wholeness and redemptive suffering

Updated On — 14th Jul, 2017

In his book, The Mystic Heart, Wayne Teasdale mentions four aspects of interspirituality: surrender, humility, spiritual practice, and compassionate action.

As we surrender more deeply we acknowledge our multi-layered resistances and face our egoic conditioning head on. Humility allows us to recognize and allow fuller access to these layers.

I have not surrendered easily. Surrender grows in me though the apprceciation of what the Buddha saw as the primary fact of our lives—suffering. Every one would agree suffering is a natural part of who we are: we are born, grow old and sick, we die. Along the way there are countless separations and insults. This aspect of suffering is undeniable.

The Buddha also described a second, more subtle form of suffering. He taught this level of suffering was entirely of our own doing: the psychic displeasure caused by clinging, by our attachments, our reluctance to surrender our views, opinions and desires.

In the Christian view, it seems Jesus took suffering and transformed it into love. He did not flinch. Through his courage we have come to know something very precious and transformative: suffering as redemptive.

When we approach suffering as ultimately redemptive I feel we can appreciate the work of humility. No matter how advanced you think you are in your meditation practice, if you lose sight of humility, your practice is hurtful.

There is a tendency to think we can somehow get it all together with good meditation. That we can move past suffering for good.

I think we can certainly experience life with more spaciousness, with less reactivity, and more warmth, but I don’t see us getting out of suffering, no matter what we read. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to take on the programming regarding the end  of suffering that is so prevalent in the spiritual advertising handed down to us for hundreds of years.

Rather, it might be more psychologically and spiritually grounding to acknowledge the saying attributed to one of the most celebrated spiritual figures of early Christianity, St. Anthony. He is said to have remarked “expect pain and temptation to the last day of your life.”

This just feels truer. No matter how advanced you think you are, or will ever be, expect pain and temptation.

I am speaking here from some thirty years struggling with Buddhist influenced meditation. I was taught over and over that there is an end to suffering. This sets up the expectation that this will come about with deeper and more correct practice.

Rather, let’s acknowledge that this whole thing is fragile and frail all the way through, from bow to stern. It’s so easy to buy into some fairy tale like expectation of getting it all together.

What if instead of getting it together, we allowed life to be fully tragic?

Isn’t this humility?

Cynthia Bourgeault, in a commentary on The Cloud of Unknowing, which I was listening to the other day on CDs received recently as a gift from a dear friend, quoted Helen Luke when she got to the Cloud’s teaching on meekness. I don’t have the exact words, but Helen writes something to the effect that wholeness is born out of the willingness to bear the struggle between the divine and the human.

Wholeness, or the transformation we all seek (w-holiness?) doesn’t come from the divine somehow canceling out the human. We stop thinking along these collusive lines. Wholeness is simply the willingness to bear the struggle; to allow whatever is there to simply be there. And to let ourselves be moved.

I think this may be what Christianity calls self-emptying. It takes on a very rich context in Jesus’ self-emptying love. The heightened and extended practice of Buddhist nonattachment empties the self into nothingness; it is in this nothingness that we find peace. It is in this nothingness that Christian mystics find God.

 

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

8 thoughts on “wholeness and redemptive suffering”

  1. I agree with the second proposition, that “there is a particular kind of suffering which hits some and not others: a kind of suffering for which a remedy is identified, namely spirituality: which is a kind of human invention.”

    This is very apparent to me in getting to know the folks who attend our gatherings over the years, nearly all of them continue to practice because they are searching for relief, and don’t come to add icing to an already happy and fulfilled life. The very few who are attracted because it’s faddish quickly give it up.

    But I don’t necessarily agree with where you go next (and you also note that you uncertain of this point)–that “if this is the case then spirituality is downgraded from a universal good, the crown of human endeavour, to something that appears to soothe the pain of some people. And then a lot of the literature would be hype by which a minority justifies itself to the majority.”

    I would only add that spirituality starts of for most people as something that does soothe their pain (existential, psychological or orthopedic) and through its effective practice does reveal a crown of human endeavor–the discovery causeless joy, a heart filled with love for all, and a commitment to meaningful social engagement.

    Reply
  2. Do you consider that the person who pursues spirituality (or interspirituality, I don’t know the difference) will suffer more, the same or less than the man in the street who pursues his or her unexamined objectives?

    I’m trying to get at a hidden assumption that may be there in your text and that of many others who pursue a spiritual path, namely that it’s necessary to go against the grain of nature in us, the animality in us if you will, to reach the spiritual prize.

    Or is it, as I suspect, that there is a particular kind of suffering which hits some and not others: a kind of suffering for which a remedy is identified, namely spirituality: which is a kind of human invention.

    I don’t mean that the goal of spirituality is a human invention. I take that to be a given, like all the other beauties of this world. But I suggest that in the context of this particular kind of suffering, spirituality is a path or a remedy just as an aspirin is a remedy for a headache.

    If this is the case then spirituality is downgraded from a universal good, the crown of human endeavour, to something that appears to soothe the pain of some people. And then a lot of the literature would be hype by which a minority justifies itself to the majority.

    I’m not sure that I hold to the view outlined above, and I am not demanding that you refute it. But it might be worth considering, to see what kind of case could be adduced for one view or another.

    Reply
  3. Tom,

    Thank you for the wonderful insight in your post. The whole idea of ending suffering is one that has caught me over and over and over again as I have pursued zazen and perhaps zen buddhism as a whole with a sort of fervor that belies a very persisent gaining mind. I feel the truth of your wisdom as evidenced in this post.

    Ray

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  4. Once again, you have managed to say EXACTLY what I was needing to hear! It’s amazing really. These past few days have been difficult for me, strangely. I say strangely because nothing has happened to which my melancholy can be attributed. Just the realization of all the broken souls surrounding my life. Such thoughts get me down regularly which is self-defeating since nothing can be done (or blamed) for this “normal” negativity. And then I read your recent blog reminding us that life IS suffering! So no wonder I feel frustrated just being me. Just living life. Just breathing. I love this line, it’s genius really: “What if instead of getting it together, we allowed life to be fully tragic? Isn’t this humility?” Thanks for offering the exact perspective needed. I shall now suffer with a bit more understanding. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Hi Tom

    re: “The heightened and extended practice of Buddhist nonattachment empties to self into nothingness; it is in this nothingness that we find peace. It is in this nothingness that Christian mystics find God.”

    Yes indeed.

    Guanzi: “If you carefully clear its home, the essence will come in by itself.” chapter 49

    Reply

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