When we have a problem, we usually need to knock on a few doors to find a solution. A workplace problem might send us knocking on several doors: A career counselor, a self-help book, a new job, or an attitude adjustment. For physical ailments there are different doors: doctors, herbalists, physical therapists, acupuncturists and so forth. But every so often, we come across a problem that seems to have no apparent solution—no matter how many places or times we knock.
A few months ago, I developed a painful physical condition. Not life threatening, but certainly uncomfortable. Some days I don’t notice it at all. But there are days when it keeps me up at night—all night. On those nights, when I can’t sleep or make it go away, I experience suffering.
Buddhism tells us that suffering is a universal condition. And so is joy. When we feel joyful, we en-joy it. But we have a very different reaction to suffering. When it appears, we start knocking on doors.
For my pain, I knocked on all the typical doors—I visited several alternative medical practitioners and my family doctor. I talked about it with my life coach. I trolled the Internet—seeking kindred spirits in obscure chat rooms and answers by doctors and quacks alike. But there was no apparent cause and no singular solution.
A couple of nights ago, it returned. I got in the shower. I applied a lotion. I felt as though I were running down a corridor lined with doors, furiously trying every handle, and hoping just one would open. And then I saw that there was one door open. It had been open all along.
I got on my meditation cushion and folded my legs. Then I started to breathe mindfully. The painful sensations didn’t go away but my reactions to them did. With each inhale, I relaxed. With each exhale, I created some distance from my pain. After about fifteen minutes, I could calmly observe the painful sensations in my body. They seemed smaller. After half an hour, I was ready to go to sleep. The pain was there, but alongside it was my total acceptance. I could endure the pain until it passed.
Learning to accept suffering is absolutely foreign in our western culture. We want to fix pain. And if we can’t make it go away, we want a diagnosis—an affirmation of our suffering. But in the east, suffering is everywhere and in full view. Even a few days in India forces me to accept that suffering just is. It just is.
This afternoon, I received an email message from a friend. Her second born had been diagnosed with brain damage and a hole in her heart shortly after birth. I can only imagine how many doors she and her husband knocked on in search of a cure. There were none to be found. But there was one door open. They sat with their daughter through endless days and nights of pain, sleeplessness and discomfort. They learned to bear witness to their daughter’s suffering. They offered love in return. Three years later, their child has completely healed herself. She was recently given a clean bill of health. And she is developmentally on track with her peers. There was enormous suffering. And then one day, it was over.
Another friend recently described the emotional distance that she and her husband had to endure—for four years of their marriage—before one day, a shaft of light opened up in their relationship, enabling them to come together in a new way and love each other again.
We knock on so many doors, for so many problems--our child isn't sleeping, our partner is distant, our boss is a tyrant. But when we walk through the one door that is always open, we give ourselves a gift. We reduce our suffering when we accept our pain. But the real gift of acceptance is compassion. Some of us suffer from a hole in the heart, others from a broken heart—but none of us is spared. When we sit with our pain, it transforms us—it takes us out of the corridor of self and into the temple of humanity.
In our new "green" world, we so often talk about being interconnected. Recycling is one way to feel part of something larger. But as I'm learning, an even more powerful path to experiencing one-ness is to sit with our joy, and our suffering, and to allow it to open our hearts.