I ran across this Pema Chödron quote today, and it stopped me in my tracks: “Instead of asking ourselves, ‘How can I find security and happiness?’ we could ask ourselves, ‘Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace — disappointment in all its many forms — and let it open me?’ This is the trick.” So much of our suffering is a direct result of trying to avoid pain at all costs. But, as I was reminded, Rumi (one of my absolute favorite poets/geniuses) says, ” The cure for pain is in the pain.”
But sitting with the pain is no easy task. There is hurt. There are tears. There is that feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut. There is heartache. Soulache. And wait… I’m supposed to sit with my own suffering AND yours?
But then I realized: empathy.
Instead of thinking/saying, “Gee, I’m so sorry that is happening to you,” we should spend some serious time (figuratively, obviously) walking in someone else’s shoes to truly try to experience the pain they’re experiencing. Really thinking about how you would feel if you were faced with the same demons/issues/struggles. Empathy is what makes us human. Is it fun? Nope. Does it force you to step outside of your own bubble and experience what life is like for another? Yup. And how can there possibly be a downside to that?
But beyond the empathic path, staying with your own pain does not sound all that fun. At least with someone else’s pain you can step away from it. Experience it vicariously, do what you can to help, and then go back to your own personal day-to-day experience. But sitting with your pain sounds horribly depressing. My own experience tells me to run, don’t walk, when my head starts to obsess over whatever it is that’s making me feel like shit. Distract myself at all costs. But the more I think about it, running is not the answer. No matter how far you run, your issues will find you. You can’t escape them. Until you face them head-on, you will continue to find yourself in situations where you have to confront your issue(s) again and again. So you can run, but you can’t hide.
So when Pema talks about opening your heart through meditation in “The Wisdom of No Escape,” she doesn’t pull any punches. Meditation, she explains, is not about trying to make your issues go away, but rather it’s about trying to see more clearly, with precision and gentleness, what your issues are. And then accepting them. Meditation, she explains, it not an “improvement plan.” Not a situation in which you try to become a better version of yourself. The desire to change your basic nature is actually a form of aggression toward yourself. She says:
If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom. Someone who is very angry also has a lot of energy; that energy is what’s so juicy about him or her. That’s the reason people love that person. The idea isn’t to try to get rid of your anger, but to make friends with it, to see it clearly with precision and honesty, and also to see it with gentleness… The gentleness involves not repressing the anger but also not acting it out. It is something much softer and more openhearted than any of that. It involves learning how… to let it go. You can let go of the usual pitiful little story line that accompanies anger and begin to see clearly how you keep the whole thing going. So whether it’s anger or craving or jealousy or fear or depression — whatever it might be — the notion is not to try to get rid of it, but to make friends with it. That means getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let it go.
Don’t avoid the pain. Swim in it for a while. Figure it out. Where is it coming from? Why are you feeling these emotions? And what should I be doing to make some changes in my life so that this is NOT where I spend most of my time? Reassure yourself that you’re feeling these feelings because you are human. Because you have some kind of lesson to learn. And remind yourself that you’re never given more than you can handle. As much as people HATE hearing this: there is a reason for everything.
But also remember this: the universe has your back. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now, feeling those emotions that will help you learn and grow. You are an amazing creation, wonderfully made and perfectly imperfect. Not one person on this planet can be you, or can have your specific, wonderful, and sometimes heart-breaking experiences. So swim in your pain and try to make sense of it. Don’t run from it. You’ll learn so, so much.
Sat nam, friends.