There are two kinds of suffering: the kind that bears fruit, and the kind that’s pointless (and therefore doomed to repeat).
Pointless suffering is the sort that occurs when — at a given moment — your entire sense of self is contained within the torture machine of mental and emotional anguish. All attention is on the current “problem” dished up by life, on the compelling appearance of the problem’s objective reality. There’s no consciousness in the picture, which (were it present) might enable you to step outside the turmoil and, from that more spacious perspective, observe the role of belief, your sense of identity, the tendency to story-making. To see how all of that — not the challenging piece of life — is actually what’s brought about the misery.
Had it been enlivened in such a moment, consciousness might have transformed the present uproar into a teachable moment, giving you valuable insight into the role of the ego-mind in generating suffering. So you could stop blaming life for your self-inflicted misery. All of which would carry the potential to favorably affect subsequent episodes, very possibly relieving you of some considerable amount of angst. Hallelujah! Because to see the machinery operating, in real time in your own head and gut, is truly to learn, in a way all the books and teachers and retreats in the world can only point to, in a conceptual sort of way. Realizing you’ve stepped into the muck and then hanging out with the stuff on your shoes is another thing altogether. That kind of suffering bears fruit — provided you don’t get bogged down in self-judgment.
Instead of aspiring to end all your misery (or to wake up already!), let your focus shift to learning from suffering that occurs.
For the greater part of humankind, pointless suffering is the only kind ever experienced. When life presents a challenge, the ego-mind takes over so completely that it’s impossible to imagine there’s anything more to awareness, right then, than the self-made definition of the problem. The dormant consciousness that’s capable of looking at the whole thing is never roused. So the machinery of self-generated suffering runs smoothly and efficiently all of life, the person never suspecting their own part in causing it. Let alone that it could be otherwise. From one end of life to the other, they blame events they had no control over, their parents, genetics, the imperfect body, the economy, their ex. They die never realizing they needn’t have experienced life the way they did (even with the outer circumstances unchanged).
For a small part of our species, higher consciousness blessedly is stirred enough to shine light on the anatomy of suffering, at least once in a while. There’s a willingness to question the enduring assumption that life is to blame for the inner disquiet. There’s a readiness to challenge the imprisoning belief that mental and emotional turmoil is an inevitable part of being human.
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I am making a distinction here between mind-caused pain and the sort of pain having a physical cause, or one that comes of a loss like the death of a loved one. These latter kinds of pain are caused not by the mind but by a material fact that’s directly felt. When mental filtering and story-making aren’t resorted to, the surrender to “authentic” pain can be accompanied by a feeling of peace or radical aliveness — neither of which attends an episode of mind-made pain.
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A spiritual seeker is someone who’s become curious about the nature of suffering, who is willing to reconsider some long-made assumptions. Maybe I DO have a significant role in my ongoing angst, my inability to deeply rest. Maybe life could be a softer ride, by something changing within me. A person looking at these possibilities has just entered that small and fortunate portion of humankind, for whom radical change in how life feels has become a vivid possibility.
So what happens then? The rising courage to confront one’s inner trouble-maker brings about occasional moments of illumination. The familiar mental handling lets up a bit. There’s the refreshing plain encounter with life itself, sans contraction, the filters of shoulds and shouldn’ts. There may be fleeting tastes of deep well-being and the quietly sweet sensation of aliveness.
But then . . . it happens again. Just about the time you thought maybe the monkey was off your back for keeps, something comes along that makes you realize it’s got you again. In the face of a new life challenge, you go profoundly unconscious, ensnared in the familiar machinery of the mind and its emotion-making mess. Only an hour later (or a day, a week) do you realize how swamped you’ve been. Sigh. It can be discouraging, to say the least.
But take heart. Instead of aspiring to end all your misery (or to wake up already!), let your focus shift to learning from suffering that occurs. So it’s not pointless. Remember: until you became a spiritual seeker, with the new orientation to your life and its alleged problems, all of your suffering was probably pointless. So when you’re feeling frustrated about the fact that you still inflict pain on yourself, remember that. Now when you go into contraction, at least sometimes, you learn from it!
Being drawn into turmoil may actually be necessary — if you’re conscious of what’s going on — because maybe a person has to see, to suffer, the consequences of the mind’s power to create an impression of reality. This seems to be the way we learn best. But if you put your attention on frustration and self-judgment, once you’ve become alert to a current bout of turmoil, you won’t see what needs seeing. You won’t discover what’s generating the muck.
So don’t look away, when you feel it happening again. Hang in there. Keep your eyes open. Back up and take the bigger view — the perspective that’s available when you step back from all the emotion (including self-chastisement). You’ll keep being granted these learning opportunities until you no longer need them. Might as well let them teach you.
And if you thought you’d learned already, look again. Look more deeply into the assumptions you don’t even realize you’ve been making, having to do with what’s true and right and inevitable. Once you really get what needs to be seen, it won’t keep operating. It won’t need to.Jan Frazier