How to Suffer Well, Part I: Start Where You Are
Years ago, I was on a long meditation retreat, and I was suffering. I replayed a betrayal endlessly in my mind. I was paralyzed by self-doubt, and a conviction something was wrong with me. I felt separate from my true nature, mourning the loss of the spiritual breakthroughs and insights I once had. I was scared and furious, heartbroken and grieving. This went on for two full weeks. I have lots of tools in my personal growth tool belt, and none of my strategies- to snap out of it, feel better, or hero myself up by the bootstraps- were working. I’d been running my whole life to avoid this, and now I was nose-to-nose with it.
So I asked my teachers, “How can I suffer well? How can I learn and grow from this? How can I compost this shit-sandwich?” This is an ongoing inquiry for me and I want to share some lessons from the trenches. (Funny enough, some of the greatest jewels are hidden in shit-sandwiches!)
Will power and force don’t work. As Werner Earnhardt famously said, “what you resist persists.” It’s a discoverable law of human-heart physics, that resistance makes feelings appear solid, endless and intractable, when, in fact, they are fluid, changing energy, empty of independent existence or inherent meaning. Even if you manage to repress or dissociate, it is exhausting! It’s like you are holding a beach ball under water that wants to pop up to the surface.
Your need to avoid feeling is now driving the bus, and the destination is compulsive distraction. Your constant busyness takes on a near violent quality. Everything you are doing is confirming that it is not OK to feel how you feel, and there is a problem that needs to be fixed.
So what to do? As Pema Chödrön says, “Start where you are.” Broken, muddy, chaotic, bitter, petty, messy, sobbing, snotty: come as you are. Fully let yourself have your experience. I always got this in theory, but working with my invaluable coach, Audrey,* has helped me integrate it- i.e actually practice meeting myself as I am, until it is almost a habit. Over and over, I came to her wound up around some problem, thinking something was certainly wrong with me, I should be some other way, and she met me just where I was. That in and of itself was a profound transmission. To not need to change myself to be loved, put on a brave face, or figure it out. What relief and tenderness!
After I lay out the whole dilemma, Audrey lasers in right through the story to what is really happening, which is almost always, at its root, “I feel afraid.” Sometimes it is anger or sadness, but almost always, for me, it is fear.
Then she asks me, “Can you love the one who is afraid?” I put my hand on my heart, and turn my gaze inward to the one who is afraid- who is often 2 or 5 or 10 and not an adult. I asked Audrey once what it meant to love, and she said “to breathe with.” So I breathe with my scared little one, deep, long breaths, letting my belly move and my out-breath lengthen. I give my scared one full permission to feel and express. I explore with breath, movement and sound how I can make even more room for her. I often say over and over: “There is plenty of time and space for you.” And I can always ask the hurting one, “How do you want to be loved?” Maybe there is a color or food or song, or long walk, or cuddle that she needs.
Often I really act it out, exaggerating and exploring my contraction, making big and visible all of the strategies I have employed to avoid feeling. If I find myself curling my shoulders up around my neck, I take that movement to its fullest expression, taking time with all of the sensations and impulses in the body. Once I got under the covers to hide and peeked out at her. Other times I have balled up my fists and stomped around yelling “I don’t like you! You are a bad man!!! I want you to go away and die!!! I hate you!!!” Can you hear that a child is talking? I let my little one really give it to whomever I am mad at, or scared of, sometimes having a friendly (not hurting myself) tantrum pounding my fists into the bed and releasing guttural screams until I am exhausted and empty and can feel the layer under that.
The point isn’t to have all good feelings and no hard ones. That is a common misconception of the goal of the spiritual path. In fact, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is just the impulse that traps us in suffering. Less fear and anger may well be a side-effect of growth, but that is not the point. The point is more, as Mark Nepo puts it, “to be a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land.” It’s not that we get rid of anything or fix anything. This human experience will always be a play of light and shadow. It’s that we begin to know ourselves as the space in which this whole dance arises and passes away. We stop resisting the unpleasant and clinging to the pleasant. We stop tuning out the neutral and begin to open equally to all things. This is equanimity. It is an unconditional peace, not reliant on things being a certain way.
As Pema reminds us, “this moment is the perfect teacher.” No need to look forward or back. The gift of this moment is here with you right now! And it is only through meeting what is, allowing it to unfold, that the irritation rubs into a pearl.
It’s like all of those myths where someone appears at the heroine’s door who inspires fear, pity or repulsion- a witch, a beggar, a monster. The heroine invites them in and offers her time, food, lodging, and kindness. It turns out the visitor is really a god(dess) or saint in disguise. That reminds me of one of my favorite lines from a poem by my friend, Teddy Macker, “God comes to you disguised as your life.” And another mantra I say to myself: “There is no spot where God is not.**” Even this, this ache, this petty thought, this greedy moment, is divine play, the breath of God. Not separate, not apart, not a mistake. Welcome it into your guesthouse, feed it, put it in your finest bedroom and it will ultimately reveal its precious, jewel-like essence.
Look forward to the next installment on How to Suffer Well and enjoy some very relevant poems below…
*Audrey Hazekamp is a master teacher in the Hendricks School, and also a genius game-changer from the school of really having done her work.
** Substitute another word here if “God” doesn’t point to those divine, expansive tastes you have had of love, oneness and grace.
Unconditional, by Jennifer Welwood
Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within;
Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.
Each condition I flee from pursues me,
Each condition I welcome transforms me
And becomes itself transformed
Into its radiant jewel-like essence.
I bow to the one who has made it so,
Who has crafted this Master Game;
To play it is purest delight;
To honor its form – true devotion.
© Jennifer Welwood
Having loved enough…. by Mark Nepo
Having loved enough and lost enough,
I’m no longer searching just opening,
no longer trying to make sense of pain but trying to be a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land.
These are the irritations
that rub into a pearl.
So we can talk for a while
but then we must listen, the way rocks listen to the sea.
And we can churn at all that goes wrong but then we must lay all distractions down and water every living seed.
And yes, on nights like tonight I too feel alone. But seldom do I face it squarely enough to see that it’s a door into the endless breath that has no breather, into the surf that human shells call God.
Rumi’s The Guest House
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 are 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.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks