Pain and Suffering, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote that "pain will always be with us. It comes with having a body. When there is pain, suffering follows." But pain also comes to us because we have hearts and minds.

The little pains are the easy part of the practice. Having a painful knee can be handled pretty easily with various practices.

The deep pain of losing someone we love is very different. Knowing we will no longer see the person we miss so much washes over us at the most unexpected moments. The loss hurts all the more because a second ago we were happily doing something, and then in an instant, we feel like we are drowning in a sadness that will never end, will never stop torturing us. The ground has suddenly fallen away from under us and we are flailing away in space, feeling insecure and alone. Our pain of having lost someone we loved very much and still miss very much is made worse by our continued suffering.

Pain is the loss, suffering is our sadness.

We cannot stop the loss. We will lose all those we love. Perhaps to  death. Perhaps to separation. Pain is inevitable, but the degree of our suffering is not. 

At some point, when our time for mourning is over, we have the ability to stop the suffering. I still walk around apologizing to my mother, saying that I'm sorry but to think of her is just too difficult. That I am stopping the thoughts of her not because I do not love her, but because I do and because I miss her very much.

Then I gently close the door to suffering, just as she would want me to. And gradually, I find myself opening another door instead—the one that leads to happy memories, just as she would want me to.


Pain and Suffering, Part One


Pain will always be with us. It comes with having a body. When there is pain, suffering follows.

A week ago, I went blithely (but alas, NOT mindfully) out the door when Deb came to pick me up to go to the morning class at the Unitarian Fellowship here in Elkhart. I didn't see the thin layer of ice on the concrete walkway. For a moment I was airborne. Then, unfortunately, gravity took over. So, one moment I was walking and the next I was sitting on the walkway. Apparently, there was a middle segment in the acrobatic routine because my knee was extremely painful and I needed a few minutes before I could stand up.

We continued to the class, where I immediately received first aid. (Medical hint: a group of mothers is a good as—and much faster than—an emergency room when it comes to knowing what to do for falls and injured knees.)

My knee is still a cause of pain, but using various practice methods, I am no longer suffering from the pain. One method that works for me is what I said to Deb while driving to the class—I am repaying some of my past karmas!

Another method is to distract myself. I chant or get involved in my work. Chanting helps me to relax, and that helps to stop the physiological reaction to pain. Also, chanting helps me to be happy so the pain recedes. Working distracts me from thinking of the pain. 

Understanding helps me to know that when I joked "I am repaying some of my past karmas!", I wasn't really joking. It's better to repay some negative karmas now when I understand why things happen.

So, at least in this instance, I can actualize the reality that even though we undergo pain, we can choose to not continue suffering.


Useful Word

Better than a thousand useless words
is one useful word,
hearing which,
one attains peace.

Better than a thousand useless verses
is one useful verse,
hearing which,
one attains peace.

~ Dhammapada 
Translated by Venerable Buddharakkhita 



We need patience to help us get through emotional and physical obstacles when we try to help others. There will always be obstacles. Just because we are trying to help does not guarantee that all obstacles will fall away and everything will be resolved to our satisfaction. Remember, we cannot overcome the karma of others and the ensuing retributions. Without patience, we will be mired in the quagmire of our own disappointment.

Also, without patience, we will give up when criticized and obstructed by those who do not understand what we are trying to do. Just as we sincerely believe that we have wisely found the way to help, others will likewise be certain that they, too, have the right solution. If we are prepared for this and do not allow it to disturb our serenity, we will not be shaken from our pure, calm mind.

As we encounter criticism and obstacles that seem overwhelming, we will need patience. Everything changes—good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Remember that just as good times do not last forever, bad times will also change and improve. Although our current conditions may seem overwhelmingly distressing, even these difficulties will some day end. If we can manage to hold on to this thought, we will find the patience within us to persevere, to hold on until our unfavorable conditions begin to ease.

This turnaround will take place more quickly if we can manage to let go of thoughts of our own discomfort and disappointment. Think, instead of how to end the distress of others. The sooner their distress ends, the sooner ours will end, for the pain of others is our pain as well. We are all one, all interconnected with one another.

Do not get sidetracked by thinking that the concerns of another are trivial, for to that person those concerns are all consuming and very important. How we feel about the validity of their concerns is unimportant. We should put personal judgments aside and instead focus on trying to alleviate their distress and unhappiness, which to them is very real.

How can others be happy? In the same way that we become happy—by leaving negative emotions behind.


Compassion with Wisdom

Compassion is the intention and capability to lessen suffering and, ultimately, to transform this suffering. When we adopt an awareness imbued with compassion, we seek to ease others’ pain. But in our wish to help, more often than not, we react emotionally and end up getting carried away by our feelings. At times we empathize so completely with what someone is going through that we subject ourselves to the same distress. So instead of one person suffering, there are now two miserable people!

Instead of reacting emotionally, we need to learn to temper our compassion with wisdom. Then we will know how to better help another help another. We will also realize that an individual’s circumstances are the result of past karmas. Therefore, it may well be next to impossible for us to improve another’s situation. This realization does not mean that we should stop caring about others or dismiss their difficulties as being their own fault. It means we understand that our wanting to alleviate their suffering may instead be of benefit to them in the future, in ways we cannot foresee.

So be compassionate, but do not focus on getting immediate positive results. Do not get wrapped up in egoistic thoughts, thinking that “I” can fix the problem. Without such expectations, we will not be disappointed or saddened when our attempts to help end in failure, or worse, aggravate the situation. We will not know how best to help if we fail to temper our compassion with wisdom. In other words, the person we want to help may not have the requisite conditions for us to do so.

When we stop focusing on immediate results and instead focus on just helping others, our compassion will ultimately be able to benefit all beings. By planting the seeds of compassion—the wish for all beings to be happy and free of suffering—we can be confident that we have indeed helped others.