The Suffering is the Medicine
I recently received an email from Carole, one of the umzeds (chant masters) in our sangha, sharing with me a reading she offered at practice last night. She said people connected to this reading and asked for copies. It’s beautiful passage and I’d like to offer it here along with some commentary to connect its timeless wisdom directly to the teachings of the Buddha.
The Purpose of Suffering
“We think of pain as something that is inflicted on us as matter of ill fate or a sick world, but pain is a calling signal. It is you pressing up against a block that stands between where you are and what you want to be. It is the contrast through which we can understand and feel lightness. It is a privilege to feel discomfort, it is a gift to be gutted. There is only one purpose here, and there is only one direction: growth. Whether you avoid it or ignore it or hide from it or remain unaware of it or embrace it and see it and desire it and go to it before you’re forced, ultimately, we all move forward. We all expand.
This is what some of the greatest thinkers in existence knew, and what every person who wants to be at peace should: your suffering is not punishment. It is a tool, like anything else, to deepen your awareness and expand your consciousness. In other words: to make you more present, and more capable of feeling the joy and light and gift of that present moment. That probably sounds deliriously, annoyingly optimistic, especially when you’re in the thick of it, but remember that anger is recognition, and the inability to accept.”
– Brianna Wiest
The Lotus and the Mud
There is a metaphor in Buddhist teachings of the lotus and the mud. Its symbolism reminds us that only through the conditions of the mud can the beautiful pristine lotus emerge. This is a powerful image to hold in our hearts because it reminds us that the unwanted experiences of our lives are the actual conditions that lead us to emerge, to blossom, to grow as spiritual beings. We call this process of emerging walking the noble path because it holds for us the inevitability of our awakening, our opening into our full potential as human beings.
“All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.”
The very first teaching the Buddha gave, called The Four Noble Truths, addresses suffering and the nobility of its purpose in our lives. These “truths” are offered more as propositions because they are meant to be realized by each of us, not taken as some kind of dogma or direction we can’t investigate and question. In fact, the whole point is to investigate them, to see for ourselves, do they lead us to states of greater ease or angst? What is their validity and value in our lives? How can we employ these propositions, so brilliantly constructed, to bring forth our own wisdom, our Buddha nature.
As practitioners, we work with the Noble Truths using the practices of the three wisdoms. We hear them, we investigate their meaning within the context of our lives, and then we practice with them. Through our practice the insights or wisdom embedded within each Noble Truth is released, informing every aspect of living, gradually lessening and liberating our experiences of suffering. All we must do is accept their challenge. Take them on! Test them with open, discerning minds and hearts. As we do, we gain the personal experience that gives rise to confidence in our own goodness and in a deep, clear and liberating knowing of who we are and what the nature of all that we experience is, particularly suffering.
At a most essential level, the Four Noble Truths serve as the provocation of a lifetime. When we’re ready, we hear the call to engage them and when we do so with sincerity and dedication, we come to enjoy the deep sense of meaning and fulfillment they bring to our lives.
Their call may present itself as a mid-life crisis. My son articulated his at age 13. For some of us it arrives as a crisis, with an urgency that cracks us open, literally and figuratively bringing us to our knees. For many it’s a gradual recognition or intuitive feeling that we’re missing something important. Somehow, we’re not “doing life right.” We may feel our lives have lost some sparkle, a dullness has invaded the promise of the way our life should be. If we look carefully, the call to realize these Noble Truths may be a subtle bracing against life, a trying to control and arrange and protect ourselves and those we love. We’d rather stay busy than feel this low-level dread of no control, or it’s full blown storm of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and anger. My mother referred to this collection of unwanted experience as the vicissitudes of life. (Well said Mom.)
Our investigative journey of opening up these noble propositions is called by some the path of the warrior, the Bodhisattva path, because it requires a measure of courage. Not the grin and bear your suffering courage, but the courage to not turn away and reject ourselves, others or the way things are. Rather, it’s the courage to expand our hearts and minds, to allow what comes to come and what goes to go, to make ourselves big enough to include all experience, equally and gratefully. To journey as a warrior, is to learn to reside in a state of settlement and ease with the life we have. It’s complete freedom from the life we want, which can only be some form of sleeping existence, a shadow of what it means to be fully alive. A warrior uses the Buddha’s noble propositions to abandon the projected past and future, the constructs of a wanting mind, realizing they only serve to stifle and appropriate all means of actual happiness and joy.
As we allow this set of propositions to guide us, our practice deepens, and our courage becomes a kind of fierce compassion that views every aspect of experience as an opportunity to awaken. Our habit of rejecting the unwanted in life, transforms into a wisdom that finally has the power and clarity to interrupt the dance of desire. We come to know the fuel of our misery is simply an unconscious life of distraction and enslavement to our preferences. We see the way our whole being can be lost in the motion of “I want this, and I don’t want that!” It is only through a carefulness of mind, and gentleness of heart that the practice of opening and expanding our awareness can free us from the inside out. Letting BE the mind that grasps and rejects, and keeps us bound in a cycle of suffering—a cycle the Buddha exposed in the wisdom of the Noble Truths.
These truths are ours to discover and explore, when we’re ready, when their call can no longer be placated by the entertaining, yet fleeting pleasures of this world. They are simple and logical when we first hear them. Yet they are vast when we live with them. Their potency is in their vastness, for all of the Dharma’s wisdom rolls up into them. If you allow them to captivate you, they have the power to introduce you to your own boundless and free nature.
They are formulated with logic, first stating a problem, then it’s cause, then the possibility to be free of the problem and finally the way to “solve” it. (Not that any THING can ever be found much less resolved into a solved state! There you go, a hint at the liberating wisdom of the Buddha, captured within the Noble Truths.)
The Four Noble Propositions of a Lifetime
Said another way: By virtue of being alive there is dissatisfaction or suffering. There is a cause for this suffering and there is a way to be free of it. The way is to follow the noble path—a path of realization, whose momentum naturally produces the conditions that allow the mud to give rise to the pristine lotus, the exquisiteness of who we really are.
Don’t be fooled by their simplicity. The Four Noble Truths give us a way to stand upright on a ground that cannot be shaken. As we rely on them and make their wisdom our own, we become a bright and boundless light in a world that is waiting for us to remember ourselves.
Buddhist teacher and spiritual director at Dharma Refuge.
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