The journey from teaching about love to allowing myself
to be loved proved much longer than I realized.
— Henri Nouwen
During a workshop in the rural Northwest, I was speaking on the possibilities that arise when we stop running away from what is difficult. One of the attendees, a burly middle-aged man with broad shoulders and an even wider smile, spoke up. "That reminds me of telephone poles."
I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. "Telephone poles? What do you mean?" I asked.
He explained that he once had a job installing telephone poles. "They're hard and heavy, standing up to forty feet high." There was a critical moment after you placed a pole in the ground, he said, when a pole was unstable and might topple over. "if it hit you, it could break your back."
His first day on the job, the man turned to his partner and said, "If this pole starts to fall, I'm running like hell."
But the old-timer replied, "Nope, you don't want to do that. If that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it. You want to get real close and put your hands on the pole. It's the only safe place to be."
When confronted by harsh realities in life, or even some small discomfort or inconvenience, our instinctive reaction is to run in the opposite direction. but we can't escape suffering. It'll just take us by surprise and whack us in the back of the head. The wiser response is to move toward what hurts, to put our hands and attention gently and mercifully on what we might otherwise want to avoid.
Especially in Western culture, we are taught that if suffering exists, something is wrong. It is a mistake. I had a boss years ago who, when something didn't work out, demanded," Whose fault is this? Who is to blame?" When I would explain that somethings things just don't go according to plan, he would yell, "Don't be ridiculous? This is somebody's fault."
When we believe that suffering is a mistake, it's no wonder we do everything in our power to steer clear of it. Our avoidance instinct is also due to the fact that our culture has decided that suffering has no value. "Why suffer?" we have been trained to say to ourselves. "You're better off escaping this pain by any means possible!"
As a result, we have become masters of distraction. To a great extent, this is our primary human practice. A large portion of our day is consumed with activities that are attempts to protect ourselves from discomfort: surfing the Internet, watching TV, working long hours, drinking, eating. Our approach naturally leads to epidemics of alcoholism and drug abuse; compulsive overeating, gambling, and shopping; and an insecure attachment to our technological devices. We have become a society riddled with unhealthy addictions.
Do any of these strategies really work? Sure, we get some temporary relief by ignoring problems or substituting a more pleasant experience for an unpleasant one. But when I look closely at my life, I see that such benefits are short-lived. What sticks around for the long run is the habit of self-deception and its negative consequences.
Suffering is exacerbated by avoidance. The body carries with it any undigested pain. Our attempts at self-protection cause us to live in a small, dark, cramped corner of our lives. We accept a limited perspective of the situation and a restricted view of ourselves. We cling to what is familiar in order to assert control, thinking we can fend off what we fear will be intolerable. When we push back, hoping to get rid of a difficult experience, we are actually encapsulating it. In short, what we resist persists.
My mom wasn't an ideal mother. She could turn her love on and off in an instant. Yet one afternoon when I was about five years old, she taught me an invaluable lesson. I cut my hand while playing with a pocketknife. I was terrified because there was blood everywhere. My mother took one look at the wound and calmly said, "Oh, I think we need the magic towel for this one." Then she pulled me up onto her lap, wrapped my hand in a towel hanging from the stove, and held me until I began to calm down.
After a while, I caught my breath, and she said, "Let's take a look." I didn't want to; it was too frightening. But accompanied by her kindness and reassurance, I was willing to try. Slowly, she unwrapped the towel, and together we looked into the wound. I realized that I would be okay. In that moment, I saw that it was possible and even helpful to turn toward our pain and that there is always the possibility of healing.
That insight planted the seed for much of the work that I have done in my adult life. The secret of healing lies in exploring our wounds in order to discover what is really there. When we allow the experience — creating space and acceptance for it — we find that our suffering is not a static, monolithic thing, but rather it is composed of many elements, including our attitudes toward it. Understanding this, we can work skillfully to alleviate the underlying reactions that exacerbate our problems so that we might ease our suffering.
Suffering will only be removed by wisdom, not by drenching it in sunshine or attempting to bury it in a dark basement....
The first step is to realize that pain and suffering actually are two intimately related yet different experiences. The familiar adage says, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." That about sums it up....
It we attempt to push away our pain, whether it is physical or emotional, we almost always find ourselves suffering even more. When we open to suffering, inquiring into it instead of trying to deny it, we see how we might make us of it in our lives....
We can shift our relationship to pain by the way we give our attention to it — by turning toward it rather than trying to bury it or run in the opposite direction. One teacher of mine suggested that we begin by "putting out the welcome mat." We invite in what hurts; we sit down with it and get to know it really well. In this way, we come to understand the nature of the experience and the deeper causes not always evident at first glance. In the end, the only way through suffering is for us to allow that is happening, welcoming the experience and introducing awareness and compassion where denial was predominant.
We sometimes fail to remember that pain has an essential role in our lives. If we didn't feel the discomfort from the heat of the fire, we would burn our fingers. The painful emotions of shame, loneliness, and guilt highlight the deeper troubles in our relationships. Pain can motivate us to take action, to identify and address its causes, and even to seek happiness.
The journey through life is already pretty difficult. There's plenty of unavoidable pain. But when we are not aligned with the way life actually works, we add a great deal of unnecessary suffering to the mix. In such moments, it seems useful to stop fighting circumstances, some back to reality, and get ourselves centered again. There can be no suffering without suffering. Suffering can open us to freedom, to compassion, to love.
This concept is so important. It is the medicine many of us crave when we realize that suffering is an attitude of mind. We have a choice to break the momentum of habit. We can release old attitudes and turn toward the difficulty to see what it has to teach us. Instead of trying to avoid it, deny it, endure it, or become resentful of it, we can discover another way.
— Frank Ostaseski
Excerpted from The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death
Can Teach Us About Living Fully