Suffering Is Part of Life: Getting Closer to the Balm of Acceptance

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June 1, 2011
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Sharon Salzberg

In Buddhist teaching, suffering isn’t considered redemptive. What is redemptive, and healing, is our transformed relationship to suffering. Each element of our experience provides its own challenges and opportunities for a new relationship. When we are in pain or distress, we can hold that pain in bitterness or in compassion, in isolation or in connection to community. We can respond to the helping hands that might be reaching toward us, or we can refuse to believe that we deserve any support at all.

In contrast to the ways most of us have been conditioned, Buddhism emphasizes the naturalness of suffering in a world of constant change. Buddhists try to address the assumptions we carry that define suffering as a betrayal, as something blameworthy that we should hide or be ashamed of, and we work to loosen those habits of mind.

When my friend Meg faced death after an intense, eleven-year effort to overcome ovarian cancer, she took morphine. “I don’t want to take more than I need. I don’t want to be foggy minded. But I don’t need to be a hero about it either. If I hurt, I’ll take it. I don’t think you get extra points for suffering.”

Meg was a warm, compassionate, caring person, even through the difficulties of her illness. She developed an openheartedness to others through the relationship she fostered to her own pain. One day, I experienced a very moving encounter with her on the phone. I had just undergone exploratory surgery to determine whether an ovarian tumor was benign or cancerous, the same kind of cancer she had. I had learned the results of my test only a few days before, and when I told her that the tumor had proved to be benign, Meg said to me with such joy, “Sharon, I have been praying for you. I am so happy for you.” Her response went beyond ordinary kindheartedness. In her offering of concern, she didn’t take center stage; her own situation was not the reference point. In the intensity and purity of her caring, she was simply delighted that I was healthy.

At a time when she was suffering herself, it must have required a great effort to include another in her concerns. But she gave me the gift of her wholehearted prayers and joy without a hint of comparison or struggle. I am sure that if I had commented on how extraordinary I found her generosity of spirit, she would have been quite puzzled. Meg’s response arose out of how she viewed life — not as something free of suffering if you do all the right things, but as something filled with happiness and pain in the natural course of events. Neither is left out.

Through the Buddha’s teaching, we learn that suffering isn’t aberrant, but inevitable; death is not a personal failing, but the result of being born; and hostility toward our condition only isolates us and brings us further from the balm of giving and receiving kindness. In Buddhism, we use meditation to train our minds so that we can open more fully to our situation. Rather than close down and withdraw, we open to the pain — which is a natural part of life — that helps us inevitably care for ourselves.

The process of learning to let go, however, isn’t a linear one, where we suddenly “let go.” Rather, it happens in fits and starts, where we open but then close down; we release clinging and then somehow forget that it is that very release that actually makes us happy. We need to remember to begin again after getting lost or overwhelmed; we learn to do that and return to what is happening in the moment with less judgment, more kindness toward ourselves. Being discouraged or blaming ourselves for not being perfect is a natural part of a genuine path, part of how transformation happens.

While some people will begin training when faced with a health crisis or a situation of extreme suffering — and I do know people who do that and still find benefit — it is certainly far better to begin in ordinary times, when conditions aren’t so hard. Then, when we really need it, that inner strength has been cultivated, and our ability to exhibit love and compassion for ourselves and others is much closer at hand.

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Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. Her latest book is the New York Times best seller, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program. She is also the author of The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love & Compassion, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, and Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. For more information visit: www.SharonSalzberg.com.

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