Why it is OK to Experience Suffering, and How to Find Freedom
“Suffering is not holding you; you are holding suffering” ~ Buddha
Someone challenged me the other day in a way that I didn’t expect. They asked me if I ‘suffered.’ At first I had a lot of resistance to suffering. You see, I have long said that it is okay for us to suffer, but when I was questioned on whether I suffered myself, I suddenly found myself realising that I had often perceived my own experience to be that of limited struggle, since I came across an understanding that profoundly changed my life. So, feeling all shaken up, I sat with it, resting in my presence, and I asked myself the question, more truthfully.
What came to mind was the wisdom that I did, indeed, experience suffering. Just because we understand spirituality, doesn’t mean that we are suddenly able to bypass the human experience, which is often something I hear in a lot of spirituality teachings. I have heard a lot of teachers recently talking of ‘awakening’ as if somehow when we wake to the ‘truth of who we really are,’ we all of a sudden become excluded from human suffering as we rest in the knowing that we are all ‘one’. But how do you embody that as someone who is going through real, live pain, who may have not yet had such a deep insight that allows them to go beyond our tangible human experience?
You see, there are plenty of people out there suffering very real issues, and – as I came to realise – this includes myself. I have been ‘homeless’ (for want of a better word) for the past year as I navigate my divorce and, through this, I see that I have days where I can feel emotionally drained and want to stay in bed and allow some gentle self-care – which at times I really have done, and it’s been wonderful. I’ve sat in my grief and allowed myself to heal, which really can be necessary. But, I do also see that since I came across an understanding about the power of thought and how our experience is created, I have had a lighter relationship with suffering, which is more moment-to-moment, and much less scary.
Understanding The Human Experience
This doesn’t make me immune from suffering; because I see it differently to many spiritual teachers who are talking a lot about the popular debate of this ‘non-duality’ ideal these days. Whilst I believe we are spiritual beings (or at least part of some greater plan that we can’t explain), and that we can rest in our ‘oneness’ – the spaciousness of who we really are – i.e. all connected as part of something magical which guides us through life – we are also living our experience in human bodies. For me, this means that we are put here on earth with the most magical of gifts of human thought, which gives us the capacity for infinite creation and amazing adventures. And, there’s a richness in that opportunity to fully live in this body, so why would we want to push it away in an attempt to ‘elevate someplace seemingly higher’?
Our human experience is created by this beautiful power of thought that we are gifted with, but this means that whilst we have the capacity to create whatever we want in life, we also have the ability to experience the deepest of suffering. What we really need to learn, though, is that this is what it is to be alive. When we can see that, underneath our thinking, we are part of this connected oneness, but with the added gift of experiencing all of the feelings created by our thinking – those we label as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – we begin to find some degree of freedom in our suffering. Because who we are, underneath all of our thinking and feeling, cannot be harmed. Instead, we can simply learn to navigate our experience, and understanding where it is created from (thought), and knowing that we are always okay, despite our suffering, can really help. And, we can also feel humbled by our suffering in the moments when we experience it, which allows us to also feel the opposite end of the spectrum – joy and gratitude – when life is going how we want and expect it to. You see, the only place where we feel a problem is in our expectation ‘thinking’ that life ought to be different to how it is in this very moment.
Being Fully Alive Means Allowing the Experience of Suffering
For much of my life I have been grateful enough to not suffer with some of the more global issues that the world faces, such as terrible poverty, torture, crime or natural disaster – though I have not been devoid of personal trauma, with my Dad leaving on my first day of school, the same week we were due to pick up my adopted sister from Romania, and my health being compromised by Chronic Fatigue syndrome, twice rendering me unable to walk. It is during these times of suffering that I have grown as a person, had deeper insight about the world, and experienced huge gratitude for the times when I no longer do feel the experience of suffering, which in turn makes me grateful for the distress I’ve been through, too.
You see, to fully be alive and appreciate life, we need to experience the whole experience – the full spectrum of life. This does not mean that we have to rest in our trauma to create our art, or to make sure we grow, but it does mean that we can learn to navigate life from a space of deeper connection to who we really are; to see that there is nothing to be afraid of in our experience of life. Through our human suffering, is where we learn, and without it we would not be who we are; we may not even see our deeper connection to life.
Knowing it Doesn’t Define Who We Are
I see more and more, though, that this doesn’t mean we have to make a bed, lie down in it and stay there forever. We can have a totally different experience of life, if we see how life really works. The most important thing I’ve learned during my journey is that we create our experience through our thinking, and much of our trauma is not happening in this moment, but in our thinking about our past experiences – and likewise this is often embellished as we relive it over and over again. In learning this, much of our trauma can fall away, leaving only the moment-to-moment suffering that we can be simply learn to be more present with, resting in a deeper acceptance in order for it to pass quicker. The best way to hold onto something is to resist it, as it keeps coming back; and, likewise, the best way to stay depressed is to keep thinking about how depressed we are; because we are not depressed – or anything else that others define us as – that is just a label. We are only ever experiencing what we feel and think in this very moment, and in this moment, there is an infinite power to also allow in fresh new thought that may change whatever experience you are having. There’s nothing to do for that to happen either, other than see that we only ever have the now, and in the now, our suffering doesn’t really exist until we think that it does. We cannot truly be impacted by suffering unless we think we are. And yet, all of it is still welcome!
We Can’t Be Impacted by Suffering – Unless We Think We Are
Now, I appreciate that this might seem like a very bold statement – and you might hear the implications of it differently to how I mean it to sound, because my message about this is often misinterpreted as ‘you’re causing your own pain, think more positively.’ By no means is this what I’m saying. Let me honestly explain that this is not at all what I am implying, and in my deepest suffering I would have been extremely resistant to hearing that. What I am saying, though, is something that I have a really strongly embodied experience of – it is not that we need to just ‘think more positively;’ I’m simply saying that we need to stay curious to the idea that we can find freedom by seeing that we have the capacity to think and that all of our feelings come from our thinking. When we see that moment to moment our experience of life is created by the power of thought, much of our thinking drops away all by itself, without us having to do anything. For example, when I saw that I was re-living my thinking about my dad abandoning me, and that I looked at the world from the lens that I was abandoned I started to see that it wasn’t true that everyone was abandoning me, but it was simply a belief that I had embedded due to that one experience in my life. I had a pattern of thinking that simply held me in repeated pain because I believed I wasn’t lovable; and, once I saw it for what it was, it dropped away and I started to see my true nature was love. My whole life changed, just by seeing that the power of thought had created this story that didn’t really exist! Freedom from suffering, right there!
When we simply become more present in this moment, we realise that this moment is all we have, and our feelings in this moment are simply from our thinking – and they’re all allowed. Underneath all of that is our true nature, our perfect wholeness, our innate resilience and our connection to everything. We are just the same as a tree, growing in the way that we are meant to grow, but blessed with the extra ability to think, which allows us the capacity to create miracles (or suffering) in every day. And yet, just like a tree, being part of nature, there is nothing for us to plan for or ‘do’, because life is living us.
Finding a Freer Experience of Suffering
We suffer because we have the power of thought (and the conditioning) to interpret and analyse and give meaning to our suffering – and that is okay. Underneath all of that, we are always strong, resilient, lovable and whole – and in our human experience, we grow from the traumas we experience, to continuously gift ourselves with deeper understanding of life. As long as we know that this is how it works, we can never get stuck in our suffering, because it will soon move on. But we can hold ourselves there, in those moments we are resting in it, just allowing it to be there until we are ready to let it go – and that’s perfectly, and humanly okay. All it wants to hear is “I see you, I love you, and I’m here.” We don’t need to evade it, because it can’t harm our essence; it’s simply part of the magnificence of who we are.
The experience of suffering does happen, moment to moment, but there’s a space within us that is not touched by it. And, in that way, when we see it, we are all able to have a more free experience of our human suffering, knowing it doesn’t define who we really are, but that we can holding ourselves in our pain until our thought-storm passes and we can see our beautiful truth once more.