One of my teachers, Michele McDonald-Smith, once recounted that a 92 year old relative of hers, on being informed by her doctor of a terminal cancer diagnosis, became upset and implored:
As a species we seem to have solidified a very real revulsion for the inevitable, as well as toward the smaller slights along the way. We hide death like some grand failing; we distract ourselves into oblivion as if to avoid taking our predicament seriously.
Another of my early teachers, Sharon Salzberg, tells the story about a friend of hers who had to explain to her four-year-old son that the woman who had been providing child care for him since he was born was going to move away.
Sharon’s friend took the matter step by step, assuring her son that his caregiver loved him, and that they could talk on the phone after she moved to live with her family.
The little boy listened carefully, then said to his mother, “Mommy, tell me that story again but with a different ending.”
For sure, there are times we wish we could change the endings to our life stories. Serious illnesses, car accidents, betrayals, eviction notices, layoffs, blowing up at a loved one when we are tired and grumpy.
We have a choice
The Buddha points to a different direction: as we see this aversion to pain, unwelcome news and the myriad other forms of discontent arise, we have a choice.
We can do more of the same, tense up, space out, or regress, or we can turn toward these universal life experiences as a source of spiritual power and vitality.
We are talking about dukkha — suffering, discontent, and unsatisfactoriness — the central axis on which the radical and revolutionary Buddhist teachings revolve.
The Buddha claims that really knowing dukkha thoroughly with the introspective tools of progressive meditative calm and insight, gives our life unshakable peace and fullness.
This can sound counter-intuitive, even masochistic. But trauma therapists know very well the only way past the hurt and pain of trauma is through it, but skillfully, with care.
Any attempts to make an end run around suffering just creates more suffering. There is actually a term for this — spiritual bypassing.
In her talk, Sharon observes, tantalizingly, about the teachings around dukkha:
The shit hits the fan eventually for all of us. What do we do when “changing the end of the story” is not an option? This is where we can really see the “integrity” of this teaching unfold.
We prep ourselves through daily contemplations of the obvious—we see how everything is always changing, changing, and how holding on only brings short-lived results.
In our daily mindfulness practice we learn to embrace discomfort in little ways. We learn to be with pain, physical or emotional, but not be defined by it.
The gradual alchemy of mindfulness turns the straw of raw emotions into the gold of liberating insight and freedom. Let’s let Sharon Salzberg describe this alchemy of the heart:
We look at the suffering and discover the immense capacity of our hearts to include all aspects of life in our awareness. When we experience this immensity of heart, we recognize that it is not actually the pain itself, but the loneliness of feeling alone in the pain that is unnatural and cruel.
Suffering is a natural part of being alive
With time we get it, we really get it: dukkha is a natural part of life. Denying dukkha is denying life, and that never ends well.
Really seeing and feeling how discomfort and discontent sway our lives changes our lives.
We do this not to wallow in or exaggerate our suffering, but rather to be more open to the truth of how things are for us, and for all beings.
This helps us relate to ourselves and others with greater compassion and loving-kindness.