciousness to dis-identify from form and awakens from its dream of form. It regains self-consciousness, but it is at a far deeper level than when it lost it.”
From the perspective of the East, suffering has the same causes but the language and some descriptions are slightly different. “The Buddha called it suffering, Jesus called it a state of sin and illusion, and the Hindus call it a state of illusion.”
“[Pain] is synonymous with ego. Ego is pain, and pain is ego. Pain is neurosis. There is actually no danger in going too far [in examining pain]. The danger, from the ego’s point of view, is that if we go too far, we may not know how to reassemble ourselves afterward. The pain that is going on here is the fundamental mystical experience of ‘thisness,’ beingness, that thing we don’t talk about to ourselves, let alone to others. We never even think of it. That is the pain. And there is a kind of intelligence there.”
Buddha discovered that craving (desire) and aversion (fear) were the sources of all suffering. “Desire is the personality’s dynamic organizing principle. It colors the way we perceive reality, intensifies and feeds the emotions, influences our ideas and mental images, and determines our behavior. Eliminate or weaken desire, and the whole personality will be stripped of its most powerful element and prepared for transformation.”
Nisargadatta’s imperatives urging us to have nothing, know nothing and do nothing is asking us to stop thirsting after experiences in the world of form, the basis of all suffering. “It is interesting that the Sanskrit word for “feeling” can specifically mean pain, as well as sensations in general. This points to the truth that in samsara, from the absolute point of view, all feeling of any kind is essentially painful because it is related to our false idea of self. But in the awakened state, where there is no self-centered attachment or aversion, all feeling is experienced as ‘great bliss.’ Great bliss is not just increased pleasure, but a transcendent experience of sensitivity that can be aroused by means of any sensation whatsoever, not only through pleasure, but also through what we ordinarily think of as pain.”
“All pain, whether it is physical or mental, arises from some aspect of loss, destruction or decay, so this image represents all the sufferings of existence.”
“Buddhism first asks us not only to see the momentary and suffering character of the world, but also to have tolerance in accepting suffering as natural and not negative. For people of unvirtuous emotions and habits it causes unhappiness, while for virtuous ones it causes happiness. For the realized ones, all is one in perfection.”
“Suffering is the state, the reality, we are all given, but unhappiness is just the way we choose (or do not choose) to respond to it. Those rendered suddenly paraplegic often call themselves happy, after a year or so of adjustment, as frequently as those who win the lottery end up in despair.”
The undeniable premise of Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by impermanence, craving and aversion. Marcus Aurelius had the same insight: “How quickly all these things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract [craving] with the bait of pleasure or terrify [aversion] by pain.”
“Pain is the necessary condition of our body, and suffering is the necessary condition of our spiritual life, from birth to death.”
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspires and success achieved.
What should we do about suffering? As long as we are satisfied with the survival strategy of our false self we are unlikely to seek the truth or change our behaviors. “The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it, every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt. God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Obviously then, what C. S. Lewis is suggesting is that we should pay attention to what our suffering is telling us.
John Ruskan in his book Emotional Clearing is clear and succinct about the origins of suffering and what to do about it. “The Witness [observer] capacity brings about a nonidenfication with painful feelings, making them more easily integrated and released.” It is in the practice of Vipassana meditation that the Witness or observer capacity is discovered. “What causes most of our pain is our resistance to a feeling, not the actual feeling itself, even a ‘negative’ feeling [emotion].”
“Learning to accept experience is the means to minimizing pain.”
“By raising your threshold for pain, you effectively lower the amount of pain in your life. If you run from pain, you lower the threshold, and you can never get away from it.”
Could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles in your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.
“But from a relative point of view we can’t really avoid illness. It happens. On an absolute level, however, there is a fundamental state of mind that is open and natural and healthy. It is possible even in the midst of intense illness and the dying process to contact this fundamentally pure and wholesome state of mind. However, many people confuse contacting that fundamental healthy state of mind with using it to avoid disease, as opposed to letting it allow you to feel better about the illness that inevitably happens.”
David Hawkins was well aware that a worldview of Oneness provides the context in which to transcend suffering. “In nonduality, in no one instant can any such thing as a ‘problem,’ ‘conflict,’ or ‘suffering’ occur. These all arise in anticipation of the next instant or recall of the past. The ego appears to be the product of fear, and its purpose is to control the next instant of experience and ensure its survival. It seems to vacillate between fear of the future and regret over the past, and the desire and sense of time which repels action stems from the illusion lack. With a sense of completion, desire ceases. That which believes it is finite fears for its survival for it is subject to time and the illusions of reality.”
“Do I want to suffer or not suffer NOW? That’s the only truth for you. There’s no tradition, no past, no discussion in it. It’s all you need. Keep it with you and at the next temptation to suffer it will prevent you suffering. Have you learned that you only suffer when you think about events or feel [emotions] about them, that you don’t suffer from events themselves?”
Meditation is a practice that helps change our relationship with our suffering. “During meditation sessions we practice being with difficult emotions and thoughts, even frightening or intense ones, in an open and accepting way, without adding self-criticism to something that already hurts.”
The Vedas describe the five Kleshas, or causes of human suffering:
1. Ignorance about the nature of reality
2. Identification with the ego
3. Attraction toward objects of desire
4. Repulsion from objects of desire
5. Fear of death
1. Ignorance of reality is solved by delving deeper into the mind. Awareness dives deeper than the material level to find its roots.
2. Identification with ego is solved by learning to identify with these deeper roots.
3. & 4. Attraction to outside objects—and repulsion from them—is solved by valuing the inner life above all.
5. Fear of death is solved when the soul is experienced directly, since the soul is never born and never dies.
Deepak Chopra concludes the remedy found in the Vedas. “If you explore the true nature of reality, all pain will eventually come to an end.”
“If we can just be present with the experiences and not personalize them, we can remove what Buddha called the second arrow. The first arrow is the sensation and then there’s what the mind adds to it.”
“One of the highest insights in the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions is to realize that samsara is, in fact, nirvana: that there is no need to escape because everything is originally pure and perfect.”
Life breaks us all, and we heal stronger in the broken places.
And finally, we can be finished with suffering once and for all if we follow the advice of Robert Johnson. “We only transform when we take our suffering consciously and voluntarily; to attempt to evade only puts us into the karmic cycles that repeat endlessly and produce nothing. But if we take our suffering consciously, voluntarily, then it gives us something in return; it produces the true transformation. To suffer consciously means to live through the ‘death of the ego,’ to voluntarily withdraw one’s projections from other people, to stop searching for the ‘divine world’ in one’s spouse, and instead to find one’s own inner life as a psychological and religious act.”
“‘Following your bliss’ is not a call to narcissism and getting what you want. It is pursuing the rapture that resides at the core of your suffering.”
References and notes are available for this article.
Also find a much more in-depth discussion of Simple Reality
on this blog and in published books by Roy Charles Henry.