Ever since my collegiate studies I’ve pondered the famous Buddhist proverb, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I’ve devoted my career to demonstrating the power of our minds to choose how to respond to any stimulus evoking pain, a la “Man’s Search for Meaning” via Viktor Frankl.
Here I sit, one eye focused upon the laptop’s screen and one eye distracted by the spate of raindrops falling outside. The question my mind keeps considering bounces back and forth within my head like a steel ball being thrust repeatedly by a pinball plunger. Even as I type these words, relentless fear grips my fingers and entreats them to reconsider their mission and message.
My pivotal ponder: Must you experience pain and suffering as a prerequisite to expand your emotional awareness?
Perspiration pools at the furrows of my brows even though the room is a perfectly cool 69 degrees F. Why am I struggling so with this query?
The answer kind reader is one that will not surprise you if you are a frequent follower of my written work
The experience of suffering can either be transformative or it could be self-indulgent. We might possibly pass through the throes of anguish, gathering new information about our capacity of courage and strength or we could wallow in the muck of our suffering state, staying stuck in our fear.
Please know that I am not saying that it is wrong to feel stuck; it is not a matter of correctness, but rather of choice. Pain and suffering are universal experiences in this world. We experience countless moments of loss and grief.
None of us can avoid knowing suffering in our lives. We can deny its’ existence but unfortunately denial does not make the truth become a falsity.
Our only way to avoid being engulfed by the muck of suffering is to tread softly through it. We can leave light footprints, not lingering long enough to become stuck and not exiting before we acknowledge and accept what “is.”
A recent loss brought me to the brink of absolute despair. My sweet puppy died as a result of dog sitter negligence. There was no warning or anything I could have done to prevent the accident, short of him not being at the sitter’s in the first place. Wracked by guilt and remorse, I sobbed through breaths edging on the verge of hyperventilation in nature. One moment he had been snuggled safely within the loving embrace of my heart and arms, and the next…he was gone.
I realized the grief flooding through every cell of my body was not only over the physical loss of my beloved “furkid.” Rather it sourced from the loss of what he represented within my life: family. My dog, Bosco, was more than a “pet.” He was a family member who had his own Christmas stocking and a birthday cake. Yes, he was spoiled and yes, he was, and is loved.
Upon news of his untimely passing, I sat upright, trembling without effort or preconceived thought. In fact, my entire body shuddered under the weight of the sudden breaking of my heart. As an earlier post of mine on LinkedIn detailed, I had just begun to move forward from the cruel “untetherment” resulting from my mentor’s sudden death the year prior.
And here exactly one year and one month to the day after the death of my kind teacher, the closest being I’d known to being my child was dead. How could this be true? Hadn’t I suffered enough?
When did I get to live a life free of pain, even if just for a short time? The answer my kind readers: Never. We never are free from the familiar interactions with pain and suffering. It is our constant companion as long as we draw breath into our lungs.
However, do not dismay, there is another way to look at pain and suffering. We could see our struggles as emotional awareness classrooms rather than an absolute abyss. There is nothing we can do to stop pain from finding us, but we can decide what impression it leaves upon our hearts.
No matter how much I wish, practice any “self-help” doctrine, or repeat “spiritual” mantras each day, I can’t bring back my puppy or my mentor. They are gone in physical form. What I can do though is to honor their memory by sharing their “teachings” of unconditional love and kindness in every moment that I live. It is not an option for me to feel pain and suffering over their deaths; it is my choice though to learn a new way to look at the pain and suffering through the lenses of kindness and compassion.
If I can practice extending grace to myself as I pass through the depths of my sadness, then I will remain connected to those that have passed by carrying on their legacy of goodwill.
In response to the question I first posed at the start of this collection of consciousness, “Yes, but with a slight caveat.”
Experiencing pain and suffering is a perquisite to expand emotional awareness, but hopefully your takeaway from the pain is a transformative classroom, not a bottomless abyss.
How have you transformed your experience of great pain and suffering into a classroom of emotional awareness?