I write this essay from a deeply personal place, even though it may come across as a bit cerebral. As someone who suffers from various mental illnesses, including major depressive disorder, suffering is a companion I have become very intimate with over the years. I have known suffering and I have been blessed with the deepest form of transformation thanks to that same suffering. I view my joys and my sorrows as interdependent. My hope is to help others see how this can be the case for them, too.
Suffering is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous experience in human life. Countless spiritual traditions speak to this fact. The most fundamental declaration of Buddhism, the First Noble Truth, states: there is suffering. So simple and powerful. So honest, it is a relief to even read it, for it declares that one is not wrong for suffering; one is merely human for doing so. Indeed, suffering is arguably the most human of experiences.
Yet it is also the most avoided and feared.
This aversive reaction to suffering (or even to the mere thought of suffering) is at the root of many personal and social ills, in my view. Our addictions, our exclusionary politics, our incessant attempts at self-perfection (or the perfecting of others, such as our kids, our partners, our parents, …) are by-and-large manifestations of our inability and unwillingness to witness and sit with our own discomfort. While this avoidance is, on the one hand, incredibly logical (including from an evolutionary standpoint) it leads to a tragic accumulation of missed opportunities.
Nature is filled with examples of how suffering is crucial to the development and survival of various beings. Take the butterfly: it must struggle out of its cocoon, almost to the point of breaking itself, in order to emerge as a strong and capable creature. Should one attempt to help it out of the cocoon (“doing it a service”, as it were), they would ultimately kill the butterfly. This is because it wouldn’t have had the opportunity to eliminate excess fluids from its body, rendering it unable to fly.
Take another example, made somewhat famous by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh: a lotus, the most sacred flower in many faith traditions, cannot come to life without the mud from which it grows. “No mud, no lotus.” Compost and manure show a similar story: it is literally from the muck, the shit, that new life comes forth.
Why not, then, look to our own human suffering through the lens of transformation and regeneration, as nature so beautifully demonstrates time and again? Why not dismiss the notion that humans are separate from nature, adopting instead the idea that we are part of the natural suffering/growth/suffering cycle? Why not look to our sufferings from the perspective of them being openings into new and better futures?
I believe the main reason for which we don’t look at suffering in this way is that there is a frightening element of the unknown in the suffering/growth/suffering process of transformation. In other words, there are parts of the process we cannot predict nor control. Indeed, to accept that suffering yields growth is to yield to that same suffering, to stop trying to control its course and, rather, let it guide us somewhere we haven’t yet been. This is a terrifying concept for most of us. We’d rather fail at controlling something than risk deeper defeat by letting it take us somewhere new and mysterious. “The devil you know…”
To clarify: I do not mean to imply that yielding to suffering means listening to its directives, especially when said directives are self-harming. Obviously, there are certain situations in which one must gain control over a particular kind of pain. To not seek help (perhaps even medical attention) during a suicidal episode, for example, is downright dangerous. Let us not conflate yielding with harmful self-sacrifice.
To view suffering (the kind that isn’t life-threatening) as a guide sent from beyond and/or from deep within us is to take a radically new stance on life. Whichever origin you feel more comfortable with (that is, the notion of suffering being a guide from within or without) serves the purpose of transformation, so long as you don’t think this guide is under your control. While you may be able to avoid your suffering temporarily through various means, you do not control it.
Indeed, suffering often arises without our permission and it only retreats when its work in us is done. We might be “done” with your suffering, but it’s a matter of whether or not our suffering is done with us that determines when we are released from it. Our resistance to its movement within us only prolongs suffering’s presence in our beings. Deep down, I think we can each acknowledge this. Until we learn the lesson our particular suffering is striving to teach us, it will follow us in our dreams, our relationships, our habits.
Viewing suffering as a teacher, rather than an experience to be avoided at all costs, means taking ownership over one’s fate in a deeper way. It means opening ourselves up to methods of healing and growth we didn’t yet try due to our fear of the unknown. Perhaps our suffering is telling us to go to a Twelve Step meeting, to love ourselves more, to start medication with the help of a professional, to make amends to someone we’ve wronged (either ourselves or another). So the question becomes: are we humble enough to admit we do not — cannot — know all the answers about our pain and our path to healing? And are we willing enough to listen to a deeper intuition than our conscious minds can provide and act on said intuition’s guidance, even if we still feel scared to do so?
This point about connecting to intuition is one of the reasons why every major faith tradition has taught a contemplative practice, such as meditation or centering prayer. Without making room for your conscious mind to settle and for a deeper knowing to arise, we remain imprisoned within “the wheel of suffering” / “hell” due to an inability to learn from our pain and emerge from it more whole. To practice contemplation is to choose transformation over stuckness, whether it be through meditation, prayer, art, or any other practice of stilling the mind and connecting with that deeper self. If you seek liberation from your suffering, you must find a practice that grants this kind of opening towards healing.
A shadow requires light to appear: even if you cannot find any redeeming quality to your suffering, you can at least begin to determine the location of the peace from which your pain is contrasted. Find ways to navigate your darkness, read its signs, and grope your way towards growth. To be human is to suffer; do not throw away your true nature by avoiding this fact. Instead, learn from this reality. Your suffering, however deep, however old, however strong, is your guide to the deepest parts of your being, to your whole self.