‘Suffering? A gift? Has she gone crazy?’ (Or so I can imagine some of you thinking). And in many ways I’m inclined to agree.
I hate suffering. I would love to live in a world in which none of us have to suffer. A world of peace, joy and harmony. A world without pain, sickness, war, abusive relationships of any kind, separation or death.
But this is not the world we live in. And in the interests of the fierce honesty that I’m striving to embrace, I must admit that sometimes it can feel like there’s one heck of a lot of suffering. Sometimes it can seem too much for us to bear, both in our own lives and when we look at the world around us.
Suffering is one of our common denominators. No matter who we are, where we live in the world or what circumstances we are born into, we all encounter suffering at some point in our lives.
It strikes me now. at this late stage of the day, that this is a deeply sensitive subject to write or talk about, and that I am foolhardy to even attempt to do so. But I made a commitment to myself that I would write about the things that I feel well up inside of me asking for expression, and tonight that happens to be this notion of suffering. And, most importantly, the idea of turning our sufferings into our strengths.
I’m not going to attempt to speak to the whys and wherefores of suffering, beyond to say that I certainly don’t think our suffering is a punishment for our sins as some would have us believe. I see suffering as a natural and inevitable part of our human condition. The experience of heartbreak as natural and inevitable as the experience of love, the experience of sadness as natural and inevitable as the experience of joy. Life is all about balance, and whatever circumstances we are born into we are sure to have a mixture of both what we, with our human eyes, see as ‘the good’ and ‘the bad.’
But I have learned that ‘the bad’ can also be ‘the good,’ thinly veiled in a disguise of pain and heartache. And if it’s a bit too much of a stretch of the imagination to turn things around and see ‘the bad’ as ‘the good,’ I think a lot of us are able to resonate with the idea that it can certainly motivate us to get to the good a lot quicker, and so serves us in that way.
I want to mention, very briefly, some of the ways in which I have experienced suffering in my life, as a route into the far more important part of the story – the gifts that I have gradually come to see these instances of suffering have opened up for me. I am of the mind that it is in the telling of our stories that we help others to validate and negotiate their own. It is my sincere hope that my story will be a source of strength and hope to some amongst you.
The sufferings I choose to present here are the ones that stick in my mind because they have been directly responsible for me choosing a new way of living in, and interacting with, the world around me. In each case my experience of suffering propelled me to move forward into action and create a better life for myself, and it is in this sense that I can now call my sufferings, perhaps, my greatest gift. For it is when we’re living a life of comfortable mediocrity that it is easy to become blind to our heartfelt passions and what it is that we truly desire from life. In truth it is often our deepest and most heartfelt sufferings that push us into the self-examination necessary to dig deep and excavate this gold.
And so a job with excessive overtime in my twenties led me down the road of exhaustion, eventually forcing me to confront the fact that this was not in alignment with how I felt life should be experienced. Life was here to be lived and enjoyed; there was so much more to it than the world of work, so why was I in a situation in which I channeled all of my energies into my job and, very often, had none left to even enjoy myself on the weekend? This bit of self-reflection eventually led to a drastic change in my working circumstances; I was determined to create a life in which I could enjoy my hobbies as well as my work; and this I did. It is largely thanks to all that overtime that I was so determined to pursue my dream of taking up pottery. So the suffering I experienced in the world of work literally gave me the gift of motivating me to follow one of my dreams; and the joy and fulfillment that doing pottery has given me since then is immeasurable.
Similarly a verbally abusive relationship pushed me to confront the fact that this was not the kind of relationship I wanted to experience, and to really investigate and consciously decide, for the first time in my life, what kind of partner I did want to be with and what kind of experiences I did want to have in relationship. This led to the creation of a beautiful relationship of mutual respect and gratitude, in which I was very happy for a very long time.
And then the next gift of suffering came along, as I realized that my genuine and heartfelt desire for more time together as a couple was not being heard. This caused me great emotional suffering; for I couldn’t believe, couldn’t get myself to accept, that this relationship in which I had been so happy for so long was now the cause of my pain.
Buddhism teaches that it is our attachment to the things in the world that creates our suffering, and this certainly rings true for me. It was my resistance to the truth that the relationship was no longer serving me, my desire to cling onto it, that created the greatest suffering of all. For when talks with my partner didn’t create the kind of change I was looking for, my ego still stubbornly refused to let go to what had been my source of love, comfort, safety and security for so long. I tried everything I could think of to make it work, longing only for the relationship to return to what it was before; as I desperately fought to try and control reality and resist the natural flow of life. And finally, when I had run out of things to try; when every day seemed to be a tear-filled one; when anxiety started to eat me up inside and it felt like depression was looming on the horizon, I had to face up to what had been staring me in the face all along: something in my life wasn’t working. Despite having a fantastic job; a still loving and caring partner; a rich and fulfilling life in so many ways, I was no longer happy. In fact, I felt so broken I wondered if I’d ever be able to put myself back together again.
Appropriately my greatest suffering opened me up into my greatest gift; the gift of rediscovering myself. This past year I have walked the path of deep self-exploration. I have gotten honest with myself. Finally! I have examined what in my life makes me happy and what does not, and started to move away from those things that don’t contribute to my happiness and deeper into those things that do. Learning that our experiences in the world are a mirror, reflecting back at us our inner reality, I was forced to confront all the ways in which I wasn’t hearing myself; was denying myself the experience of my own feelings; to heal and nurture my inner child; and to commit to being there for myself come what may. At some point my journey of self healing became a spiritual one of self-discovery and I learned the beauty and the joy of living fully in the present moment; am learning now, bit by bit, to love and value myself exactly as I am; to be my own source of my happiness and self-worth instead of depending on other people for it. And I have also rediscovered my soul and its passion for life and all that is beautiful and good and loving; and this has maybe been the greatest gift of all.
It is in our suffering that we become vulnerable; cracked open; more in touch with the truth of who we are and the truth of our reality, as the harsh light of our pain forces us to look at everything with new, more open, more perceptive, eyes. What remains unconscious within us cannot be changed. And so it is only from the experience of this heightened perception, with which we can see what is as it really is, that we can begin to change our world.
It is in our very suffering that we are driven to experience something better in our lives. It is out of our suffering that the desire for more joy, more peace, more love, more abundance in our lives; a life truer to ourselves, emerges. It is the gift of our suffering that makes our present circumstances unacceptable to us, and this that jolts us out of our complacency and gives us the strength and courage required to break out of our comfort zone and reach out, with arms and heart stretched wide open, to embrace change in all its scary unknownness. For once the known has become unacceptable to us, what is there except for the unknown?
And as we begin to look into the truth of who we are and what we really desire for our life in the deepest, most essential part of us, we can at last start to consciously create a life with more joy in it than suffering. A life in which our sufferings themselves seem to be transmuted into joy, as we see how each and every one of them has made us stronger; led us forward on our path; and helped us to come into greater connection with ourselves and the truth of who we are.
At the end of this tumultuous and, in many ways, difficult year, I find myself stronger; more connected; more in alignment with the truth of who I am; more empowered; more at peace; more joyful more often. I am deeply grateful for all that has been given me, for all of it has awarded me the chance to know myself more fully and to expand into greater depths of my being; and it is this that has opened the door onto who I am now becoming and what I am now choosing to create in the world.