Learning to Embrace Suffering

Thich Nhat Hahn, (called Thay by his students), teaches that we must look deeply at our own suffering before we can see the suffering of others. We begin by working with our strongest emotions, by welcoming them, and letting our practice of mindfulness embrace them.

Thay uses the example of a crying baby. When the baby cries, the mother goes into the room, picks the baby up, and holds it tenderly. After a few minutes the baby begins to quiet, just from her presence. As the baby quiets, the mother discovers what is causing the baby to cry. Thay encourages us to do the same with our own suffering; our pain, sorrow, confusion, anger, grief and other strong emotions. He recommends saying, “My precious suffering, my pain, I know that you are here. I will not run away from you.”

At first this was difficult for me. I have been raised in the mindset of “professional distance” from the suffering of others. This taught me to delay my emotional response to their pain until I was alone. But in time, I forgot to go back to my own feelings and became distanced from my deep sadness, sorrow, confusion, despair and anger. I learned to use my personal energy to pretend “everything is fine,” and wondered why I got tired, distracted and tense.

When a strong emotion arises, I am learning to greet it and feel it fully in my whole being. It has my full attention. When suffering is crying out, it cannot show us what is beneath it or reveal the insight it holds. The mother must first pick the baby up and offer it comfort. Thay uses this image to describe mindfulness practices which can help us care for our suffering.

One of the tools I am learning to use is the Bön Chant. It reminds me of the spaciousness within and around me that can hold anything that arises. Practicing this every day makes it a familiar energy that I can draw on when something difficult arises.

There are also songs I sing in gratitude and connection with the present moment.
One of songs from Plum Village includes the lines:

I have arrived, I am home
In the Here and In the Now.
I have arrived, I am home,
In the Here and In the Now.

It can be repeated in my mind as I walk outside in the sunshine. Feeling the earth under my feet as I take each step, I am held by the compassion of creation and this makes the pain smaller and the confusion more tolerable. I recognize that all people throughout time have felt this same intensity of loss, grief, or outrage. I am not alone in the grip of this emotional energy. We feel it together as members of the human family. Today, it is my pain and sorrow, but tomorrow, I will understand the deep pain that another is going through. She weeps or wails with me in my despair, and I weep and wail with her in hers. We both know the feeling intimately and can now share it. In the sharing, the intensity wanes and we are comforted. In understanding that suffering is a natural part of life, the fear subsides.

In the meantime, while life is quiet and calm, I will sing, breath, walk, and return to the present moment. Not to brace against future disaster, but because it is here that I find joy. Here in this moment, I am surrounded by reasons for happiness and peace.

Love, Joy and Peace,

Nancy

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